Addressing Objections: Christians Won’t Share the Gospel Without Hell
This is one of the primary concerns of people who feel that maintaining the doctrine of hell is of paramount importance to the Christian faith. It is a rather curious concern, because it shows just how deeply ingrained eternal torment has become in the minds of many Christians, and how far we have come from genuine love of Christ as a result. What I mean by this is that it implies that we Christians won’t obey Christ without the threat of eternal damnation. We won’t obey Him out of love. The gospel has become pain-avoidant, rather than driven by a deep love for God and others. This should not be the case.
Let’s take a look at Jesus' command to us to share the gospel, commonly called the Great Commission:
Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Notice that the Great Commission never mentions hell. It doesn’t say “warn people of the impending doom they will experience if they don’t believe.” Instead, Jesus exhorts us to make disciples, baptize, and teach people to obey His words.
But is this the paradigm through which we share the gospel when hell is at its forefront? I would argue that it is not. Instead of discipleship, there is an earnest desire to scare people half to death in order to coerce them into saying a sinner’s prayer. Once we’ve accomplished that (and presumably saved their souls with this magical incantation), we can move on. Where do we see the principles of discipleship and teaching people obedience to Christ?
You see, the doctrine of hell changes the way the gospel is preached. It lends itself to an emergency room triage kind of mentality, not to a relational building up of Christ followers through ongoing teaching and discipleship.
But the Great Commission demands relational discipleship in order to create Christ followers. Simply getting people to say the sinner’s prayer doesn’t actually fulfill the demands of the Great Commission, especially if the people who say it treat it as fire insurance and never learn to obey the words of Jesus. So having hell as a primary emphasis and motivator in preaching the gospel actually diminishes our ability to fulfill the Great Commission, in my view.
But this isn’t the only reason why hell limits the sharing of the gospel. There is also the simple reality that it changes the gospel from good news to really bad news for most people in the world. As an example, let’s consider the country of Thailand. The U.S. Department of State says that “according to the 2000 census, there are an estimated 440,000 Christians in the country, constituting 0.7 percent of the population” ("Thailand" 2011). With this in mind, consider the fact that the Thai people have a deep culture of respect and reverence for their ancestors. And remember that the traditional doctrine of hell says that virtually every single one of these ancestors will be tormented forever, with no hope of redemption. And this same fate would be true for virtually every other person that they know in their entire country (remember 99.3% of the Thai people were not Christian according to the census).
Does this create a barrier for sharing the gospel in your mind? How do you preach the good news of God’s love convincingly to the Thai people with a belief in hell in the background? How do you preach the gospel to anyone who has lost a non-Christian loved one? It is extremely difficult to be intellectually consistent and do so. Preaching God’s great love becomes embarrassing for people who want to be able to answer questions about God intelligently to skeptics, as long as hell resides as central to our understanding of the gospel.
So we tend to simply not do it!
For all the rhetoric about hell motivating us to share the gospel, how many of us are out in the trenches sharing it? How many of us love others (as we love ourselves) to the point that we forego watching Netflix in favor of preaching to those who we think will burn forever in torment? If we really believed the doctrine, and really cared about people, we would be unable to do anything but preach. But as it stands, this is not the reality we observe in Christian behavior.
Is it at least a possibility that we don’t share the gospel because the doctrine of hell twists it so much that it is impossible to intelligently present it to a skeptic? I know that I felt this way. I knew that I would be dead in the water the second someone asked me about hell. The concept is simply philosophically indefensible to someone who doesn’t already believe it. And I knew it, so I couldn’t figure out how to share my faith for years. I think that many of you are in the same boat.
Why Does Punishment Have to Be Eternal to Warrant Preaching the Gospel?
Another disturbing implication of the viewpoint that Christians won’t preach the gospel without eternal hell is that we will only be motivated to obey Christ by the most extreme of punishments. I’ve already discussed that judgment is a reality and that the wicked will certainly experience a condemnation that is described in strong, vivid terms. It doesn’t sound like a walk in the park at all. In fact, Hebrews 10:31 tells us that “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We’ve also seen that sin has terrible destructive power in human lives in the present.
Aren’t these facts motivation enough to encourage us to share the beautiful truth of the gospel with people? Shouldn’t we want to share this good news even if judgment weren’t true? If we truly understand the amazing goodness and power of our God, who commands us to share the gospel, I think we should.
Let’s consider an analogy to drive this point home. Imagine you live in Germany during World War II and that you have Jewish friends. Now, imagine that you hear that a Nazi raid is going to take place in your city and that your friends will all be taken to concentration camps. But you know of a safe haven, and have a way to get them to it. Are you going to sit around lazily and let your friends be captured and tortured simply because you know that they won’t stay in the concentration camp for all of eternity? Do you reason that the temporary nature of their suffering makes telling them how to escape it unworthy of your time? I hope not!
But this is essentially the argument being made by those who claim that hell is necessary in order for us to willingly share our faith. They say that we will not be motivated to share our faith unless an eternal consequence is present. Don’t we care that people are destroying their lives and relationships? Don’t we care that people are living in spiritual, political, and economic oppression? Don’t we want to share God’s love with the world and act as ambassadors of His good news, which is the very thing that can set people free?
Consider the apostle Paul's reason for working so diligently to spread the gospel:
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe .
Paul endured shipwrecks, beatings, and death threats as he labored and strove for Christ. And he himself tells us why he was willing to endure such hardship. It was because of his "hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people..." And he makes it clear that he isn't the only one who had this understanding of God as his motivation. He says that this is the reason why we labor and strive. At the very least, he is talking about himself and Timothy, but I think he is referring to the other apostles as well. Notice that the motivation for preaching the gospel isn't fear, but hope, and that this hope is based on a clear understanding of God as the Savior of all people.
This hope of the apostles is the same hope that should drive us to share the gospel.
And the amazing thing is that understanding the unparalleled beauty of God's redemptive plan does in fact empower and motivate people to share. I know that I personally had never before felt the desire to share my faith that I now feel. And the reason is simple: the doctrine of hell had obscured my understanding of God’s love, goodness, and power. But now that I understand the amazing love, goodness, and power of God, I have a much deeper desire to share my faith with others. The God who loves the world so much that He gave Himself, who is good enough to desire the salvation of all people, and who is powerful enough to accomplish His desire in spite of our bad choices, is worth sharing!
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“Thailand.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 13 Sept. 2011, www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/ irf 2010_5/168377.htm. Accessed 16 Aug. 2017.