jesus: all about hell???

(The YouTube clip below will be my illustration. Start watching from 1:44, with the section following 3:11 being the most pertinent to this discussion. By the way, this post is in no way meant to reflect an opinion about a prominent Christian advertising campaign).

I watched this last week, and when I heard the comments about Christianity being a religion of fear my first reaction was to say “No!”

But then I reflected on those statements. While my belief is that Christianity is not meant to be a religion of fear, I empathised with those making such comments. The truth is that if you were to form your opinions about the Christian faith from much of the preaching that occurs today you would assume it is based on fear.

Let it be known, when I (and, as I understand it, the presenters of the program shown above) say “fear” this is not meant in a biblical sense, but in a modern sense, referring to horror or apprehension.

So, I suppose my question is, what is it that Christians “preach”? Isn’t it meant to be good news? And if so, to whom? Only to those who accept/believe it? When did Jesus stipulate that?

Many sections of the Church today preach a Hell-heavy message. A question could be, is such a message going to reach a society who largely don’t believe in Hell? Apparently it doesn’t… (It seems to me that fear-based preaching really works the opposite way to what is intended with most people anyway, as the above program demonstrates. People ending up thinking CHristianity has no real power apart from terror.)

Moreover, what kind of disciples does such preaching/teaching produce anyway? In my experience often very fearful, critical and unloving disciples. Such disciples also have very little concern for things going on in this world, in this time, for their whole view of faith is oriented toward a (usually non-material) life after death. Compare that with Jesus’ concern that God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6), or that good news, liberty, vision and favour come to the spacio-temporo-material world of people (Luke 4:18-19).

There is often a complaint among certain segments of Christianity that Hell is not preached enough, particularly to non-believers, as if Hell were the yardstick for sound doctrine (interesting that there are no debates around it in the New Testament given the range of views about afterlife in the first century). Paul’s preaching in the Areopagus in Acts 17, one of the most complete evangelistic discourses in Scripture, seems to bear witness against such concerns. There is a complete lack of mention about Hell, and while judgment is outlined, we cannot impose our modern-popular views of Hell onto Paul’s doctrine of judgment and assume that’s exactly what he meant by it (I would argue it wasn’t at all…).

Does this mean I think Hell is unimportant? Not at all. But I think we need to be very careful: after all, how much do we really know about Hell anyway? As much as many Christians have come up with intricate accounts of Hell over the centuries, I would argue the vast majority is actually speculation rather than concrete fact. Even putting aside the fact that much Western thinking about Hell has been mostly influenced by Greek Platonic ways of thinking from the early centuries on, the Scriptures are at best unclear about Hell. This is best illustrated by the vastly differing opinions of world-class scholars. Indeed, we should be humble about how we view Hell. In spite of this, however, I think judgment is an important aspect of the Christian worldview, as Paul demonstrates in Acts 17, though this must be not only balanced, but also well-informed (much popular understanding of judgment is, sadly, grossly short of the Scriptural account).

Perhaps my major concern here is that when we preach Hell like many Christians often do we end up with a faith so focused on afterlife that is becomes useless for life on earth. And if Christianity is like that, then why does the New Testament spend most of its time dealing with issues related to this life? Indeed, fearing God is not meant to be frantically worrying about your eternal destination, but about your total awe and love of the God who created all things, and by extension love also for those things.

Is it that Christians don’t believe enough in the power of God’s love and his Spirit moving in people’s lives that we must resort to threatening people with Hell and damnation? Or is it that many Christians don’t have the energy or ability to love people enough, and so preaching fear is the easier, more safely-distanced alternative? Which is stronger anyway: love or fear?

The Fear of the Lord

My fear of Thee, O Lord, exults
Like life within my veins,
A fear which tightly claims to be
One of love’s sacred pains.

There is no joy the soul can meet
Upon life’s various road
Like the sweet fear that sits and shrinks
Under the eye of God.

Oh, Thou art greatly to be feared,
Thou art so prompt to bless!
The dread to miss such love as Thine
Makes fear but love’s excess.

But fear is love, and love is fear,
And in and out they move;
But fear is an intenser joy
Than mere unfrightened love.

They love Thee little, if at all,
Who do not fear Thee much;
If love is Thine attraction, Lord!
Fear is Thy very touch.

—F. W. Faber

Would love to hear your thoughts.

MCA

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Posted on September 15, 2009, in Mission, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Hello,

    You said, “So, I suppose my question is, what is it that Christians “preach”? Isn’t it meant to be good news? And if so, to whom? Only to those who accept/believe it? When did Jesus stipulate that?”

