Preaching hell to depressed teens

I’ve been thinking about hell quite a bit recently—not because I enjoy it, or because I’m obsessed with morbid subjects, and not even because I’ve been reading Peter Bolt’s excellent new book Living with the Underworld (which, perhaps surprisingly, given the title, looks away from hell rather than towards it).

No, I’ve been thinking about it because I was warned recently that we should beware of how we teach the subject of ‘hell’ and God’s wrath to teenagers. Many of them, so the argument goes, are prone to low self-esteem, depression and suicidal thoughts. They have no trouble believing that they are sinners, and that God is ‘mad’ at them. So we should beware of manipulating their feelings with lurid and excessive depictions of hell, which would compound their misery rather than helping them to understand the grace and love of God. And, it was not the way of the New Testament to subject already shamed individuals to dreadful and imaginative descriptions of the wrath of God.

My immediate response was to feel that the argument from teenagerdom didn’t ring true from the start. Indeed, I knew something wasn’t quite right because many years ago, as a depressed teenager, a friend had scared me into reading the Bible by assuring me that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If God wasn’t true, he told me, then reading the Bible and going to church couldn’t hurt me. If God was true, then ignoring him could hurt me a great deal. In fact, I was headed for the fires of hell.

There are probably other ways Woody could have encouraged me to find out about Jesus. That’s not the point. The point is that the idea of hell actually shook me out of my depressive and self-centred state for long enough to get me along to church, start reading the Bible, and find out who Jesus really was—something for which I will be eternally grateful to God and to Woody.

The other and more important thing is that in the ‘lurid’ stakes, what Woody told me was nothing at all compared to the horrors I subsequently discovered when I read the Bible. There in the Gospel of Luke, I was confronted with a Jesus who, far from pandering to my teenage angst, spoke in the strongest possible terms of how terrible it would be to face judgement. In addition, if I didn’t repent, I might end up like the rich man in the story of Lazarus—the man in Luke 16 who ends up begging for a drop of water for relief from the flames that were burning in Hades. That was the place where (I was to learn a few short chapters later) there would be terrible wailing and gnashing of teeth, and God’s enemies would suffer in outer darkness. If you have the stomach for it, you can read this for yourself in the Gospel of Luke; indeed, you will come across these ideas in many of Jesus’ sermons in all four Gospels.

Now, some might argue that these horrors are mainly reserved for the smug religious hypocrites that so populate the pages of all four accounts of Jesus’ life and death. The poor, the weak, the sensitive and, most especially, the depressed teenager are not targeted in this way by Jesus’ words. But this doesn’t match the reality of what we actually find when we look at the Gospels closely. It was emphatically not just the religious leaders, but Jesus’ own disciples and “thousands of the people”, who heard him say these words:

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)

It’s this fear of the Lord that was the beginning of wisdom for at least one depressed teenager. If youthworkers and preachers and school chaplains are doing their job as they should, then, like the Lord Jesus, they will be scaring the hell out of many more teenagers the world over simply by repeating the words he spoke.

If you want to read some more of my thoughts on the subject, see my blog.

5 thoughts on “Preaching hell to depressed teens

  1. Dear Gordon,
    Thank you for such a comforting reflection.  I, too, had struggled with the article about not preaching hell to depressed teenagers and you have clarified and crystalized my thoughts on the matter: 
    Firstly, one cannot understand the enormity of God’s grace without a deep understanding of the evil of sin and the horrors of its consequences. 
    Secondly, the concern for teenagers with low self-esteem etc. and so not preaching hell to them did not match with my own experience either.  It was only being confronted by the realities of eternal punishment that ‘snapped’ me out of my teenage self-centred and self-pitying mindset to the glorious eternal realities of our great God and his centrality in the universe – not mine – and thus removed low self-esteem from my pre-occupation and replaced it with Godly contentment.

  2. While there’s no hint of the obvious “smug religious hypocrites” of the argument you disagree with, this passage as well seems very open to the understanding that Jesus’ words are directed mainly at “disciples”, rather than crowds in general. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with your overall point, although it might mean that there is a more encouraging tone.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mike and Jonathan.

    Jonathan, you are right, there’s no doubt at all that these words we are talking about are addressed to the disciples—after all, Luke specifically says in verse 1, “he began to say to his disciples first”, and the verse 4 is simply continuing what he has begun to say to them.

    However, there’s also no doubt that he has the listening crowds in mind. Luke mentions “many thousands of the people” (in the same verse, verse 1), and then immediately Jesus finishes what he is saying, Luke highlights someone in the listening crowd responding with these words:

    Luke 12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

    Lest we are in any doubt that the message of judgement is for all, Jesus then immediately launches into the story of the rich fool. You recall that the punch line there is:

    Luke 12:20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.

    I don’t really see how we can conclude anything other than that Jesus preached a message of judgement publicly, and when the crowds attempted to distract him to their own concerns, he pressed his message even harder.

    I think as gospel preachers we face the same challenge today.

    As to whether or not this is an encouraging message or not; it is the most wonderful news when we go on to preach the message of salvation to the lost. ‘Sola Panel’ we may be, but ‘Sola Hell’ we are certainly not! ; -)

  4. In my experience it seems common even in sound Evangelical circles for Christians to say things like, “Hell is basically separation from God” when talking about Judgment.

    While on one level this is correct and Biblical, I think the Bible goes further than that. Hell is more than the absence of God. As Gordon Cheng’s post shows, it is also a place where those who have rebelled against God face His wrath and displeasure for eternity. 

    Although it’s hard to do, I think emphasising the eternal punishment aspect of Hell does make the Gospel clearer. For starters it shows the seriousness of sin and makes penal substitution easier to grasp. It also hopefully makes Christians more appreciative of what God has done for them, and more willing to share the Gospel!
    How do we recover Hell and Judgment in preaching?

  5. Just on the depressed teens issue. I read the blog discussion that you mention, Gordo. I was surprised that nobody mentioned that the major problem with teens is that they are stuffed full of guilt feelings over stuff that is either secondary (pleasing parents, relationships with friends) or just stupid (weight-issues, popularity).
    ISTM that the trick is to preach a gospel that resists the gospel of the devil (=“you are worthless”) and replaces it with the gospel of Christ (=“you are incredibly valuable – AND a sinner in utter need of redemption”).

Comments are closed.