Excuse Me, Ahem: Do You Smell Smoke?
J. Lee Grady von Charisma, May 11, 2007

Our culture—and the church—are in denial
when anyone brings up the subject of hell.

Where I live in Florida it rains every day in the summer. But before the daily thunderstorms begin in early June we always endure an uncomfortable dry season marked by occasional wildfires that threaten neighborhoods and sometimes close highways. Just last week parts of I-95 were shut down because of a huge fire in south Georgia, and this week a road near my house was closed because smoky conditions made driving treacherous.

One day this week the smoke from a fire in a neighboring county was so thick that it got into the air conditioning system at my office. One of my staff editors said her workstation smelled like a cookout—only with no barbecued ribs or hot dogs. Our office manager sent out an advisory telling us how to avoid the obvious health problems caused by smoke inhalation. (Note to self: Don’t forget to wear a wet cloth mask to work tomorrow.)

"Even those of us who call ourselves Bible-believing evangelicals don’t know what to say when faced with questions of where unbelievers will spend eternity."

The whole scenario got me thinking about an uncomfortable subject we rarely talk about. I am referring to hell.

For most people in our spiritually clueless culture, hell is nothing more than a bad word that adds a bit of sultry seasoning to worse profanity. Those who tune into Oprah, Ellen or any other media guru will hear that hell is not a real place. It’s a silly legend passed down by unenlightened, guilt-ridden peasants and popularized by guilt-ridden medieval poets.

Some mainline religious leaders today consider hell “symbolic” or “metaphorical” since they won’t embrace the idea of sinful humanity roasting in flames. Even those of us who call ourselves Bible-believing evangelicals don’t know what to say when faced with questions of where unbelievers will spend eternity or why a loving God would create such a terrible place. Some progressive Christians have decided that the lake of fire, the devil, demons and the worms of hell (all mentioned in Scripture) are “figurative,” whatever that means.

Meanwhile, a lot of us modern evangelicals avoid the topic because we don’t want to appear judgmental, or look like those fat guys in black suits who stand on street corners in the South and wave their Bibles at pedestrians. I don’t think waving big black books at people is a particularly effective form of evangelism, but I am wondering if we have lost something here.

Pardon my vernacular, but what happened to hell?

Those who doubt its reality should talk to Bill Wiese. A mild-mannered real estate agent from Southern California, Wiese had no plans to be a preacher. But in 1998 he had a 23-minute vision of hell that left him shaking on the floor of his bedroom in panic. His wife had to console him the rest of the night until he gained some composure.

He has never fully recovered from the experience.

His vision became the basis for a book, 23 Minutes in Hell, which was published last year. I am usually skeptical of these “I went to heaven” or “I went to hell”-types of testimonials, since subjective experiences can’t be verified. But when I heard Wiese speak earlier this year I was convinced he was not making this up.

I think God showed this soft-spoken Christian man the reality of hell so he could wake up a few people. Today he is no longer shy: He speaks in churches, college classrooms, and on radio and TV programs. He debates atheists and agnostics. He tells people that there are 150 verses in the Bible that refer to hell as being a real place where multitudes of people live in endless misery. It is not just a doctrine to Wiese. He has heard the screams and smelled the sulfur.

Wiese tells audiences: “I believe time is getting short, and there are some unusual things God is doing in the earth today to help people awaken to the truth. He is imploring people to listen to His Word. This is not a condemning message, but a warning message.”

In every previous spiritual revival in history, Christians have been gripped by the dreadful realization that sinners who do not place their trust in the forgiveness of Jesus will spend eternity in a dark, cavernous abyss that is hot, waterless and unbelievably painful. Eighteenth and 19th-century revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney and Maria Woodworth-Etter felt compelled to preach the gospel because they heard the cries of unrepentant souls in hell.

Their message was not just a nice, friendly, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” It was also a sober warning offered with heavy conviction.

It’s part of the Christian gospel we have forgotten.

Regardless of where you live, or whether wildfires are burning in your area, I pray you will begin to “smell the smoke”—and that the compassion of God will move you to warn others about the reality of final judgment.

You can watch a video of Bill Wiese’s testimony here.
J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma.

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