Addressing Objections: People Won’t Respond to the Gospel Without Hell
I would actually argue the opposite is true: people don’t respond to the gospel because of the doctrine of hell. And I have evidence to back up this assertion. Let’s briefly examine a few statements from a couple well known atheists who cite the doctrine of hell as a major factor deterring them from faith in Christ.
“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment” (Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian).
It seems rather apparent that the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment presents a very serious ethical problem for Russell. This problem is so great for him that it causes him to deny that Christ was morally good. Obviously, he doesn’t wish to worship an immoral (or only partially moral) god. This is why he cites hell as an important obstacle to being a Christian.
Here is another quote, this one by Richard Dawkins:
“I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” (Richard Dawkins, Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason & Science )
Again, we see clear evidence from an outspoken atheist that he considers the doctrine of hell to be morally abhorrent, so much so that he compares it to child abuse (sadly, he experienced sexual abuse as a child himself). Clearly, having such a view of hell would deter a person from accepting Christ if one believed that He taught such a concept. Of course, I no longer believe He taught such a concept for abundant scriptural reasons that have already been discussed.
To be clear, I am not aligning myself with atheists or agreeing with their sentiments about God in any way. What I am showing is that, for many, the doctrine of hell is a formidable barrier to faith, rather than a bridge to it. And this is not exclusive to atheists. Christians too, express their misgivings about the doctrine and its role in preventing them from coming to the faith sooner.
Lee Strobel, in The Case for Faith recounts his own experience of hellfire evangelism:
"When I was about ten years old, I was taken to Sunday school, where the teacher lit a candle and said, `Do you know how much it hurts to burn your finger? Well, imagine your whole body being in fire forever and ever. That's what hell is.´
"Now, some kids got scared...I just got resentful that this guy was trying to manipulate me. I think lots of people have had this sort of experience."
Strobel did not become a Christian for many more years and says that "for a long time as a spiritual seeker, I found my sense of justice outraged by the Christian teaching about hell... the doctrine seemed like cosmic overkill to me, an automatic and unappealable sentence to an eternity of torture and torment. It's mandatory sentencing taken to the extreme: everyone gets the same consequences, regardless of their circumstances."
It does not really sound like "hell" helped Lee Strobel come to Christ; instead it was a powerful barrier that prevented him from doing so. This is really a representative theme for a lot of people: the concept of eternal hell is a major stumbling block to coming to faith in Christ. There are many more quotes from many people that you can easily find that back this assertion up. Feel free to do so (or just have an honest conversation with a skeptic about the issue) if you need further confirmation .
But the fact that the doctrine of hell clearly acts a barrier to belief is not the only reason to dispute the claim that it is necessary to win converts. The primary reason to doubt this claim is that the Bible never makes it.
Rather, the Scriptures paint a very different picture for why people turn to God. In a passage warning believers to avoid being judgmental, the apostle Paul says the following: "Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4 , NKJV).
It is the goodness (sometimes translated “kindness”) of God that leads to repentance, not the terror of unending hell! Now, we have already seen that God’s judgment is another tool that is used to humble us to the point of acknowledging our sin, but there is no good reason to view this as eternal punishment. In fact, His judgment is part of His goodness, a tool that he uses to cause repentance in all of us. The natural consequences of our sins (which we have already seen to be an instrument of God’s judgment) frequently lead us to the realization of our need for God. When we are ashamed of our sin (as we will certainly be in the day of judgment), He shows us His great love and kindness so that we will all eventually, inevitably choose Him.
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