Posted by: rcottrill | March 17, 2019

No Hymns About It

Hell is not a pleasant subject, and many even try to deny its existence. “After all,” they’ll say, “how could a God of love condemn anyone to eternal hell?” And He is a God of love (I Jn. 4:10). But He’s also a God of righteousness and justice who cannot ignore or condone sin. He has warned that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), ultimately leading to the “second death,” eternal separation from God (Rev. 20:14-15; 21:8; cf. II Thess. 1:7-9).

That means there are two possible destinies for human beings, not just one. Daniel tells us that, at the resurrection, some will enjoy everlasting life, but others will face “shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). The Lord Jesus calls these “the resurrection of life,” and “the resurrection of condemnation” (Jn. 5:28-29). But the good news is, through faith in Christ, we need not perish, but can have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16; 5:24).

We have many hymns about the blessings of heaven. But, interestingly, it’s almost impossible to find hymns about hell in the dozens of hymn books published in the last seventy years. Not that such hymns have never been written. Go back two or three centuries and more, and there are quite a few–some shockingly blunt about it.

One by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) begins, “My thoughts on awful subjects roll, damnation and the dead.” One from James Montgomery (1771-1854) warns, “Oh, what eternal horrors hang around the second death.” And here’s another example:

Far in the deep where darkness dwells,
The land of horror and despair,
Justice has built a dismal hell,
And laid her stores of vengeance there.
Eternal plagues and heavy chains,
Tormenting racks and fiery coals,
And darts to inflict immortal pains,
Dipped in the blood of damnèd souls.

Colourful! And poetic language geared to convince those who sang it that it was something to be avoided! But none of these–nor any such horrific sentiments, are found in modern hymnals. Why is that? There may be several reasons.

1) In the 17th century and before, there were fewer Bible study books available to the average believer. Hymns that could be memorized were a very useful teaching tool, and such an important subject needed to be covered.

2) Two or three centuries ago, with no wonder drugs or modern medical techniques, death was a very present reality. Many died quite young. Hymn writers may well have sensed an urgent need to warn about coming judgment.

3) Hymn book publishers today want to sell books, and they realize there are not only some professing Christians who don’t believe in hell, but others who, even if they do, don’t want to think about it, let alone sing about it.

4) Most of the music of our hymns and gospel songs is designed for praise, or expressing the joy of our salvation. Very few hymn tunes suit the darkly sober theme of eternal judgment. It would seem to require a slow dirge in a minor key. This would not be pleasing to the average ear, or uplifting to sing.

Let me know if you think of other reasons this subject isn’t covered in our hymnals. But even though we have no hymns explicitly about hell, it is a significant subject in God’s Word, and deserves our careful study, and a determination to warn others of the danger of going there!


Responses

  1. I found this blog very interesting. I feel that this is a difficult subject to actually sing about because singing, by its very nature inspires joy but “singing” and “hell” are somehow just not compatible, even though there should be (and still are) old hymns out there which warn the unbeliever of its existence. I have an old hymn book in which the hymns are categorized under the seeking Saviour, the crucified Jesus, the cleansing blood, the exalted Christ, the invitation, the warning note, the grand decision and the joy of pardon… only some of the many categories. “The warning note” has a couple of hymns which come close enough but still they are just that…. “a warning note.” The chorus of one is “Death is coming, coming, coming
    And the judgement day;
    Hasten, sinner, hasten, sinner,
    Seek the narrow way.”
    In contrast hymns about “the end of the journey” (“and I am safe on that beautiful shore”) are something that only the Christian can sing with joy… but at the same time I feel that these do speak to the unbeliever.

    • Excellent. I was especially struck by you comment, “Singing, by its very nature inspires joy.” I had a point that sort of relates to that, but I didn’t have time to develop it properly: That music tends to glorify and exalt its subject. (Secular rockers who offer corrupt entertainment and say, “It’s only a song,” need to remember that.)

      And yes, there are many songs that, while they don’t talk specifically about hell, sound an important note of warning. Last Sunday at our church, we sang Philip Bliss’s Almost Persuaded. The last stanza is devastating, “Almost, but lost.” I saw one woman in tears and, based on prayer requests she has given, I believe she was thinking of family members in spiritual danger.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful comments. May the Lord bless you.

  2. I think today’s culture is avoidant of every aspect of hell, even tho billions will go there. There should be songs and sermons talking about it, it could save lives. Most people don’t come to church to change but they’ll give their change in the plate.

    • Some interesting comments. “Most people don’t come to church to change.” You’re likely right, though it somewhat depends on the church. Many come to church because it’s a tradition or habit to do so. Others come to meet their friends. Nothing inherently wrong with either of those. But we need to see church attendance more as an appointment with God, both to give Him praise, and to hear (and apply) His Word.

      There is also the aspect of ministry. Far too many focus on being ministered to. (What can I get out of this? Why should I go if I don’t get anything out of it?) Rather, our thinking should be, “How can I minister for the Lord today?” I’m not talking about preaching or singing a solo necessarily. But in conversation, can I encourage someone, or challenge someone for the Lord?

      In his very elderly years, Frank Buckley faithfully attended church. He was stone deaf, and could hear nothing. “Why do you go?” he was asked. He said, “Because I want to set a good example for others.” That too is a kind of ministry.

      Thanks again for writing. God bless.

      • Totally agree and you never know who God can help through you!

      • And I’ll add one further thought about ministry to others. I used to visit a senior who’d say as I left, “May the Lord bless you and make you a blessing.” I pray that way, before I go to church, and also before I go to do the weekly shopping. (How can I be a blessing and encouragement to store clerks who probably hear mostly complaints from customers?) My point: If we once get the mindset of going to church to minister, it should be a matter of prayer too, asking the Lord to direct us to those we can help.


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