An anemic view of angels, demons, Satan, and hell puts us at a disadvantage when we fight sin, when we seek to worship God aright, and when we pursue the purity of heart by which we come to know and love God more. The loss of Satan means a change in the context of the Christian life, a transfiguration of the spiritual battlefield into a place of peacetime comfort and fulfillment.
Not long ago, I was preaching a portion of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and because in the passage Jesus talked about eternal judgment, I did too. I didn’t patronize the congregation by tiptoeing around the uncomfortable truths that came from the lips of our Lord. If he thought it mattered to warn his listeners away from the broad path that leads to destruction, to insist we can’t serve both God and money, and to remind us that anger and lust lead to hellfire, then how could I as a follower of Jesus and a preacher of his Word do anything but pass on the message—no matter how terribly it falls on contemporary ears?
After the service, a woman visiting the church told me it was the first time in forever that she’d heard any pastor anywhere mention hell. She thanked me for saying it out loud. She almost whispered the word, as if it had lost its power due to overuse as a curse word but still remained something of a secret, a reality the faithful know is part of orthodox Christianity yet that remains a destination of which we must not speak.
All this made me wonder, How can anyone preach Jesus without mentioning judgment? How do you deal with his parables? With his constant and consistent warnings about perdition? With his either-ors and contrasts? Even if you fashion yourself a “red-letter Christian” who waves off Paul and the other apostles, you can’t miss the red letters that warn about destruction and losing your soul, images of a worm that won’t die and a fire that never goes out.
Closely related to the absence of hell is the disappearance of Satan. In many circles, it’s rare to hear a word about the Devil or demons or powers and principalities that wage war against God and his people. Satan has gone missing. Yes, he shows up in charismatic or Pentecostal churches, but in evangelical denominations whose ranks are increasingly affluent and educated, we squirm when we encounter what Jesus and the apostles say about the Accuser.
I know there are pastors who want to avoid the exaggerations prevalent in other faith traditions, where demons peek out behind every problem, where Satan’s influence gets overstated in ways that warp the biblical witness. Better to go the way of understatement, right? The only obstacle to this approach is the Bible. Well, not just the Bible, but also church history. And, well, our brothers and sisters in the global South.