One Hell of a Motivator

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graphic: sebastien cuypers

Let’s be honest: blogging about hell just isn’t that hot anymore.

Love Wins is now well over two years old. The battle lines over North American (mainly, neo-reformed) evangelical orthodoxy have been drawn in bold print and ALL CAPS. Universalism, however “hopeful” it may be, has been roundly condemned, if not dismissed, as a heterodox innovation for wussy coward Christians who just don’t have the spine for preaching a Jesus who doubles as a concentration camp warden in the world to come.

But listen. I just watched Kevin Miller’s Hellbound? documentary, and all the fiery debate came rushing back to memory. Along with some fresh insight and inspiration regarding the goodness of God and the gospel.

So here’s another blog post about hell, even if it’s totally two thousand and late.

The insight and inspiration have to do with motivation. Because that’s the role that hell serves in our modern evangelical framework, right? Hell is the ultimate motivator – it (literally) lights a fire under our asses and gets us believing, obeying, serving, and tithing. My old Baptist pastor used to warn the congregation that the only real proof of salvation and election – and getting out of hell – was “love of the brethren,” serving and giving to the church. See, hell motivates.

And really, hell gets us salvation. Hell gets us heaven. We can’t even fathom the latter without the former, and the latter is defined almost entirely as the negation of the former. As one popular evangelical radio host said in the documentary, the whole panoply of scripture is pointing us to one thing: hell and the way of avoiding it.

So what would happen if we lost it?

What, then, would motivate us – why would we believe or obey or anything else?

And how on earth would we begin to understand salvation and heaven and gospel and all that stuff?

First off, it should immediately strike us as problematic that this one card brings the evangelical house down. But if that’s not enough, something else should trouble us: context. Specifically, the fact that not one famous conservative evangelical leader (like, say, Mark Driscoll) who promotes eternal conscious torment (ECT) can seem to respond to the strongest first-century contextual points made by the very best New Testament scholars, to the tune that the Gospels are primarily concerned with the judgment and destruction immediately approaching the Judean community in 70 A.D. Instead, they simply keep beating the same systematic drum: everyone who fails to come to faith in Christ is a sinner who will be tortured for all eternity in hell, and Jesus talked about it all the time. Full stop.

And the big motivator keeps firing away, and the institutions keep humming along, and the faithful remain obedient and committed.

But see, I think there’s a better motivator that will lead us to a better church.

And it requires that we lose hell, at least as we’ve known it. It requires that we rescue Jesus from the concentration camp gig that he never signed up for in the first place. It requires that we counter Dante and Augustine and Edwards with a truly human, world-and-life-affirming, divinely perfect justice – one that does not confuse the oppressed with the oppressors and does not sentence unbelieving Jewish Holocaust victims to a far worse and forever holocaust shortly after death in hell’s darkness and fire. One that doesn’t jump through ideological hoops and lean on intellectual formulae to justify inhumane injustice that contradicts even the most basic valuing of human life. This madness simply does not square with what we know of God through Jesus the Liberating King.

Because honestly, that hellish motivator often mechanizes a diabolical culture of abuse in the church as we know it. It elicits action from us by striking fear into us. It inaugurates leaders among us who hold the keys to our elect escape hatch and who may just see fit to bar the door in order to get the submission they want from us. (It at least gives them unthinkable power.) It creates a culture of us vs. them and in vs. out, and legitimates the demonizing of regular, beautiful people because of ideological differences. It paints a fundamentally angry God who only loves the lucky.

And it beats a false, guilty gratitude into us using the age-old hammer of shame.

Yes, we need better motivation.

And I propose that the better way is new creation.

The motivator of new creation just might replace the old culture of shame and abuse with the goodness of God and the gospel. It just might pull the church forward into her flourishing for these next 500 years of her history by making salvation so much bigger than the negation of torment, and so much better than the avoidance of punishment. Instead, new creation casts a vision for healing in the world and in ourselves that is rooted in the singular life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Liberating King and therefore guaranteed to come to fullness and fruition in the restoration and reconciliation of all things. It is a way of seeing the world that changes the world not through threat of torment but the audacity of hope (to borrow a phrase).