    The first couple passages that pop into my head are:

    Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

    John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”

    As far as your doubts about hell, the Bible is extremely clear. We get most of our knowledge on it from the gospels. Cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses and others want to do away with the concept of hell, because they don’t get it (because they don’t want to).

    The more sinful we understand that we are, the more beautiful the good news is. If I thought I was a pretty good guy, Jesus’ sacrifice is nice, but I kind of deserved it. When I realize how exceedingly sinful my sin is (Romans 7:13), and what I really deserve, the gospel makes sense, and I will seek the Savior that I desperately need.

    The gospel makes no sense unless I realize how sinful I am (2 Cor. 7:8-10).

    Thanks,
    Bill

  2. Hey Matt, there is an interesting part in Mere Christianity about that:

    “This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all of our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness everyday, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror; the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally and we have made ourselves his enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger-according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.

    Now my third point. When I chose to get to my real subject in this roundabout way i was not trying to play any kind of trick on you. I had a different reason. My reason was that Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the sort of facts i have been describing. Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness. It is after you have realized that there is a real moral law and a power behind the law and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that power-it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk. When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor. When you have realized that our position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what the Christians are talking about. They offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it. They offer an explanation of how God can be this impersonal mind at the back of the moral law and yet also Person. They tell you how the demands of this law, which you and i cannot meet, have been met on how behalf. How God himself becomes a man to save man from the disapproval of God. It is an old story and if you want to go into it you will no doubt consult people who have more authority to talk about it than I have. All I am doing is to ask people to face the facts-to understand the questions which Christianity claims to answer. And they are very terrifying facts. I wish it was possible to say something more agreeable. But i must say what i think true. Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.”

    He puts forward an interesting point; i think there is no point trying to water down the scriptures. The good news is just that; good, but only because it succeeds such terrible news. That is that all men are to be judged. If people are not aware of their situation, the news would be nowhere near as good. I think the gospel needs to be presented in a holistic sense. Preaching the good news without the bad detracts from the good, just as preaching the bad news without the good does not give a full picture of Gods loving character.

  3. But what about the Siberian miners that drilled into Hell? http://www.snopes.com/religion/wellhell.asp

  4. rob,

    i don’t think matt is trying to water down the scriptures at all, or suggest that we will not be judged. i think he was just raising a point on our doctrine of hell itself. i think it’s interesting to note that our concept of hell comes from the ancient greek concept of hades. yes we in fact stole the idea from another religion. as far as i know the jews of the time did not believe in hell in the same sense, but more as a place for you to have your soul cleansed, which they called gehenom.

    the fact of the matter is we can’t be 100% certain about our view of hell. i think our focus should be on how jesus wants us to live, treat the world, and each other. the rest is up to the big man.

  5. Agreed, but I think a healthy fear of judgment and hell is good. It is not healthy to dwell on it, but as long as it is still a factor; as the scriptures clearly say that it exists, and in whatever format, will not be nice. In all honesty though, I have’t heard much preached in regards to the actual design of Hell, only that it is somewhere to avoid, and if you don’t accept Christ thats where you will go.

    In regards to what the guy on the show was saying, I think it is quite a stereotypical view of Christianity; if you don’t live our way, your going to hell…See it’s tricky, because our mission whilst we are here on earth, is not to be social workers, but to spread the message of Christ; as in the great commission (not to say that people shouldn’t be social workers). Therefore my view is that whilst loving all people and creation is incorporated in our mission, its primary focus is to spread the good news of Jesus, yet as I said before, the gospel of Jesus is incomplete or essentially meaningless if people don’t realize their need for a savior and their current path toward judgment without him.

  6. (i’m going to get out of facebook mode and start using proper grammar)

    In response to what you’ve said, can you understand why such stereotypical views of Christianity exist? I think the problem lies in that Christians try to convey that the afterlife is the main focus of Christianity. Is it? Didn’t God create us for a reason? Doesn’t this life matter?

    I think we need to shift our focus away from trying to scare people into our beliefs. As someone who has only become a Christian in the last few years (and still has many unsaved friends), I can tell you that you will rarely convert people this way.

