October 23, 2017

Evangelical Anxieties 3: Does Believing in Hell Make Christianity a Religion of Fear?

hellbw.jpgEvangelical Anxieties is a series of posts dealing with the issue of fear- as experience and motivation- in evangelicalism. See the category for these posts to read them all.

If there is a “fundamental” question to this series of posts, this is it. Does the doctrine of hell make Christianity a religion of fear?

If you believe in the evangelical doctrine of conscious, eternal torment as a just punishment from God for unrepentant sinners, then you are believing in a religion where fear is a rational element. Hell is a fearful doctrine. I would say that anyone who understands it and doesn’t feel some kind of fear is being inconsistent and irrational, if not delusional.

It isn’t my purpose here to talk about whether the Bible teaches a doctrine of hell. The New Testament does. I will say that I find that Christians of every variety seem to routinely have more to say about this subject than is merited by a reasonable reading of scripture. That particular habit will be a common factor in many of the topics we will visit in this series of posts.

The Old Testament doesn’t appear to have a doctrine of hell. For whatever that means, it’s obviously something that comes along in later Judaism. Jesus had a doctrine of hell, and you can read about it in Luke 16:19-31. There are lots of questions that come along with such a passage, but one that is answered is whether there is, for some people, conscious punishment after death. There is.

By the end of the New Testament canon, the writer of the Apocalypse describes the lake of fire in terms that are intended to frighten. No amount of deconstruction or interpretation will take away the descriptions of hell that close out the Bible. Few Christians can find a way to flatly deny its existence and be taken seriously on other assertions in the Bible.

If a person is interested in exploring and rethinking the Biblical and theological issues in the doctrine of hell, read Brian Mclaren’s book The Last Word and The Word After That. There is, in my opinion, a great deal of bad preaching and teaching around this subject, and while we may not agree with Mclaren’s conclusions, I believe his work on the meaning of “hell” in the Bible is valuable. I am more interested in how the doctrine of hell affects the entire worldview centered on the God revealed in Jesus. As a Christian, a Jesus follower, does a belief in some form of the orthodox doctrine of hell turn my faith into a belief system filled with fear?

The answer is no, and I am going to suggest, very briefly, my reasoning.

1. The fact that the older testament has no doctrine of hell is important. The judgment of God upon a rebellious world is a constant fact in the older testament, and the “fear of the Lord” is fundamental, but the older testament doesn’t show us faithful believers consumed with fear. God’s covenant promises, and his salvation revealed in covenant actions makes it clear that God is restraining his judgment on the world. So from the very beginning, it is a God who is holy and a God of judgment who chooses to be merciful and gracious to his world and his people.

2. The Bible is certain that God will judge his enemies. It is equally certain that he will save his people. Salvation in the gospel is the wonderful news that God himself undertakes this project. It is GOD who takes upon himself the burden of saving and restoring those who should, by their own records, be counted as God’s enemies. The “music” of the Bible is the music of God’s salvation of his people and his deliverance from judgment by love and sacrifice. As a document accounting for the wonder of the triumph of a missional God, the Bible sends God’s people to tell the world that they are, by simple faith, included in God’s deliverance and salvation of his people.

3. The orientation of God’s people to the truth of God’s judgment is to announce salvation, offer forgiveness and invite all to believe and experience the renewal of the universe in God’s Kingdom. All of these truths contain the element of judgment, but the fundamental reality for us is not the announcement of fear, but the offer of salvation. We are a people whose identity is constantly seen in the light of God’s mercy.

And,

“He is the stone that makes people stumble,
the rock that makes them fall.”*

They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them.
9 But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests,* a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

10 “Once you had no identity as a people;
now you are God’s people.
Once you received no mercy;
now you have received God’s mercy.” (I Peter 2:8-10)

4. Our God is a God who, in Jesus Christ, took upon himself his own wrath against sin and sinners. This is the core of the “Good News.” He became sin for us so that we can be righteous and not experience judgment. As the creed says, he went to hell for us. We are not a people announcing cancer, but the cure and end of cancer. We are Easter people, not a people of dread and doom. Hell, the grave, death….all these enemies are defeated.

5. Classic evangelical piety reminds us that there is a kind of grieving and weeping over the lost that we see in Jesus and that characterizes those who have the heart of Jesus. In the essay Wretched Urgency, I explore what kind of evangelism is taught in the newer testament. Particularly, how does the new testament view of the evangelism express itself in the way we share the Gospel? Is there a fearful urgency? Is there room for manipulation through fear? I would encourage you to read or reread that essay.

There are a number of evangelism discussions in evangelicalism today that center on the use of the law in presenting the Gospel. I believe that creative and broadly Biblical/existential adaptations of this method are very, very helpful in resolving the “focus” of God’s judgment. That we deserve God’s punishment and wrath, no matter what that might be, is a critical part of the Gospel. PARTICULAR “terrors,” i.e. judgment house tactics, etc. are the WRONG way to express this serious and crucial aspect of salvation. Not “Are you scared?” but “Are you guilty? How have you treated God?”

6. In his ministry, we see Jesus encountering people who are in danger of hell. In Matthew 23, he makes the danger of hell central to his denunciation of the distortions of the Pharisees. But to “ordinary sinners,” Jesus does not offer terror. He offers joyful inclusion, the announcement of forgiveness and the invitation to join God’s Kingdom now. In conversation after conversation, Jesus puts the offer of God’s mercy and reconciliation in the Kingdom first, and the threat of judgment elsewhere. Only to those who refuse the Kingdom does Jesus make the message of judgment central.

This is, clearly, a model for us, and I believe we see it in the rest of the new testament.

My conclusion is that the Biblical doctrine of hell does not occupy a place of fear, manipulation or terror in Christian experience. Instead, it is part of the backdrop for understanding the salvation God gives us and offers others in Jesus Christ. It is from the certainty of God’s judgment that we are saved, and this includes hell. What is important is to make the Good News of Jesus central, to make the doctrine of hell part of the presentation of what God has done for us in Jesus, and to not create a separate “Bad News” message that we are expected to carry and proclaim.

The thought of hell is terrifying. Like in so much of the rest of the Christian life, our best response is to go to the cross; to meditate on the agony and abandonment of Jesus Christ for us. This is our hell. He became what we deserve, and we become, in him, what we would never deserve. No Christian should live in the fear of hell, but no Christian should ever forget that God has delivered him/her from a judgment of righteous wrath that was certain and deserved.

Comments

  1. Hell is a fearful doctrine. I would say that anyone who understands it and doesn’t feel some kind of fear is being inconsistent and irrational, if not delusional. …

    Not “Are you scared?” but “Are you guilty?”

    If you properly understand (i.e. if the Holy Spirit is working in you) your guilt as punishable by hell, you will be afraid. You must fear the wages of your guilt before you can properly know the Good News of Christ for you. The reason why the Good News is good is because it calms our fears. If guilt and fear are not properly associated, there is no calming effect when the Gospel is applied. So to ignore, bypass, or simply assume the fearful result of our guilt when speaking of guilt is not helpful. If God is to be feared for his wrath, then fear—just don’t stop there.

    In other words, I think it is appropriate for a Christian to fear hell. It makes stronger and sweeter the assurance of heaven when the Spirit bolsters your faith in Christ.