Why Evangelicalism Fails: Hell as Outdated Marketing

Why Evangelicalism Fails: Hell as Outdated Marketing March 22, 2016

Recently I was reading a blog post by a Christian* who was very, very concerned about exactly what his religion asserts about Hell. His post and the comments to it illustrate a concept we’ve been talking about lately about the marketing of Christianity–evangelicalism in particular. Today we’ll be talking about one of the reasons why their marketing is starting to fail so hard.

Do these cuties remind you of a certain failed but long-running advertising campaign? (Credit: Ivette De La Garza, CC-SA license.)
Do these cuties remind you of a certain failed but long-running advertising campaign? (Credit: Ivette De La Garza, CC-SA license.)

One of our dear friends, Ficino, showed up in the comments to that Christian’s post to ask a few pointed questions about “the Christian business model,” and you could have seen the Christians there bristling from outer space! But he had a good point, one that very few folks there cared to address except to confirm that yes, indeed, their religion was a sooper speshul business model that was totally different from all other business models, so shut up, that’s why. Then they went back to their argument.

It’s not like Christians aren’t well aware of what non-believers think of their conceptualization of the afterlife. It’s not like they don’t know that many of us consider their threats of Hell to be all the evidence we need that their religion isn’t objectively true–and certainly not based around love. But they can’t let go of the idea of it.

Why is threatening people with Hell so important to so many evangelicals?

A Question More Important Than the Great Command.

Preston Sprinkle, the author of that blog post, says that he’s “been wrestling with the concept of hell [sic] for quite some time.”

I’m sure he has. It’s a popular subject in his crowd.

He is so moved by this question that he has written a book about it and is having a “dialogue” with other Christians of differing opinions, leading him to graciously allow that maybe, just maybe, sometimes, on rare occasions, someone makes a point he can’t get around:

I’m still not convinced [by a friend’s essay about Universalism**], but I no longer consider this view to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy. Certain forms of it, anyway.

Well, that’s mighty kind of him to make that carefully-qualified concession, but last I saw, the Bible has Jesus telling Christians to do two things: to “love the Lord with all their might” and “to love their neighbor as themselves.” Hell is easily one of the most obscenely malevolent concepts humanity could possibly ever dream up, but then Christians top that feat twice over: first, by claiming that a merciful, loving god created such a place, and second, by threatening people with an eternity in this freakish nightmare they’ve devised as a punishment for defying their demands.

Nothing about how Christians engage with Hell sounds loving to me, no matter how they try to redefine love itself to give themselves permission to make such ghastly threats and to revel in such vengeful bloodlust. That was a problem for me, back when I was a Christian myself.

As a later addition to the Gospels, however, Christians are also commanded to try to convert everyone in sight to their religion, which writes them a much better permission slip to behave this way toward others. When we notice this newer, more comprehensive permission slip, all this fuss over Hell becomes a lot easier to understand (though no more flattering to the Christians using the threat).

When we see Christians arguing about the exact nature of their mythology’s afterlife, we need to remember they’re not just doing it for laughs and giggles. It’s not just an academic question. It’s actually far more important to them than debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

They’re doing it because they need to know what to threaten people with as part of their business model.

The Evangelical Business Model.

Evangelism at its core is a sales pitch meant to persuade people to join the evangelist’s tribe by converting to the evangelist’s religion. Evangelicals, by identifying with the very term itself, declare that evangelism is their primary objective. The evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, easily the largest denomination of Christians in the United States, even puts its mission statement front and center: “to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations.”

What they’re talking about is selling their beliefs. Christians are salespeople, all of them, and they must be ready at any moment to swoop down on any prospective sale. When I was Christian, that’s how I felt, and I get the feeling that many Christians today feel that same pressure I did once to make sales–which is to say, to convert people or at least to tell everyone possible of the necessity of conversion. The pressure to keep people’s butts in pews isn’t anywhere near as intense as the pressure to get those butts into pews in the first place, which is why evangelicals tend to focus a lot more on outreach than on retention.

This adoration of the Great Commission is easy to perceive once someone knows what to look for. Most evangelical churches’ mission statements include some variant of the idea of selling their beliefs to other people. Some of them have only this idea in their statement. The Great Command is often nowhere to be seen, trampled under by the rush to fulfill the Great Commission.

The Great Command tells Christians to love others. But the Great Commission tells them to make sales. These two motivations conflict with each other: it’s really hard to behave truly lovingly toward someone who is also a sales target, as the people Christians keep trying to evangelize could easily tell them. Since their sales pitch essentially works out to “You need to change to be more like me,” it feels even less like love and a lot more like control.