New creation draws us into a story whereby those who come to faith in Messiah and are baptized into his church repent of the ways in which we contribute to the hell, to the destruction, that is already underway in ourselves and the world around us, and instead seek healing and peace. It transforms us precisely by removing the fear of meaninglessness and death that seems to plague our darkest experiences in a broken world. But conversion in this paradigm does not suddenly make us better than others, nor even ideologically superior, but rather uniquely called to humbly extend this hope of guaranteed healing of all that is broken through the decisive and subversive victory of Jesus over sin and death. And this, not because every Tom, Dick, and Mary deserves to burn forever in hell and only Christians have the keys to the escape hatch, but rather because the whole world and every person in it, just like us, is engulfed in some hell or another right now, leading to death, and there is still true, ultimate hope in the midst of it all, through Jesus and Jesus alone.

Thus, the motivation of new creation is not avoidance but invitation. Not shame but ongoing, unfolding freedom. Not fear but love and grace, plain and simple.

The documentary that inspired me to bring hell back in this post argued for an evangelical kind of universalism – and I so appreciated the cogent and convincing way in which that view was put forward. But technical universalism (where everyone is saved for eternal life in the end) is not even a necessity if new creation is guiding us. Rather, God’s perfect justice becomes the sure and certain truth to hang our hat on – he will judge with justice, in accordance with the nature of the deeds actually committed. That abusers and oppressors and those who wreak havoc and destruction will not enter the fullness of new creation in the end is not a bane but a comfort, as exclusion is necessary for true embrace. It’s a safety; God is not soft on these things, and his love requires anger toward injustice.

Yet, we do not know the extent of God’s inclusion, either. The goodness of God and the gospel inspire us to believe that while assurance of entrance into the fully redeemed world to come rests in trusting and following Jesus now, while there is still breath in our lungs, the covenant-maker is Jesus and he decides the terms on who gets grafted in. This is at least a hopeful inclusion; and it makes room for hopeful universalism too.

The point is, none of this entails the motivation of a cruel concentration camp with a torturous warden. 

Because a better church is one that worships a fundamentally loving God who has begun to make all the broken things new already, and will set all things right in the end, and gives us a hope unlike anything else available in all the world.

A church on fire with a passion for new creation.

Which is, of course, one hell of a motivator.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! /2Cor.5

So, what do you think? Have I fully abandoned the waters of orthodoxy for the desert of heresy? Or am I onto something here? Would love to hear your thoughts/pushback!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012.

  • http://www.AmyThedinga.com/ Amy Thedinga

    It’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance…  He is not willing that any should perish…  I don’t know how we can miss or interpret these verses into anything other than hopefulness.  But having grown up under fire and brimstone preaching, I’m afraid to abandon the hard and fast teaching on ECT.  I mean, what if we get this wrong?  People’s eternal soul’s are at stake.  But there is no fear in love.  Fear of hell is not what motivated Christ to go to the cross and it shouldn’t be our motivation for loving him and our brothers and sisters.  This is one of the most thoughtful and coherent dealings on the subject I have read.  Thanks Zach.

    • chrislinzey

      Amy Thedinga Hope in Jesus does not have to eliminate the truth of Hell. How you define Hell and ECT sets the stage for how we respond to it. We have been inundated with Dante’s vision that it’s hard to imagine anything else. Personally, I love C.S. Lewis’ vision in “The Great Divorce.”

