Is Hell Useful in Evangelism?

Since I posted my throughts on the ‘evangelical
universalist’, I have been thinking about hell.
I don’t have a lot of scholarly research on
hell and its uses in the Bible. Perhaps I need
to do some over the next few weeks, especially
if I am posting on it. But, I have come to some
conclusions about hell in evangelism.
Even if I am wrong about hell (i.e., it is an
actual place of eternal torment in which people
are sent there as their punishment for not
believing in Jesus), I still have to wonder
about its effectiveness in evangelism. Here
they are:
1. If ever it was a good idea to preach hell as
a means to bring people to conversion, there
seems to have been some sort of understanding
among even the non-believers that there was
such a place. For instance, I am teaching my
daughter to look both ways before she crosses
the street. For this to have any impact, she
has to have some sort of understanding that
there are cars that drive at highspeeds that
could seriously harm her.
2. Therefore, Hell is only a deterent if one
actually believes that such a place exist. If
someone doesn’t believe in God, then why would
she or he believe in hell? Certainly, if
evangelising an atheist (or an adherent of some
religion that has no equivalent), the person
can say, ‘I don’t believe in hell.’
3. Then, the conversation must move from God to
hell. Evangelism then becomes convincing the
person about hell and then the conversation can
turn to God.
So, in an attempt to get someone to believe in
a good, loving God, one would have to get the
person to believe in a place of eternal torture
first. And then get him or her to belive this
good, loving God would send him or her if that
person doesn’t believe in God.
Perhaps those that would want to emphasise
God’s holiness (God’s inability to have sin in
God’s presence) think I am being flippant. But,
I believe evangelism is more about the good
news of God’s reign in love. The story, over
and over, in the Bible is the story of God’s
grace toward those who have time and again
turned away from God. We stand up to [BNP
Leader] Nick Griffen and his hatred because we
believe in the love God has for all people. As
much as we wish Nick would go away, we are at
the same time calling for his conversion and
not simply his silence (admittedly, this is
harder to do!). This is why we preach God’s
love and grace rather than a place of eternal
torment – because that is what God emphasises
in God’s story. God, through the continual
sending of love, converts us and makes us holy.

Since I posted my throughts on the ‘evangelical universalist’, I have been thinking about hell. I don’t have a lot of scholarly research on hell and its uses in the Bible. Perhaps I need to do some over the next few weeks, especially if I am posting on it. But, I have come to some conclusions about hell in evangelism.

Even if I am wrong about hell (i.e., it is an actual place of eternal torment in which people are sent there as their punishment for not believing in Jesus), I still have to wonder about its effectiveness in evangelism. Here they are:

1. If ever it was a good idea to preach hell as a means to bring people to conversion, there seems to have been some sort of understanding among even the non-believers that there was such a place. For instance, I am teaching my daughter to look both ways before she crosses the street. For this to have any impact, she has to have some sort of understanding that there are cars that drive at highspeeds that could seriously harm her.

2. Therefore, Hell is only a deterent if one actually believes that such a place exist. If someone doesn’t believe in God, then why would she or he believe in hell? Certainly, if evangelising an atheist (or an adherent of some religion that has no equivalent), the person can say, ‘I don’t believe in hell.’

3. Then, the conversation must move from God to hell. Evangelism then becomes convincing the person about hell and then the conversation can turn to God.

So, in an attempt to get someone to believe in a good, loving God, one would have to get the person to believe in a place of eternal torture first. And then get him or her to belive this good, loving God would send him or her if that person doesn’t believe in God.

Perhaps those that would want to emphasise God’s holiness (God’s inability to have sin in God’s presence) think I am being flippant. But, I believe evangelism is more about the good news of God’s reign in love. The story, over and over, in the Bible is the story of God’s grace toward those who have time and again turned away from God. We stand up to [BNP Leader] Nick Griffen and his hatred because we believe in the love God has for all people. As much as we wish Nick would go away, we are at the same time calling for his conversion and not simply his silence (admittedly, this is harder to do!). This is why we preach God’s love and grace rather than a place of eternal torment – because that is what God emphasises in God’s story. God, through the continual sending of love, converts us and makes us holy.

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7 thoughts on “Is Hell Useful in Evangelism?

  1. Will – Thanks for wrestling with this. I think that you know how I feel about it, and it seemed to me that you were dead on with this post. Reading this and your past few blog posts reminds me how much I miss talking to you! Hope we can schedule a phone call soon!

  2. Will, I appreciate your wrestling with this. The traditional evangelical formula is conviction of sin then assurance of grace. If sin has no meaning or people feel no need to be free of sin, then the formula is pointless.

    My concern with a good news that says “God loves you” is that it needs to be hooked to an answer to the question “so what?” Why does it matter to me that God loves me? Does it change anything? Does it do anything for me that I can’t do for myself?

  3. Sarah: Thanks for your comment! I miss our discussions as well (and I have been meaning to ring/email you about our last phone call). Also, I didn’t know you had a blog! I look forward to hearing more.

    John: I completely agree, and I will be trying to think through that over the next few days. I think what I meant to say here is that if hell becomes the motivation for evangelism, then that becomes the point of evangelism. There will be little talk of God in this at all.

  4. The concept of hell is not necessary for preaching The True Gospel Message about Jesus and the Kingdom Coming and it was not employed as such by Paul nor by Jesus.

    Hell is however the basis for mission inpreaching the shrunken evangelical system of how to get your butt out of hell (obviously). But I don’t think Hell makes God greater (by contrast) it makes him worse because he’s the one who consigns people there and He cannot truly conquer evil as long as something like Hell exists.

    Our discussion here asks the question can we preach the Gospel without hell?.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Marc. I am certainly hardpressed to find it mentioned in Paul. I agree with you about it being necessary if your goal of preaching is ‘getting out of hell’, which seems to be the point in evangelical circles. That’s what I hope to be pushing against.

    Thanks for the link, and I will stop by there when I can.

  6. Will,

    Interesting stuff. I read the last post and this one, so if you feel that you’ve already answered this then just ignore me and forgive me for pestering! 😉 But just so I can get a little better grasp on this, could you give a brief summary of what you feel the biblical teaching on hell is? In other words, if somebody were to say, “Will, what does the Bible say about Hell?”, what would you say?

    Not baiting, I’m just curious, and summaries like that are helpful for me.

    Thanks man!
    Wyman

  7. Hi Wyman! Glad you wrote in. I guess it’s kind of close to John’s question (above). I haven’t worked it all out yet, but am trying to. I think the short answer is, I simply don’t take the hell fire and brimstone passages as literally as I used to. I think Robin Parry said this on the podcast: the fires of hell (ghenna) in Jerusalem have gone out. Like I said, I am still working on it!

    (And I don’t think you’re baiting me!)

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