    If we are in fact to model our lives to Christ’s, we should acknowledge how exactly he went about his ministry. I’m not trying to undermine the great commission, you are right in saying it is our mission. I am merely suggesting that how we go about it, as a whole, isn’t really modeled around Christ’s love. We often forget that he didn’t just care about people’s souls…

  7. “We often forget that he didn’t just care about people’s souls…”

    hmm i think i would have to respectfully disagree with that. As you said, if we are to model our lives around Christ, well then he allowed his body to be tortured and killed. The early church had a plethora of martyrs that were killed in horrible ways. Jesus clearly was not focused on what the flesh suffered so long as the soul was fixed on him. MATT 16:26 – 28 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

    Paul likewise gave no thought to his flesh, he was only concerned about the contents of the heart. I would argue that Jesus’ sole mission on earth was to bring people to God through repentance. This is a matter of the heart (soul).

    Obviously love for others, love for the environment, compassion, generosity etc are all to be part of our mission, but we should care only about the contents of our neighbors’ hearts. We should not lull or lead them into material comfort or spiritual ignorance (in regards to the afterlife). How can the joy of heaven be expounded without considering what the alternative is?

    I fully agree with you that Christians who use fearmongering and the like are going about it the wrong way, as Christ was love and as a result we need to be gentle, respectful and loving also.

  8. Thanks everyone to their great responses: not only for the discussion itself, but for the respectful nature of it. I hope this can continue to be the nature of this blog and any future discussions.

    Also, sorry for not responding earlier, I only got back from Melbourne yesterday. It seems, though, that good conversation doesn’t need me! I will therefore try and be brief.

    To begin, I would wish to say that in no way have I denied the reality of Hell. However, what strikes me as worrying is the way in which we say that the New Testament is “clear” about it. ‘In what sense?’ is the NT clear about Hell? If we are talking in terms of Hell’s existence, then fine. Though in terms of details about Hell (everlasting vs. purgatorial vs. annihilation, for instance) there are no such clear details. To imagine such details are in the text is to impose one’s a priori view. Moreover to point out common beliefs between a person and a ‘cult’ does not necessarily prove to be a sound argument against that particular belief (Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe in God and heaven, for example… Should that deter us from those particular beliefs?).

    I think much care and thought needs to be taken before we say someone putting forward a thoughtful concept is “watering down the Scriptures”. Certainly there is a time and a place for this kind of statement, as some people indeed do water down Scripture (particularly in our day). However one cannot assume that because someone interprets something alternatively to one’s own view that your own interpretation is necessarily correct and thus the other is a watering down.

    Indeed, the typical modern evangelical conception of Hell is certainly not the ancient view, nor the “default” biblical view. ‘Turn or burn’ type preaching is, in my view, based on a flawed interpretation of Hell in the first place (as Paul brilliantly pointed out in one of his comments). To try and say one’s view of Hell is simply ‘what the Bible teaches’ is a rather naive view – every reading of Scripture is an interpretation, with some doctrines more fundamental and clear than others (I would, for one, not put Hell in this category).

    I would also like to ask the question; what IS the gospel? (Of course I ask this rhetorically, I feel I have a well thought-out view of the gospel). A few comments have seemed to imply the gospel is only related to personal salvation, and I would say this is a horrible truncation and/or distortion of what to euaggelion is all about in Scripture, or in the first century Mediterranean world for that matter (yes, the word ‘gospel’ was not invented by Christians, but was an imperial word).

    To reduce the gospel to preaching eternal life to people (or even to make that the sole priority) is to do damage to what Scripture mentions. The gospel includes evangelism, but is also bigger than it. The Great Commission is not the sole mission of the Church, nor even necessarily the solely number one aspect of it (if it were so, then why do we not see it quoted anywhere in the Epistles? Surely if it were the number one thing in our mission then it would have been mentioned a bit more in the early Church???). This is not to denigrate evangelism, but to elevate other, forgotten parts of the gospel that the Evangelical church has neglected (and the other major streams of Christianity have often done far better at…). Again, just so no one can ever say otherwise, I am passionately committed to evangelism, but see the gospel as including other equally important aspects.

    Indeed some people claim that to push social action is to water down the gospel, but apparently Jesus disagreed – Luke 4:18-19 is the outline of his mission, and he equates good news (gospel) with liberty, healing and favour (and these are not ‘spiritual’ analogies, as many evangelicals have thought, for Jesus literally went about setting people free socially and demonically, healing them and proclaiming political and social justice AS WELL AS proclaiming eternal life – there was no hierarchy evident in his opinion of these different acts).

