Thor Ramsey is a man who straddles two very different worlds. He's a comedian, so you might catch him performing in a night club on a Saturday evening. But he's also a teaching pastor at Canyon Lake Community Church in California, so he's equally comfortable filling the pulpit the next morning. And don't let his humorous demeanor fool you. He recently wrote a book about the least funny topic imaginable—hell. In The Most Encouraging Book about Hell Ever (Cruciform Press, 2014), he makes a case for the embattled doctrine. We talked to Ramsey about why he thinks church leaders still need to talk about hell.
What led you to write a book on hell?
For whatever reason, I'm attracted to areas of Christian life and theology that I believe have been compromised in the church. I can't quite shake that Keith Green influence, I guess. But hell is one of those areas of Christian compromise, especially from the pulpit. Nearly a decade ago, a sincere follower of Jesus told me that we should never mention hell to non-Christians, especially when presenting the gospel. This person was a leader in the local church, which happened to be my local church, too. For better or worse, the local church is pulpit-driven. And whatever is lacking in the pulpit will be lacking in the lives of professing Christians. These days we lack conviction about hell.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
I toned down the humor from page one in this book because we are dealing with a very sensitive subject—the damnation of a person's soul. The humor had to be in just the right place. It's always good to have an extra set of consciences in the mix, and this is where the editors really helped out by giving great input. The final product is better because of their input. Everyone involved was good and godly and we were all working from the same theological perspective. So, the short answer: making a book on hell funny without being irreverent.
Why are we reluctant to teach about God's judgment?
There are multiple reasons, but one reason is that we have a low view of God. When God isn't seen in all his biblical glory, we have a lower view of sin. Low views of God lead to low views of sin, which in turn discourage us from speaking with conviction regarding God's judgment against sin. When we have a distorted view of God's character and nature, judgment doesn't seem quite fair anymore.
People like Rob Bell have said the gospel isn't really about avoiding hell. What do you say to that?
The gospel may not be about avoiding hell, but it's highly recommended. In the end, I think he's talking about a different gospel. The doctrine of hell permeates the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is probably why Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. Jesus came to glorify God through salvation, but that salvation is from God's judgment upon our sin. To even begin to consider a gospel without hell is to begin talking nonsense about Christ's death and resurrection.
The word propitiation is a biblical word. It means to be saved from God's wrath. It is about God's wrath being redirected from those who deserve it to the One who doesn't. The gospel is about justification (forgiveness from the penalty of our sins), regeneration (deliverance from the daily power of sin), and propitiation (the punishment our sins deserve). All these aspects of the gospel deal with deliverance from God's judgment in some way. To say the gospel isn't about avoiding hell is to speak nonsense. You can say it's not only about avoiding hell. It's about the love of God and the justice of God and the goodness of God and the righteousness of God and the wisdom of God. The gospel is about a lot of other things, but it's certainly about deliverance from God's just damnation of your soul.