  • chrislinzey

    I agree that Hell (are we supposed to capitalize it?) is overplayed in Evangelical Christianity. It occupies a fractional percentage of verses in the NT. Even the places that do talk about don’t give it the picture that the contemporary church does (thank you, Dante, for putting your stamp on the Church).
    I contend that all of the 2nd Coming texts in Scripture are not about instilling fear and dread but rather about giving hope! Look at all of the passages Paul and Peter use to address Christ’s return – they aren’t about Hell. They are about the hope that is coming, and because of the hope that is coming let us be motivated to righteous living as we prepare for Christ’s return. Hell is not the Apostles’ motivator – hope in Jesus Christ is.

  • http://www.wordhavering.wordpress.com/ Wordhaver

    I cut my teeth in ECT afterlife theology over thirty years ago. Removing the plank of ECT hell as we know and preach it from our platform fundamentally disrupts Calvinist/Reformed theology, especially, which is why there is such violent push back. I must confess, for myself, though I have been in the process for some time of seeing a much larger, deeper, grander vision as you share here so effectively, it was watching Schindler’s List recently (and the Boy in Striped Pajamas) that became quite the internal catalyst in fundamentally undermining the notion that such scenes are the action of justice on any possible level for anyone. Since most Evangelicals would consider most Jews in such scenes as bound for hell without faith in Christ, the very thought of them (or anyone!) going through such hell in those gas chambers, only to be “resurrected” to more of the same, only now God is the Fuhrer and this time it’s forever and ever, well, let’s just say it makes the Nazis merciful by comparison. At least the suffering they could inflict was only temporary. Though if they had the option of ECT for the Jews they exterminated, and it didn’t cost them any more to do it, I’m sure they would have opted for that in a heart beat. Definitely an issue with many, many layers. But just posting a “do not disturb” sign on it isn’t the answer. We just need to keep looking harder…

  • lisamamula

    Thanks for this post, Zach.  I’ve long since turned in my conservative evangelical credentials, so ditching the idea of ECT at the hands of Jonathan Edwards’ angry God doesn’t make me want to cry “heretic” at all.  And I think your points about the unimaginable power granted to the establishment by the use of the eternal damnation model, and the guilt-ridden false gratitude are SPOT ON.  I’m not interested in serving a god that would demand my obedience at the threat of eternal torment.  But a God that wants to rescue his creation?  That wants to restore and redeem, renew and remake?  I’m all in on that.

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ tristaanogre

    I don’t think you’re outside of orthodoxy…  I think there’s plenty of room in the Scriptural witness and in the historic tradition for an understanding that, if you’re not part of the redeemed Creation, that there is an ending… but an ending alone, not an ECT…  Hell is here on earth now… and when the consummation comes, Heaven will be on earth… anyone left out of it will simply just not be there…  eternal death, I believe, is the Scriptural phrase.. not eternal torment… just… no longer alive nor the possibility of coming back… just… finished…
    don’t know if that follows your mind set at all… but it’s how I’ve resolved the different for me.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      tristaanogre yeah, i think i lean toward some kind of annihilation/deterioration + hopeful inclusion. ect is (eternally) dead to me!

      • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ tristaanogre

        zachhoag tristaanogre The ONLY thing that still gives me pause…  Matthew 25… “weeping and gnashing of teeth”… Is Matthew 25 talking about the “to come” judgement?  Or is it talking about the “here and now” community?  Is it “both/and” and if so, how…  this and similar statements in other parables by Jesus give me, still, a wrestling point as to what’s in store for those “outside”…  I prefer the “annihilation” view as it seems to pass muster with most “final judgment” statements…  These phrases within the parables are WITHIN parables so, due to the teaching tool they are, are they meant to be “literal”. I’m no livestock, that’s for sure…  if I was, I think I’d prefer to be a goat… they’re MUCH smarter (having raised both as a kid).

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          tristaanogre zachhoag I think I’m with Wright in seeing everything in the Gospels as pertaining to 70 A.D., but that there are latent truths/principles that pertain to the final judgment as well. The point of matt. 25 in my opinion though is inclusion – that the unknowing helpers of the persecuted people of God find themselves welcomed into the kingdom while many of the religious conservatives are met with destruction (now/forever).

        • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ tristaanogre

          zachhoag in the context of Matthew 24, yes, I’d agree with the teaching being primarily a commentary against the religious elite who cry “Lord, Lord” and yet don’t “look” like righteous people in their actions.
          And yet, outside of Matthew 24 (look at chapter 8, chapter 13, and chapter 22) there are again judgements that seem to point to something else going on.
          Please note… I’m not trying to argue for ECT…  just trying to recognize that even the annihilation view has some holes that we might not be able to easily fill.  Perhaps even these passages point to 70 AD… but you’d have to accept a later dating of the gospels post Jerusalem destruction rather than a pre-destruction authorship…  
          In any case, regardless of the existence of ECT or not… I do agree with one thing unequivically… as motivating as fear of hell maybe, the sacrificial love shown by someone who went through hell on earth for us and then resurrected to give us hope beyond the fear of death is a much clear clarion call in the gospels.  Jesus “gospelized”, not through fear, but through love… we should do the same.

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          tristaanogre zachhoag No, I’m saying they were written before 70, but Jesus was foretelling the destruction using apocalyptic language (as prophets usually did). 70 AD was eschatalogical though, a real “end” to the old “world.” And it was a decisive judgment, a firstfruits of final judgment.

        • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ tristaanogre

          zachhoag tristaanogre Gotcha… that makes sense.

  • MAGuyton

    Hell is persisting in the self-justification that eternally isolates us from God and other people. Period.

  • Chris

    Well…I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not sure if you’ve thought this through enough, yet…The last line of your article is quoting 2 Cor 5, but if you wanna quote that as in some way being authoritative, then let’s not forget about 1 Cor 15:22 :) Universalism is the only tenable, intellectually honest conclusion to come to about God, if we are going to affirm that God IS love, as the New Testament clearly (and I think I can really say clearly here without being in any way enigmatic) portrays; 1 John 4:18,19.
    So, if we as Christians are going to talk about God’s love, then let’s just get on with it and exclaim (proclaim) that God is in fact in the PROCESS of saving each and every one of us, and dispatch with all of the the platitudes about being “hopeful.” If God isn’t going to save us all, then really, what’s the friggin’ point? ;)

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @Chris appreciate your passion here! do you struggle at all with elements of God’s justice in a universalist framework? i do. so i lean more toward folks like volf and wright on this stuff. but i’m 100% with you in renouncing ECT :).

      • Chris

        zachhoag No, I used to, but once I realized that if I could believe God created and sustains the universe, through Jesus, as Colossians 1 says, then it really wasn’t that far of a leap for me to get to a place in my thinking where God was able to right every wrong, however long that will take, and however messy that will be. Don’t get me wrong; I still struggle, and I in no way have it all figured out, but I decided that if I’m going to believe in God, and that God says that he is love (like 1 Cor 13 says), then there’s only one place to go, in my thinking, and it stemms directly from passages like Romans 11:32, 1 Cor 13:12, Luke 23:34, and others, which make it plain that we are ignorant and clueless, for the most part, to what God is up to, specifically when it comes to the ways in which he loves us, and that is to say, how the world “works.” In light of the present darkness (no pun intended, well maybe), it doesn’t make sense that God would punish people for not understanding how he works and what he does- for what he does is who he is- his character is tied up in his actions; unlike us, who seem to be able to speak out of both sides of our mouths, God is said to not ever change, so if that’s true, and he was, at least for the most part, revealed in Jesus and the rest of the NT which divulges his love for us all, then, like 1 John 4 says, there is no fear in love, but that doesn’t mean I understand how this whole thing works out…:)

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          @Chris zachhoag I definitely hear you. My main concern is not marginalizing choices made in the present or positing a total change of personhood in the new creation. So that leads me to say, if you choose to be an abuser, killer, etc. now, then that has clear ramifications later. There is a wrong road going in the wrong direction, and if you choose that road, there are consequences. Thus, we can hand all things over to God and be nonviolent and nonretributive now because vengeance/justice belongs to him, etc. 
          That said, ECT is not just! That’s the problem – it is not in any way fair by any definition of fairness. So I think that there are clearly some who will not enter in by their own choosing destruction now, and the only way to ensure entrance is in Christ by receiving grace. now But, there will be surprising inclusion as well.