And how do most evangelicals sell this demand that their targets change to be more like them?

Fear and greed.

Oh, sure, you can find some Christians who try to sell their religion with the lovey-dovey soft-sell approach, but more often than not, what you hear out of Christian salespeople, especially out of evangelicals–who are, again, under the most pressure to convert others–are appeals to prospects’ fears or desires.

They’re well aware that all that sweet, lovey-dovey stuff doesn’t convert anybody. If sales–er, conversions–are the ultimate goal, then they’ve got to do what works or they will fail to meet their sales quotas.

An Idolatry of Sales.

The biggest clue to why Christianity is failing may well be found in those church mission statements and those endless squabbles about Hell.

People can’t prioritize everything in top place. They can only concentrate on prioritizing one or two things at a time. The other stuff, while important, gets relegated to second place and becomes something they’ll do only if they have time and energy left over from doing what they perceive as the most important assignments.

When making sales becomes more important to an organization than being honest and kind or treating other people with respect and compassion, then a certain number of members of that organization will start fudging numbers and taking morally questionable routes to make the most sales. That’s when the end starts justifying the means.

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a Christian church or a for-profit college, a pack of cheerleaders raising money for camp or a government bureaucracy. If the top mission for that group is “high sales,” then sooner or later a scandal will come tumbling out of the group’s closets, and that scandal will almost certainly relate to dodgy sales tactics.***

In Christianity, the dodgy sales tactics center around the use of threats and totally unkeepable promises. When those victims talk later about having been so afraid, or about being angry about all those unkept promises, they will of course be blamed for having Done Christianity All Wrong because people are supposed to be in it because they lurrrrrve Jesus, not because they were terrified of Hell or greedy for the perks promised constantly to believers.

The only officially-approved reason for converting is falling madly in love with Jesus. That’s the reason I gave too, and I think I felt that way for a little while at least. But to myself, I knew that I’d initially converted out of fear–fear of being Left Behind in the Rapture, fear of being sent to Hell, and always, always, fear of displeasing a god who demanded perfection of people who were categorically incapable of being perfect. Little wonder that Hell featured prominently in my appeals to others.

People tend to use arguments that they personally find persuasive, and I was no exception. If my sales targets weren’t scared enough by the idea of going to Hell, then obviously I simply hadn’t found the right threats to use–which was my fault. If you’ve been noticing, as I have, that Christians’ descriptions of Hell keep getting more and more grotesque, violent, and lurid, that might well be why!

I knew other Christians whose sales appeals centered around greed. They promised that those converting would find meaning in their lives, achieve inner peace, learn discernment, be among friends, gain healing for their sicknesses and emotional problems, and be given prosperity. But these were a lot trickier to manage and required that the marks be so greedy that they never actually noticed the vast number of Christians who were poor, gullible, unlucky, angry, lonely, and desperate–or else found a way to discount all those “failures” somehow. Threats–especially ones that were intangible, nebulous, hugely out of proportion, impossible to prove, and centering around a future unknown date–worked a lot better.

The conversion was the important thing: the sale. Once the convert had parked his or her butt in the pew, then the mythology around love could waft in on the breeze. I remember how that went; after a while, I even convinced myself that I’d converted for love. I haven’t heard many Christians talking about converting out of fear or greed! In the insular bubble of the fundagelical world, nobody thinks about what they’re really saying here:

“He promised me a mansion made of solid gold and my own private plane, but that totally had nothing to do with my decision to marry him. Really. I love him for his humanity.”

That’s bad, but not as bad as the other branch of evangelical marketing:

“I didn’t realize how much I loved him until he threatened to torture me and said he’d set my whole family on fire if I didn’t marry him.”

Gosh, Which Threat Should They Use?

Preston Sprinkle and his pals want to know what version of Hell to use in their evangelism efforts. Hell isn’t part of the “greed” end of evangelical marketing; it’s firmly situated on the “threats” end of the scale, which most evangelicals think is far more effective and “Biblical” than luring people with prosperity gospel. That’s why they’re so caught up in figuring out exactly and precisely what their mythology says on the topic of Hell.

Do they frighten people based on an eternal-punitive-torture model of Hell, or do they threaten dissenters with total annihilation?

A torture-free, threat-free, fearless, painless afterlife means that threats, as a marketing tactic, become completely nullified.

And that idea is a huge problem for evangelicals.

I’ve tangled with Christians who, when asked what would happen if they found out tomorrow that Hell totally doesn’t exist, immediately replied, “If there’s no Hell, then why are we doing all this?” They’re well aware of what it’d mean for evangelical-style evangelism as a whole if Hell stopped being a concern. And they’re honest enough to know that if they hadn’t been scared of going to Hell, they wouldn’t be Christians at all.

