Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…
Just imagine what the response would be if I publicly told someone to go to hell. The outrage would be instant and incessant. Christians especially would go in a lather, condemning me for my unloving, un-Christlike, unbiblical, judgmental and intolerant remarks.
Well, just for the record, I am not aware of ever having said this to anyone in public – and I don’t think I ever said it to anyone in private either. But my hypothetical is actually not all that hypothetical, and it does serve a valid theological and biblical point.
The fact that most believers today would recoil in horror if any Christian leader dared to say such things tells us that they are the ones who in fact need to think again. The truth is, past Christian leaders have said it. Indeed, no less a Christian leader than the Apostle Paul basically said it, and he did so under the full inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
He was inspired by God to do so in other words. “Where did he ever say that?” you ask. Hey, open your New Testament. He in fact said it more than once. Consider his less than flattering words in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 1:6-10):
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Now them’s fightin’ words! No beating around the bush there. He has come out with all guns blazing. Indeed, so incensed is he with how the Galatians have lost the plot concerning the gospel that he foregoes his usual MO when it comes to writing epistles: he refuses to offer them a nice intro to his epistle.
As Philip Graham Ryken comments, “He was amazed and astounded. He was shocked and outraged. Thus the body of his letter seethes with righteous indignation. The apostle did not even pause to say a few kind words to the Galatians. This is in sharp contrast to the other letters. . . . After the doxology in verse 5, we might have expected a blessing. What Paul gives instead is a curse.”
And a curse it was. The “anathema” that Paul twice pronounced here is straight out of the Old Testament, and has to do with the curse of God. Says Ryken: “This is the Old Testament idea of ‘a person or thing set apart and devoted to destruction, because hateful to God.’ To be anathema is to be under the divine curse, like the Canaanite cities that God utterly destroyed. Paul is saying that he would be damned if he ever preached another gospel. Anyone who teaches another gospel is subject to the wrath and curse of God.”
Or as James Montgomery Boice states, “The word translated ‘eternally condemned’ (anathema) is related to the Hebrew word, herem and is used of that which is devoted to God, usually for destruction. In spiritual terms it means damnation. We must not think however, in speaking in this way Paul is merely giving vent to an intemperate outburst or even merely to partially justified anger. For one thing, he is impartial in expressing his judgment. He has not named names. He has even included himself in the ban, should he do otherwise in his preaching than he has done thus far. Moreover he is universal in his judgment. His words include ‘anybody’ who should so teach (vs. 9). How can it be otherwise?”
This false gospel is “another gospel” – indeed it is no gospel at all. To reject the real gospel is to in fact reject God. It is that serious. As John Stott says, “It is impossible to forsake it (the gospel) without forsaking him (God).” And those who reject the true gospel must themselves be rejected. It is that important.
Stott again: “Anybody who rejects the apostolic gospel no matter who he may be, is himself to be rejected. He may appear as ‘an angel from heaven.’ In this case we are to prefer apostles to angels. We are not to be dazzled, as many people are, by the person, gifts or office of teachers in the church. They may come to us with great dignity, authority and scholarship. They may be bishops or archbishops, university professors or even the pope himself. But if they bring a gospel other than the gospel preached by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament, they are to be rejected. We judge them by the gospel; we do not judge the gospel by them.”
And notice how he contrasts the preaching of the real gospel with the fear of man, and men-pleasing. Paul insists that we must choose: it is either one or the other. If you are going to choose to please men and give no offence, then you cannot be a true minister of the gospel.
And the very way in which he tears into the Galatians shows how little he cares about the praises of men. His lack of a warm and soothing introduction and his harsh words on damnation show that he is not a men-pleaser. As Luther said, “This is not preaching that gains favour from men and from the world.”
The need of the hour is to have ministers of the gospel who will stand for truth always, and not give a rip about what men think. We must stop the preaching of other gospels in the church. And there are plenty of these false gospels. Simply think about the syrupy-sweet, therapeutic, me-centred gospel which is endemic in the church today.
What would Paul say about those who proclaim a gospel to make you feel good about yourself, flatter yourself, get financial gain, and think more of yourself? He would hurl curses at them just as much as he did at the Judaisers and others back then. Yet we have far too many spineless church leaders who would never dare to say anything so strong and so convicting.
Now don’t get me wrong here – I am certainly not suggesting that we necessarily go around telling people to go to hell. That misses my point. My point is simply this: Paul used the strongest imaginable language – and actions – to rebuke those who had perverted the gospel. He took the truth of the gospel so seriously that he was quite happy to see such false teachers sent off to eternal destruction.
That is how much he cared about the gospel, because that is how much he cared about God. Yet we have far too many churches which care neither for the gospel nor for God, but care about what the crowds think, care about attendance records, and care about the weekly offering.
To all such churches and preachers Paul would say, ‘Go to hell’ – or words to that effect.