    • jcarlostzavala

      @Chris I’m with you Chris. I think crediting God with anything short of ultimate reconciliation for every person is worthy of Him.

  • john morris

    Thanks Zach for this post. These thoughts have been brewing in me as well for quite some time. The 2nd Adam, restored and in process of restoring all that was lost. The idea that I can be restored back into a right relationship of God, by what Christ did, should by itself motivate us to want to accept this greatest gift. I believe there is a lot of room here, and I am glad to see your post, thanks again for the encouragement. John Morris.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @john morris thanks John, appreciate that.

  • Greg Flagg

    One of my struggles with using Hell and ECT as some kind of motivator is
    that we essentially start looking around the room and evaluating who
    gets in and who gets thrown out.  More often than not, this line of
    reasoning turns us into judge and jury since usually “we” are always in and “they” must be out.  We expect love and grace for us, but heap judgment and punishment on them.  Seems to me that Jesus
    constantly reminds us that we will be surprised who gets in and who gets
    thrown out (Matthew 7:21, 25:37 and 44), and that it’s not so much about
    what we believe and what we say, but more about what we do for the Kingdom that determines where our citizenship (now and eternal) lies.  
    I really appreciate your last paragraphs that attempt to strike a balance between the necessity of  judgment/justice and our hope for inclusion/grace.  I once surprised a friend when I admitted that I wasn’t sure I was going to Heaven or not.  Yes, I go to church.  Yes, I consider myself a Christian.  Yes, I can generally check all the “required” boxes.  But, getting into (or out of) wherever I’ll spend eternity is ultimately not my decision.  I expect justice, but I hope for grace. I acknowledge that I’m on the process of sanctification, but I have not arrived yet.  Like you said, “we do not know the extent of God’s inclusion”, which can point to me just as much as my neighbor.  I think this is a better way to humbly live out our faith as we are able to see our neighbors on the same path we are.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      Greg Flagg thanks greg. agree with your premis here. i do wonder though – is there still a place for ‘blessed assurance’?

      • Greg Flagg

        zachhoag I think there is a place for “blessed assurance” even though I’m wary of using hymns that are truly near and dear to my heart to also support my theology.  Paul does talk about the Holy Spirit being given as a “deposit” or as a “seal” of our inheritance and redemption.  When clarifying to my friend, I essentially said I was pretty sure (maybe even 99%) that I was “saved”, but I was not willing to make the jump to completely sure since I am not God and am not in the place to make those judgments.  However, even the language of a “deposit” and a “seal” speaks of a promise that has yet to be fulfilled.  I do believe that God’s checks will not bounce and the ransom price paid seals the deal, but it is God’s victory and not mine.  I am graciously invited (or drug in off the streets) to the table, not passing out invitations or taking RSVP’s.

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          Greg Flagg zachhoag yeah. my sense is that the evangelical ‘rules’ (salvation by grace through faith not works of law) applies in the positive, giving us true assurance. But the evangelical ECT-damnation narrative doesn’t apply in the negative. Exclusion thus is not eternal torture; and inclusion is by grace thru faith (& following Jesus) PLUS whomever else God deems included for whatever reasons! Etc.

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  • matthewhaller3

    Zach, to answer your question, you are certainly breaking orthodoxy here. It is virtually impossible to *not* break *someone’s* expectations when we speak openly and honestly about our faith. Interesting use of the term “diabolical culture of abuse.” I can’t help but think of Matt 23:15.


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