FAQ/Q&A Friday - What About Hell?

April 18, 2014

As you should know, we have dedicated our Friday postings to Frequently Asked Questions and Questions and Answers.  As a case in point, one of your number asked me this past week if I would do a posting about hell.  Here it is. Let this be an incentive for others of you to ask your questions, especially as the related to the vision statement of Interfaithfulness which is, “Exploring the synergy between Judaism and Christianity, partnership between Christians and Jews, and the relationship between God’s tomorrow and our today.”  But for now, to the question of the day: What about hell?

In 2002, I attended the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.  Riding from the airport to the hotel, a missionary to the Jews whom I hardy knew, without any foreplay whatsoever, badgered me with one question:  “Do you believe that a Jew who does not believe in Jesus goes to hell?”   Aside from being put off by his abrasive approach, I was mystified as to why, of all questions he might have selected, he chose this one to test  my orthodoxy?  Why this preoccupation with the population of perdition?[1]

images-5Of the eighteen evangelistic sermons in the Book of Acts, none uses the find- heaven-avoid-hell approach as a motivation either for missional engagement by the apostolic messengers, or for repentance by their hearers.  Neil Rees, International Coordinator for World Horizons International, forcefully reminds us of this when he sates that “The basic apostolic kerygma fails to mention hell as a motive for accepting the gospel message,” adding that “the apostles were perfectly capable of evangelizing without threatening their hearers with hell . . . [and] this is never developed in evangelistic preaching.”[2]  He states further that using the prospect of others going to hell as a goad for missionary action or financial support “succeeds only in producing feelings of self-condemnation rather than considered and solid commitment.”[3] Many find such statements so threatening to the status quo that they feel obliged to fight them off and denounce them.  But if evidence matters at all, Rees is right.

I am not saying I do not believe in hell, not anything of that sort. But I am saying that using the threat of hell or the prospect of heaven as a goad either for the messenger of the gospel or his/her hearer[s] is a cultural artifact and not a biblically demonstrated mandate. By “cultural artifact” all I mean is that missionaries have in times past, and especially in the 19th century, dwelt on this subject when dealing with pagans, with people who served idols rather than the living and true God, and whose lifestyles and/or experience of spiritual power underscored their separation from God. When we read the word “gentiles” in Paul’s writings, we would do well to substitute the words “idol worshipers” because that is what gentiles were in his day. They were, in the older sense of the word, “pagans,” adherents to a broad group of indigenous and historical polytheistic religious traditions. Wikipedia helpfully reminds us that, “In a wider sense, paganism has also been understood to include any non-Abrahamic, folk, ethnic religion.” Going further, I agree with the perspective found in the Tanach and the Newer Testament that the only true and living God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is for this reason that Paul characterizes his ministry to the non-Jews of his day in this fashion:  “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Through Jesus, idol worshipping pagans turned from dead idols to serve the living and true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca, Rachael and Leah.

I confess what others should confess as well: I know very little of hell, of heaven, and of God. Therefore I try to avoid pontificating. But I will say that it would be helpful if we thought of hell as the final destination of the determinedly wicked, rather than the detention hall for those who failed God’s theology test.  Thinking of things in the latter sense is unhelpful in every way, and not in accord with how scripture deals with this serious subject.

Memling-Hans-Last-Judgment-Triptych-open-1467-1-detail12Hell is a serious subject, and overladen with so much hype and medieval imagery that it is nearly impossible if not totally so for us to think clearly and accurately on the subject.  But if the holiness of God is a serious subject, and it is, and if the moral and spiritual failures, and societal evils of humankind are serious matters, and they are, and if the prospect of being held unavoidably accountable for the lives we have lived is a daunting prospect, and it is, then hell is not something to joke about, nor should it be used as a prop in religious debate and banter.

The apostles didn’t do it, and neither should those who claim to be representing their message. There are other motivations for people to consider the good news of Yeshua, good motivations, true motivations, non-manipulative motivations more reflective of the practice of the apostles and the full counsel of God. But that will have to wait for another time.

[1] I have since renewed contact with this person, and learned to my delight that what I perceived to be aggression and attack was simply his ardor for the subject. We are now good friends.

[2] ­­Neal Rees, “Snatch Others from the Fire and Save Them”: An Examination of Belief in Hell as a Motivating Factor in Missions.”  Unpublished paper, originally submitted as a term paper to William Carey International University, at http://web.archive.org/web/20050228025757/perso.wanadoo.es/neil/Hell.htm, Accessed on line Sept 20, 2007.

[3] Rees, n.d. 12.  After providing a succinct and helpful historical survey of Protestant motivations for mission, Gailyn Van Rheenen traces the contemporary shift in such motivations in his aptly titled essay, “Changing Motivations for Missions: From ‘Fear of Hell’ to ‘the Glory of God.’” In Michael Pocock, Gailyn van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell, eds, The Changing Face of World Missions: Engaging Contemporary Issues and Trends, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 161-181.

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