There are many approaches to sharing the word of God.
One that I find problematic is the “hell, fire, and brimstone” approach to sharing God’s message. It is an approach that is repugnant, ridiculed or confusing to some, but embraced by others in varying degrees as a warning.
At issue is the weight Christians should give to the consequences of not following God’s will — and whether, and to what extent, those consequences should be used to warn, motivate, and/or terrorize believers and unbelievers?
God loves us. He wants us to love, trust, and obey Him. He desires us to serve Him of our own free will, not make us into His prisoners or slaves. God gives us a choice whether to love, trust and obey Him. It seems not only fair, but also merciful, that God tells us the consequences of disobedience before we place our trust in something or someone other than Jesus. In today’s terms, it’s the concept of “full disclosure.”
Jesus warns of the consequences to people who are disobedient to God, including:
- “…But from the man who is unfaithful, even what little responsibility he has shall be taken from him. And throw the useless servant out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 23: 29-30)
- “Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison and you didn’t visit me.’ Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of my brothers, you were refusing to help me.’ And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life.” (Matthew 26:41-46)
- “There was a certain rich man,’ Jesus said, ‘who was splendidly clothed and lived each day in mirth and luxury. One day Lazarus, a diseased beggar, was laid at his door. As he lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores, Finally the beggar died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham in the place of the righteous dead (literally, ‘into Abraham’s bosom.’) The rich man also dies and was buried, and his soul went into hell (literally, ‘into Hades’). There in torment, he saw Lazarus in the far distance with Abraham. ‘Father Abraham,’ he shouted, ‘have some pity!’… But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us, and anyone wanting to come to you from here is stopped at its edge; and no one over there can cross to us.” (Luke 16:19-26)
Jesus came not to punish and terrorize us into submission to God’s Will by describing the hell that awaits us when we sin – Jesus came to save us from it. God offers us a divine way out of a very tragic ending to our sinful lives, but only if we want it: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” (John 3: 16-17) Jesus promises salvation if we trust Him to save us and obey God’s will.
In truth, I’m not sure whether to read the depictions of hell literally. I grapple with whether hell is a real place or the descriptions of it are metaphors? For me, it doesn’t matter; either way it’s clear that “hell” is separation from God – a concept which I find unbearable. Separation from God is my concept of hell, whether on earth or in the hereafter. The threat of a “hell, fire, and brimstone” afterlife is less terrifying to me than the idea of being separated from my Heavenly Father.
The decision whether to trust and obey Jesus is a personal one. “And all who trust him — God’s son — to save them have eternal life; those who don’t believe and obey him shall never see heaven, but the wrath of God remains upon them.” (John 3:36) But make no mistake, the decision whether to trust and obey Jesus is a decision we must make. As long as we procrastinate or remain undecided, our indecision plays into the hands of God’s enemy. Indecision is the same thing as choosing no salvation at all.