    Paul (our mate, not the Apostle) said it brilliantly when he said “Jesus doesn’t just care about people’s souls.” Truly Jesus’ life, in fitting with Luke 4:18-19, says he did not differentiate one’s soul and body and mind as we do today. Indeed, Jesus did allow his body to be tortured, but that act was not only unique (we are not meant to die for humankind, are we?), but also substitutionary, and functioned to defeat evil itself. So Jesus having his body destroyed was meant to be a sign that SUCH SHOULD NOT BE THE REALITY IN OUR WORLD! This is demonstrated, again, in Jesus’ healing of people – indeed, why heal them if it doesn’t matter? I can’t imagine Jesus walking into a slum today and proclaiming eternal life but leaving children to die of AIDS or starvation…

    Unfortunately to argue for a faith that is focused on a non-material, ‘spiritual’ after life, with no concern for the earth, its inhabitants and our bodies is to capitulate to Gnosticism and other forms of neo-Platonism. The Jews never believed the body was unimportant, but Plato and his followers did. We must read Jesus and Paul’s (sparse) statements that have been mentioned by others in light of this exegetical reality. (And indeed, I might ask where in the Bible it says we go to heaven for all eternity after death anyway? It seems, rather, to look forward to resurrection [1 Corinthians 15] and New Creation [Romans 8] whereby heaven and earth are joined together in a physical reality [Revelation 21-22] at the Final Consummation).

    I agree with you Rob that Hell functions as a part of our theology, though how heavily I’m not so sure – indeed, to repeat myself, we don’t really know that much about Hell from Scripture. I also agree that the guy’s view on the YouTube clip is a stereotype, though I must say that stereotypes normally contain at least a partial element of truth. My question would be why do he and many others see Christianity as a religion of fear? I think in fact that is the fault of well-meaning Christians who do in fact preach such fear. I also agree with you that social action should never fall into material comfort. But of course this is only really a problem for middle-class people like us in Western nations – in most other nations of the world social action is the supplying of a person’s basic needs for life, and so no such danger exists.

    Anyway that went a bit longer than I had hoped. Hopefully it will raise some think points for us, and will lead to more valuable discussion as we try to nut out all these issues.

    MCA

  9. Thanks for the reply Matt; i went a little heavy handed in my last post and overstated my case. I do agree that Jesus does care about our bodies, and to neglect them or others would not correlate with scripture.

    The point I was trying to make was that our souls are more important than our bodies, and while they work in unison, it is far better for the body to endure hardship than for the soul to lose faith in God…As demonstrated by the apostles.

    I think their might have been some misunderstanding in what I was saying. I fully agree with social action and I fully agree that if we neglect the needs of others, we are neglecting Jesus. No question about it. Thats how he told us to live on earth, caring for the poor and widows.

    However I still hold strongly to the belief that there is Hell. Whether is be eternal punishment, a cessation of being etc it is still a viable reality for those who are not saved.

    “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:22, quoting Jesus)

    “Do not be afriad of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28, quoting Jesus)

    “Then he [the King] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:41)

    Therefore, If you believe that this awaits people, yet they can receive a perfected everlasting life, how could you not share this news? And wouldn’t it be the most important and wonderful thing to hear? Now again, I am not saying do this at the expense of physical aid and assistance. However I would say that this message of the good news of Jesus is the most important thing that you could share with somebody.

    Also, Jesus did on earth everything necessary to ensure redemption for men; that is why I believe it was his primary mission. If it had been his primary purpose to ease physical suffering, could he have not done so on a much larger scale? He traveled around for a few years healing select people. He fed 4000. He did miracles; if he had chosen, he could have fed everyone in Israel for life. He could have eased every physical suffering of every person he met, he could have led his people out from the Roman rule (as many thought he would). Yet he didn’t. His miraculous healings and exorcisms were to show the power of the Kingdom of God. Undoubtedly he had a love for all humanity and helped them accordingly. However I would need more persuasion to believe that his message of the arrival of the arrival of the Kingdom was of no more importance than his social work.

  10. Thanks for clearing that up mate, if that is what you mean I think there is a lot more commonality between what people have been saying here.

    I agree with you on most stuff there. Indeed, I believe there is a Hell, and have never denied that here, though again my concern is that we don’t know that much (as you said, is it everlasting punishment, cessation etc?).

    A continuing concern for me would be the definition of the Kingdom of God. It seems you define it as the people of God? Would it be right to say you see the arrival of the kingdom as the arrival of redemption in terms of eternal life?

