So, what do we “do” with a doctrine of hell? No matter what your view on what hell is, there should be some sense of how it fits within your entire theology as well as practical application. Is there a practical theology of hell? If we affirm a doctrine where/when is it appropriate to bring it up and what should it be brought up to accomplish?
I’m sure many of us have heard “that sermon” or “that preacher” who wields hell over everyone in order to motivate people to become Christian. “Repent or you’re going to hell!”, “Turn or burn!”, they proclaim as they bang on the pulpit or wave a bible in your face. Is this the way we should present the gospel? Is this the gospel? Is the gospel simply repent and believe in Jesus so that you won’t go to hell? I hope no one would affirm that kind of belief… but I fear many do. Or at least that’s what they present to people. Far too may people have heard that God is angry and will punish you forever in the fires of hell if you don’t repent and believe- as if hell is weapon to be used in the battle against unbelief. It breaks my heart to know this is out there. This one came across my twitter this weekend:
“you shall be saved (FROM HELL)”?!? (Yep, they inserted hell into Romans, changing the words of Scripture… oh dear) Ok, so the number of things wrong with this is alarming. I can’t imagine why anyone would think this is an effective evangelistic technique. I also find this to be an appallingly narrow understanding of the Christian faith (or perhaps not even an example of the Christian faith).
So basically what I want to get across here is that hell really doesn’t belong in our evangelism. Hell avoidance is not the gospel. Here’s a few reasons why:
When does hell show up in the Scriptures? Jesus’ references to hell (read about them here in part 3) are not used when he reaches out to the lost. He only speaks of hell and judgment when teaching his followers or rebuking the self-righteous hypocrite. Paul uses wrath and judgment in his letters- letters which are to churches and christian leaders not people who do not know the gospel. When reaching out to lost folks, we see a Jesus who shows compassion not condemnation. He calls for repentance, yes. But it is not offering a “get out of hell” card. He does not use a “turn or burn” tactic. Consider the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. To her he says, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” How about the woman in adultery in John 8? Surely she was a sinner destined for hell? So how does that conversation go?…
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
No hell. No wrath. No judgment.
Instead… grace, and a chance at new life.
Levi, he was a tax collector, the most reviled folks in Judea. Surely Jesus had some hellfire speech for him…
“Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. (Mark 2:14b)
Wait, what? Follow me? Not even a “repent and follow me”? Yes, Jesus says, hey you sinner, come to me, follow me, eat with me, learn from me, find life in me.
Jesus didn’t gain followers to himself by using the threat of hell and judgment.
And if you scan through Acts, you’ll see precious little with regard to wrath and judgment and the word hell shows up nowhere. Really the only instance of any sort of using judgment in evangelism in Acts is in Acts 17, when Paul is in Athens. He wraps up his speech to the men on the Areopagus:
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
This is the end of his speech- a speech in which he tells his audience that they have been seeking God in all the wrong places. He tells them that they are devout people, who just don’t get who God is- he says, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship —and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (17:23b). He then tells them of God, and quotes two pagan authors (Epimenides in 17:28a and Aratus in 17:28b). He is not telling the Athenians, hey you’re all sinners bound for hell. He says, hey guys, you’ve been missing something here. You are trying to worship an UNKNOWN GOD (v. 23). Now, I’m telling you that you can know him.
In Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Paul preached forgiveness and adoption. In Iconium (Acts 14:1-7) Paul and Barnabas preached “a message of his grace”. In Lystra and Derbe they proclaimed the living God, maker of all things who “has shown kindness” to people in spite of their ignorance (14:17). In Ephesus he argued in favour of the kingdom of God (19:8).
And yet, so often we decide that we will use hell to scare people into the kingdom of God. We plead with people, believe of you’ll burn forever. Why? To what end? What will people think of God when they hear that he is planning to send them to eternal fire unless they believe in this god? Can you love a god like that?
This does not produce true worshippers of God.
This does not produce disciples.
This produces grovelling cowards or lazy Christians who have their “fire insurance” and are done. It produces people who think God is a monster. It produces fear. But Paul tells us, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7). We are called to have closeness and intimacy with God through Christ. Fear is not intimacy. Fear creates legalism, not self-discipline. Self-discipline comes from the Spirit of God regenerating.
How we preach the gospel matters. It is “good news”- and it should sound that way.
With that being said, we still need to be cautious. There is the other extreme of presenting a gospel without discipline. We can’t go the other way and allow sin to be ignored. We can’t present a Jesus who welcomes sinners and simply allows them to continue in their sin. He does say “go and sin no more”. He calls us to repent. However, there is no threat of hellfire and brimstone. There is no “or else”. There is an invitation. Come, and find grace. Come, and find life. Come, and be free the sort of condemnation which misguided preachers inflict on broken people. Come, and find new life- it may not be easy, but it is good.
So what then is the place of hell in our thinking and practice? Is hell something we need to assimilate into how we live out mission? When inviting others to hear about the kingdom of God, where does hell fall in that discussion?
Well, here’s my two cents: hell is biblical. It should therefore, be on our radar. We need to get our heads wrapped around it in some sense. However, the biblical examples we have in Jesus in the four gospels and the Apostles in Acts shows us that although we do need to know about it as the people of God, our interactions with the lost should not be rooted in presenting the consequences of sin, inspiring fear of hell, but should focus on the goodness of God who is seeking his lost sheep. Hell is not a centrepiece of the message we are called to proclaim. His desire is that none should perish.
The turn or burn approach is neither rooted in a biblical example, nor is it effective in my experience. To someone who has not heard, it gives the wrong message.
Here’s Karl Barth’s take:
Should the teaching about hell be a part of the proclamation of the gospel? No, no, no! The proclamation of the gospel means, rather, the proclamation that Christ has defeated hell, that Christ suffered hell in our place, and that it has allowed for us to live with Christ and so to have hell behind us. (Gesamtausgabe, 25:111)
I wouldn’t word it exactly like that. But the sentiment is positive. We do not preach that God is poised ready to send you to hell. Instead, we are to preach that there is freedom, life, power, and joy in Christ Jesus. God is poised, ready and hoping to pour out new life into you, and offer you adoption and a place in the Kingdom of God.