Four Dilemmas Every Evangelical Faces

It’s the afternoon of April 17, 2013. You’re a worker at the West Fertilizer Company in central Texas. By some miracle you are given a glimpse into the future. You’re able to see the fire and explosion that will take place later that day. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

At this point you’d have a choice: you could be courageous and warn as many people as possible of the coming destruction. Or you could slip quietly away to save yourself, telling no one of the impending disaster for fear of being seen as a fool.

This scenario illustrates the first dilemma of evangelicalism:

We believe in a fiery destruction known as hell, but we’re often hesitant to warn people about it because we sound so foolish – even to ourselves.


The End Is Near
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Let’s admit it: we’re embarrassed to believe in hell. Want to stop a great conversation in its tracks? Bring up the subject of eternal judgment. Speaking of hell makes us sound like backward, uneducated yokels. It conjures up images of bearded crazies carrying signs in parks.

But just because we don’t like talking about hell doesn’t mean it’s not real. Hell is not some doctrinal relic tucked away in a musty corner of the Old Testament. The concept of eternal punishment is primarily a New Testament teaching. Jesus speaks of hell far more than anyone else in the Bible. Christ describes it as a real place of damnation, torments, and fire that shall not be quenched.

For Evangelicals, sharing our faith is more than just a way of helping people live better lives. It can literally mean the difference in where a soul spends eternity.

In order to make that transition from death-to-life as easy as possible, we want to make our churches as welcoming as possible. We want to remove every barrier so that everyone has the opportunity to hear Jesus’ extravagant offer of salvation.

Which leads us to the second dilemma of evangelicalism.

Do we lower the bar so many can be saved? Or do we raise the bar to produce more faithful disciples?

Lowering the bar results in more conversions. Yet many of these are false conversions.

How many times have you heard someone say, “The meeting was great! Over 300 people gave their hearts to the Lord!” Yet everyone realizes that many of those 300 will experience very little life change – and most will fall away. Barna research found that more than half of the people who “invite Jesus into their hearts” have no discernible faith within eight weeks of making such a decision.

The second dilemma shows up in the scriptures themselves.

The Bible sets a fairly low bar for salvation. Simply believe in Jesus, and you’ll go to heaven:

John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Romans 10:9: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Furthermore, the Scriptures tell us that God longs for our salvation, and takes no pleasure in our destruction:

2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

John 3:17: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

But Jesus sets a very high bar for his disciples, asking for an all-in, total commitment:

Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:33: In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

Matthew 8:21-22: Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

This leads us to the third dilemma:

Salvation is easy, but discipleship is tough.

At Church for Men, we wrestle with this dilemma all the time. When it comes to reaching men, I advocate a more rigorous approach to discipleship. I look at how demanding Jesus was and how effective he was at mobilizing men. And studies have shown that the most demanding churches produce the most committed disciples.

Yet such an approach will always turn some men away. It did in Jesus’ day (John 6:66) and it will today.

Which leads us to the fourth dilemma:

If I follow Jesus’ tough love example, my actions could end up driving someone away from their best chance to be saved from hell.

If I press too hard on a newcomer, I risk alienating him from God. This did not seem to concern Jesus, yet it greatly concerns me, as I will have to one day give an account for my actions (Rom. 14:12). And if one of my actions led someone away from Christ, even if my motives were pure, I risk bringing judgment upon myself.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s struggled with these four dilemmas. I think this is why we’ve set the bar so low on church membership. Our motives are pure – we want as many people as possible to hear the good news. But in doing so, we fail to stir the hearts of men, who secretly long for a more challenging, rigorous faith.

My next post will examine the reasons hell has gone out of fashion, and what that’s doing to the faith of men. In the meantime, use the comment form below to discuss the ways you’ve struggled with the four dilemmas of evangelicalism:

  1. We believe in a fiery destruction known as hell, but we’re often hesitant to warn people about it because we sound so foolish – even to ourselves.
  2. Do we lower the bar so many can be saved? Or do we raise the bar to produce more faithful disciples?
  3. Salvation is easy, but discipleship is tough.
  4. If we follow Jesus’ tough love example, our actions could end up driving someone away from their best chance to be saved from hell.
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  • Tom Hilpert

    Very well put, David! Tough, important, real questions. A few thoughts:

    John 3:18 (right after 17, which you quoted above) says: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

    I once had a man read that verse out loud, and it led to his salvation on the spot, even though it sounds “condemning” to me. It was a salvation that lasted, at least as long as I knew him (we lost touch a few years ago).

    Another thought: the NT word for “believe” is probably better translated “trust.” In other words, it isn’t just some kind of objective mental assent. It is an active trust that saves us. In my mind, this makes the “salvation bar” a little higher than it might first appear.

    I really struggle with the idea of separating salvation and discipleship. Is salvation genuine if there is no discipleship? I think James would say “no.” We don’t receive from God by our own effort. And yet, if our lives are unchanged, did we really receive anything real?

    Thanks for the post!