    If I have understood you correctly (maybe I have not) I would put forward the challenge of enlarging our view of the kingdom to be a first century metaphor or analogy that corresponds/challenges to Caesar’s kingdom. Thus social work is actually a part of it (“Let your kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts”). People take the our Father prayer of Matthew 6 as referring to the word (“bread”) and sin (“debts”), but in a first century peasant context this would have also, if not moreso, referred to real food needs and debt relief.

    Caesar’s kingdom was his reign, his dominion, his influence. God’s kingdom is actually meant to be analogous to this – where God is “king” there his kingdom is (obviously we believe God is ultimately king over everything, but the world also does not recognise such kingship).

    I see what you are saying about Jesus not easing suffering on a large, even final, scale. However if God intended to inaugurate a new people beginning with Jesus (see Paul’s thought in Ephesians on this), a new Israel if you will, then he always intended us to do those things. Moreover we mustn’t be over pious about Jesus, thinking he could do anything he wanted at any time – he couldn’t. Jesus becoming human meant he self-limited himself: he couldn’t always heal people, for example. To use Jesus’ choosing to only heal/help some as a case for his non-priority for such things could be equally used to say he didn’t care for evangelism – he didn’t convert everyone he met, and even failed to convert many he conversed with constantly. But such a conclusion would be absurd, of course…

    Rob, I am really enjoying these engagements. I am most of all enjoying having you as a sparring partner for ideas, both yours and mine, and I hope this kind of conversation can go on as I post more stuff (I mean this entirely sincerely, by the way, not at all condescendingly).

    MCA

  11. Some great points being brought forward. I guess I just have one question to add to the fray.

    Why do we make such large distinctions between evangelism and social action (which is a fairly loose term for social justice, service, loving thy neighbour etc)?

    I think there is a tendency in the church to value one over the other. However I am proposing that they should be the same thing. Note, I do not believe social action just pertains to the poor/widows, but rather to all people of the world, saved or unsaved, rich or poor. What I was trying to get to earlier, is that I strongly believe that social action is the heart of evangelism. I don’t think there should be one without the other. And in fact I do not see any reason why we should value or pursue one over the other. I believe that Jesus used this model in his evangelism and so I believe that it works. Thoughts?

  12. I fully agree Paul; you cannot have one without the other. You can not share the gospel faithfully without helping people where they are. My main point is just that it is no good committing to social action without the gospel. I only see a distinction in the sense that it would be far better for a poor (just an example) person to hear the gospel and believe, and stay poor, than to be helped out of their situation and not hear the gospel…hypothetically. Works are the fruit of a changed heart, therefore we should be improving and increasing in generosity and service to our neighbors.

    But again, I fully agree with your point Paul, there is no point separating them, only to note that peoples spiritual situation is more important than their physical.

  13. Question is, then; what is the gospel?

    (As I mentioned earlier, I think we have a truncated version of the gospel if it is separated from good works/social action. So what is it?)

  14. Well I guess it depends how dogmatic the interpretation is. It could be referring to the synoptic gospels, in which case one would be referring to a book. However in the sense I use it, it is a pronouncement of the Lordship of Jesus; which is in itself. I was reading some of Wrights work, however i feel that even if Paul is referring to the gospel as meaning that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord, then that surely is good news, as well as possible salvation for all the world! please correct me if I am wrong.

    I would refer to the gospel as being an important pronouncement that Jesus is Lord, has died in our place and therefore we (if we submit to His Lordship) do not have to face judgment.

  15. I totally agree.

    However I would also say the picture is much bigger too. If the gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord, what does THAT mean?

    One thing I think it means is that “eternal salvation” and social salvation are all caught up in the same process of God uniting all things under Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10).

    I agree Jesus’ Lordship means substitutionary atonement (he died in our place). I don’t think that means we escape judgment, I think it means we can be confident we will be judged “in the right” (justification). But even more than that the fact of Jesus’ Lordship means the powers of evil have been once-for-all defeated, including sin and death, though the full effects are yet to be seen (Christus Victor). The question for us, then, is what does Christ’s cosmic victory (ala Ephesians) mean for us today?

    By the way there is a great dialogue going on here. Not only is there a rich resource of information, but also notice how people are coming together – their views are more united than they were a week ago. Exciting!

    MCA

  16. Wow what a great conversation. Having been directed here by a friend i must say i appreciate the depth and breadth of the discussion.

    I certainly will be visiting again.
    God bless

  17. Welcome Adin! Hope you find something of help and use here. Please get involved in the discussions (especially as I start to post more stuff).

    MCA

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