Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hell: Help or Hindrance to Heaven?

By George W. Sarris

In any discussion about the possibility that Hell may not be forever, one question almost always comes up:

If everyone will eventually get to heaven anyway, why share your faith?

Some time ago I received a fund appeal letter from a mission organization that directly related to this issue. The letter explained,

The work of missions is not a numbers game, but numbers don’t lie. Statistically, in the time it probably took you to scan the envelope, open the letter, and read these first two sentences, 10 human beings died having never heard the good news about Jesus. Gone forever.

I’m told that about 150,000 people will die today! Nearly half of them will have never heard that Jesus came that they might have life. In fact, most of them live in places where they have no reasonable access to that truth . . .

We can sensationalize the numbers, but people are not numbers. Jesus died for people, and as Dr. Henry said, “The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.

Won’t proclaiming the message that God will ultimately restore all of His creation to its intended perfection strip people of the motivation to give and to go? Why should missionaries and other dedicated Christians subject themselves to ridicule and deprivation by going out of their way, often to distant and backward lands, to tell others the “Good News” if they’ll all get to heaven someday, anyway? Won’t the message that God will eventually restore all have a dangerously negative effect on missions and evangelism?

Is Hell important for getting people into Heaven?

Is the “Good News” . . . Good News?

A number of things could be said in response, not the least of which is to mention that the Gospel does much more than simply provide a fire insurance policy to keep people out of Hell.

The Great Commission that Jesus gave commands us to make disciples, not just to make converts. Evangelism is a by-product of making disciples and loving your neighbor. If you are a true disciple of Jesus Christ who is growing in faith and in your relationship with God, you will be prepared and have a desire to share the truths you have learned with others. If you genuinely love your neighbor, you will be alert to opportunities to not only try to convert them, but genuinely help the whole person by ministering to the various needs in their lives that the Gospel addresses.

God has made each person uniquely for a purpose. His laws are just and true. As people fit in with His plan for their lives, they will experience reconciliation with God, forgiveness of their sins, power to overcome and defeat sin and wickedness in their lives, and true purpose. The result is the greatest joy and true fulfillment possible. They will also want to tell others of this wonderful news.

But, another answer to the question is also important to point out – and it’s one that we evangelicals don’t really want to hear.

For a great many people, the traditional concept of Hell is actually a major stumbling block to coming to faith. They cannot believe that an all-powerful, all-loving God would consign people to endless, conscious suffering because they are not part of an esoteric group called the “elect,” or because they have never responded positively to a message they have never heard. I have often been in discussions with people who have told me that people they spoke to about God would not make a commitment because they just could not believe that a good God would send anyone to Hell. Maybe they were right.

The message of endless suffering is not good news! It is not good news for a person who has grown up in a non-Christian environment or where the Gospel has rarely or never been preached to hear that every ancestor, relative, friend or loved one who has died, and the vast majority of those still alive, have no hope. It is not good news for them to be told that all or almost all of the people they love and honor are experiencing or will experience endless, conscious suffering at the hands of the God you are telling them about. To many of them, that is not the most joyful news ever announced. It is the most dreadful news ever announced.

That is one of the reasons it has been so hard for the gospel to take root in cultures that place a high value on family relationships. The first Christian missionary to Japan, St. Francis Xavier, experienced this response to the message he preached, and wrote in 1552:

One of things that most of all pains and torments these Japanese is that we teach them that the prison of hell is irrevocably shut. For they grieve over the fate of their departed children, of their parents and relatives, and they often show their grief by their tears. So they ask us if there is any hope . . . and I am obliged to answer that there is absolutely none. The grief at this affects and torments them wonderfully; they almost pine away with sorrow. . . . They often ask if God cannot take their fathers out of hell, and why their punishment must never have an end. We gave them a satisfactory answer, but they did not cease to grieve over the misfortune of their relatives; and I can hardly restrain my tears sometimes at seeing men so dear to my heart suffer such intense pain about a thing which is already done with and can never be undone.

Not Then . . . Not Now

Over the years, I have listened to many people share testimonies of how and why they became Christians. Many have mentioned the example of a friend or acquaintance who demonstrated an inner strength, power over sin, or quality of life that impressed them. Others have said that entering into a personal relationship with God gave them a sense of purpose in a world that seemed to have no direction, or that He provided a solid source of security at a time in their lives when everything else was falling apart. A number have mentioned that Biblical Christianity provided clear answers to questions about life and the world around them that had a ring of truth to them. Some have told of how they witnessed true love and compassion shown by Christians toward others who were not even part of their faith.

I can honestly say that very few of the people I have heard have said that they came to faith because they were afraid to go to Hell, and becoming a Christian gave them peace of mind in that area. It is definitely true for some, but it has not been my experience that it has been a primary motivation for very many. In fact, in my experience, the doctrine of eternal damnation has caused far more people to be driven away from the faith than drawn to it.

The experience of a friend speaks to the issue very well.

I used to be afraid to share the gospel, for fear that the conversation would come around to the subject of hell. I was afraid that someone would ask, “What about those who have never heard”? or “How can a good God allow billions of people to be tormented forever?” or “What’s the point of bringing people into existence only to suffer in this life, die, and then suffer forever with no hope of relief?” I had no good answers. Sure, I knew all the standard answers, but they didn’t satisfy me any more than they satisfied those who asked the questions.

Now I am free to share the gospel without worrying about getting trapped by good questions that have no good answers. I can confidently proclaim that God is Love, that He is not a monster who allows people to spend eternity in perpetual suffering apart from Him. At the same time, I can confidently proclaim that He is holy and righteous, He is a consuming fire, and He will not let anyone get away with anything. He will do whatever it takes to make sinners holy, fit for spending eternity in His presence.

The greatest time of expansion of the Christian church was in the first few centuries after Christ, when the dominant view of the church was that God would ultimately restore all of His creation to its intended perfection.

Perhaps they remembered something about God's sovereign power coupled with His unfailing love for all that we have forgotten.


John said...

This is a powerful apologetic. Thank you. I happen to be one who was saved because of fear of hell. In fact, that's the "punch line" in my story: the gospel "scared the hell out of me." But there is a richness to the gospel in that it can draw someone into becoming a disciple despite being poorly represented (re: the doctrine of hell).

Over the years, I've worked on several "gospel presentations." For precisely the reasons you mention in this post, I've been working on a presentation that proclaims only the good news of restoration of God's good creation. I'd be curious to hear your shorthand expression of the gospel with this in mind. Paul even saw fit in his second letter to Timothy to say that his gospel was "Jesus the Messiah, raised from the dead, descended from David." I don't hear much of that in traditional gospel plans . . . maybe just "Jesus Christ."

George W. Sarris said...

John, Thanks for your thoughts.

Interestingly, Bill Bright was severely criticized when he wrote the Four Spiritual Laws because they started out with "God Loves You and has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life." I was on Crusade staff in the early 1970's, and heard many people say it wasn't the true gospel because it didn't start out with "You are a Sinner!" And, it did not mention Hell.

God bless. George