  • Brian Bowman

    Jesus never spoke of Hell even once, with Hell being a pagan Nordic goddess of the underworld who was mendaciously inserted into the Bible in the place of what Jesus did say. Yes, he did speak of the “grave” (sheol), which got translated into “grave” for when a good man dies, and “Hell” for when a bad man dies. That’s hinky. And he spoke of “Gehenna,” a valley with cultural meaning located near Jerusalem. Hell, it’s a tourist attraction nowadays. Therefore, the main dilemma for literalist evangelicals is that Hell is—quite literally—not in the Bible.

    Another dilemma for evangelicals is that Jesus taught against literal interpretations. Parables, analogies, and metaphors are properly understood in a literary, not literal, sense. To take Jesus’ teachings literally is to miss the whole point, as Jesus had to explain to the literalist Nicodemus about being “born again.”

    Yet another difficulty for Hell-bringers is the abject immorality of coercively torturing people for the “crime” of merely thinking differently. If the torture theology of Hell is moral, then it’s moral for a father to torture his children for doubting his yesteryear stories of flying. Such torture to coerce children to believe dad’s old aviation tales would be criminal behavior. The immoral bent of Hell-bringers carries significantly into sociopolitical life. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public did a survey in 2009, “The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate” and found that “Christian devotion correlates with approval for absolute evil in America,” as Andrew Sullivan penned in The Atlantic essay entitled, “Jesus Wept.” Hell-bringers aren’t mere “yokels” with a PR problem, they’re pro-torture degenerates in need of the very grace of God they so dreadfully misunderstand.

    Men should repent, as the good book says. I’ve repented of my former belief in an fraudulent and immoral torture theology; you can and should too.

    • David Murrow

      OK, so please answer these three questions:

      1. Did Jesus speak of eternal life? Yes or no.

      2. If yes, are there any consequences in eternity for how we live our lives here on earth? Yes or no.
      3. In light of questions 1 and 2, do you believe Adolph Hitler is enjoying eternal bliss at this moment?

      • Brian Bowman

        A single reply to go Full Godwin* well illustrates, as you say, “images of bearded crazies carrying signs in parks.”

        But do tell why my disbelief of your Torture theology—you purport that I’m going to be tortured in “Hell” for the ultimate sin of not believing in a magically dying/rising Savior, right?—is the moral equivalent, and deserves the same punishment, as the war crimes of the Nazis.

        The inability to discern between Hitler’s heinous war crimes and my critique of your theology digs your hole into moral depravity even deeper.

        P.S. Is Thomas Jefferson burning in Hell too? (He didn’t believe in any of the magical aspects attributed to Jesus, such as the resurrection or virgin birth.) “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter.” ~Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823
        * Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” ~/wiki/Godwin’s_law

        • David Murrow

          Please answer my questions and I will answer yours.

          • Brian Bowman

            You have evaded every single issue I brought up in my first post, yet I have to answer to a standard proselytizing inquisition?

            As we stand now, you cannot:

            (a) Show “Hell” in any honest translation of the Bible, because it is literally not to be found (because Hell is a pagan Nordic goddess of the underworld inserted into common translations in place of words for the grave or a valley that is a tourist attraction now.)

            (b) Explain why you insist on literalism when Jesus specifically taught against such untenable interpretation.

            (c) Give an account of your moral turpitude of equating skepticism of your magical Torture dogma with the heinous war crimes of the Nazis.

            Keep evading those issues if you wish; so much for 1 Peter 3:15.

          • David Murrow

            I ask you once again, please answer the three questions I posted earlier.
            Matthew 21:27

            So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

          • Brian Bowman

            Ah, the intellectually dishonest games that evangelicals play to evade critiques of their immoral Torture dogma.

            “Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals…except the weasel.” ~Homer Simpson

            You can’t answer questions, yet you petulantly demand I answer yours. I don’t take “answer the question!” orders from you.

            In other words, if you have a rebuttal, then rebut what I said. If not, then quit playing sophomoric games, and just admit that you have no rebuttal to offer.

            Besides, you’re not supposed to hide your rebuttal under a bushel. If you have any light to shine on the subject, let it shine. Matthew 5:15, Luke 11:33

  • Brian Bowman

    Eternal life? Such a concept is a fairly recent invention as religion has evolved—and even scripturally doubtful.

    “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” ~Ecclesiastes

    Seems we hairless great apes go the same place as Trigger and Lassie, back to the organic dust and the eternal, well, 4 billion years and counting, cycle of life on the surface of our planet.

    For the Bible tells me so.

    “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals…All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” ~Ecclesiastes

    Ecclesiastes’ narrative that handily dismisses a magical afterlife is preferable to the gaudy Tammy Faye “streets of gold” and “pearly gates” imagined as a flamboyant “paradise” in the mind of a “maniac,”* an ostentatious misery which I’d endeavor to escape if ever I found myself in it.

    * “It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the Apocalypse], and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to General Alexander Smyth, Jan. 17, 1825