The Problem With Idolizing Sales.

Evangelicals have been using threats and greed to sell their religion for so long that the idea of using anything else as a marketing tactic must strike them as vaguely heretical. In the real world, when a marketing campaign stops returning dividends, the company sponsoring that campaign can adapt by getting a new one or seriously tweaking the old one. That pragmatism isn’t possible for evangelicals, who have elevated their current marketing tactics to dogmatic ideals in and of themselves. I don’t think they’d know what to do with themselves if their leaders unequivocally told them to quit using fear or greed against people to get them to convert.

What would Christianity look like if Christians had to sell it solely on the basis of love, charity, and compassion (or, gods forbid, actual evidence), and couldn’t use threats or greed to convert others?

What kind of religion would result from that marketing?

What kind of people would its adherents be?

I strongly suspect, based on the Christians I actually know who try very hard to be loving, charitable, and compassionate, that they would be a helluva lot closer to what Jesus told his followers to be like than the ones trying so hard to make sales that they’ve forgotten completely what love looks like.

Ultimately, What’s the Real Goal Here?

Compassionate Christians aren’t going to convert me, no. That’s true. The evangelicals using that as a slam-dunk rebuttal are, in fact, correct. Sometimes someone is so impressed by a loving, kind Christian that they do join that Christian’s church, and sometimes a non-believer will–out of love for their spouse or family–join a nice church because they genuinely like the people there and think it’s doing good in the world. It’s not my thing, but I know of more than a few people in such situations.

But then again, the Christians using threats and greed to try to convert me aren’t going to do so either.

I’m simply not afraid of that which frightens that second group, and I’m not greedy enough to ignore the numerous signs of dysfunction in Christian groups. Neither the carrot nor the stick will work on me.

Of the two types of Christian, though, only one of them is fulfilling Jesus’ command to love me.

If neither group is going to make the sale, would they rather not-make-the-sale by being loving, or by threatening me or trying to arouse my greed?

Is it so important to them to try to make a sale that they’ll ignore what Jesus told them to do because they know it’d cost them sales to do all that boring stuff they don’t want to do in the first place?

Because if so, then I think we know what the problem is for evangelicals:

They’ve gotten so caught up in the Great Commission that they’ve forgotten the Great Command.

And since they’re the ones who largely think they’ll be tortured forever for “missing the mark,” I’d say they’ve got a big problem on their hands. Not us, because we know their efforts to stoke fear and greed are nothing but sales pitches for something that isn’t real. But when the Christians peddling fear and greed can’t even live by their religion’s demands, it becomes crystal-clear that they don’t take it seriously themselves.

In other words, their ideology is about sales, and specifically it’s about signing up new salespeople, not about actually using their own product.

Yes, I just compared Christian evangelicals to drones in a multi-level marketing (MLM) scam.

And just as MLM companies are finding their sales dropping as more and more people discover that these scams aren’t actually legitimate income sources, Christianity’s adherents are finding out in greater and greater numbers that the thing they were so afraid of isn’t real, and that the things they were promised aren’t materializing.

Time will tell if Christians figure out that their marketing model doesn’t work. Right now they’re so caught up in using fear and greed to sell their religion that most of them bristle visibly when someone even suggests that maybe it’s not the best way to live out the commands of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love.

In the meanwhile, I suggest this to anybody facing a sales pitch based on threats or greed: be aware that your most primal fears and desires are easily manipulated to sell you stuff. Don’t fall for such tactics. If someone can’t sell you something based on the facts and can’t credibly demonstrate any benefits you’ll gain in buying that thing or any risks you run in not buying that thing, don’t do it.

The people who use these tactics are tacitly admitting to your face that they can’t make their sales any other way.

Could there exist a better sign that Christians are losing their dominance?


* If anyone has trouble seeing archive.is links, let me know. I’ve heard rumors that they don’t work in Norway but donotlink is being a pain.

** Universalism means “everyone is eventually reconciled with the Christian god by some means,” so nobody ever actually goes to Hell–or if they do, it’s not permanent. “Annihilation,” in this context, means that those people who go to Hell will die there, meaning they don’t really suffer aside from that whole obliteration thing. And if you’re a little disturbed by the grotesque way he ended his post (“Next up, Jerry Shepherd’s post defending eternal conscious torment!”), as if the idea of his “loving” god torturing people forever and ever is like an upcoming episode of his favorite reality show, then you’re not alone there. 

*** I could tell some seriously whack stories here about the call centers I’ve worked in. It’s just astonishing to me that anybody calls them.

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