I have been doing some thinking about hell lately and find the debate interesting. Some believe in a traditional view of hell with literal flames. Others see the flames as an image or metaphor for suffering torment, believing that fire itself will not be the source of eternal suffering, but separation from God will be. Still others believe that hell will be a place of torment until the final resurrection when those who have not given their hearts over to Jesus will face the “second death,” namely that they will cease from existence for eternity. There also is the group of folks that believe that hell is eternal and conscious but that after death some might have the chance to repent and leave hell and walk into the new creation. This is the “hell is locked from the inside” view that CS Lewis seemed to hint towards. These views all fit in the broad family of evangelical theology.
There is another group of Christians that believe hell is not a reality and that it therefore, no longer matters. Eventually, everyone will be saved. This view sounds quite hopeful, but what if those who teach such are in fact wrong? I am not one to preach “hell, fire, and brimstone” but I have to be blunt: the reality of hell, however it is ‘theologized,’ IS A MOTIVATION for the CHURCH TO DO evangelism. This may frustrate some of my more progressive readers but I believe that hell matters. It matters deeply. Why?
I am one who is willing to take the Bible and wrestle with it. If we have inherited a tradition of any kind that seems inconsistent with the sacred text, we ought to be willing to ask hard questions. The church of Jesus Christ should be the context in which this is safe. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some people are willing to accept tradition without engaging the text in this way. This is fine, but runs the risk of putting tradition above the Bible. Yet at the same time, there is equally the risk of throwing out any tradition that does not “feel good,” which is dangerous as well. I propose that this may in fact be happening with the hell dialogue.
There is a lot of room for questions about the “nature” of hell and the reality of eternal separation from God. What ever one comes up with, be it literal flames, metaphorical fire with real suffering, or annihilationism, the bottom line is that an eternity separated from God is the worst fate imaginable. People need to be saved from such a fate. They need to know what it is to experience God’s salvation from eternal separation. If we theologize until we are blue in the face and end up believing that hell is not real and that all will be saved – the first question we must then ask is: What if we are wrong? We may unintentionally lose one of many motivations for evangelism and in the process see more folks taking the highway to hell. I for one, do not want to be a pastor who might be accountable for the fate of those folks on that last day. This is one reason why hell still matters.
*Afterword: I am receiving many comments regarding the fact that for many non-Christians, the concept of hell is not a motivation for them to accept Jesus. Basically they are saying that it is God’s love that usually wins people over, not judgment. The argument then goes that the sermons in Acts do not use hell as a motivation for accepting Jesus as Lord, so my post is irrelevant. Please understand that this post is about one reason “we,” the people of God, should be motivated to evangelize. If hell might possibly be the end for the unsaved, we should care. I am not talking about motivating nonbelievers through the threat of damnation (whatever that ends up being like in the end). Hope that clarifies some issues for folks.