Sunday, August 9, 2009

Should We Be Motivated By The Threat of Hell?

I grew up in the South, during a time when “hellfire and damnation” preaching was acceptable, and even popular. I distinctly recall the cadence and raised voices of preachers who would bring a message about the consequences for those who fall on the wrong side of the final judgment. And I remember the “altar calls” that were made, pleading with people to come forward, repent and be baptized – “now, before it’s too late”.

Men and women would come up the aisles, sobbing and repentant. In their brokenness, they would give their life to Christ, and pledge to change their ways. Without a doubt, much of their motivation to make such a promise was to avoid the consequences of hell and eternal damnation.

People don’t preach like this anymore. We preach about grace and the positive side of salvation. Motivation is typically given as the promise of a better and perfect life in heaven. This is not a bad thing by itself, but it is certainly a different incentive than one which strives to avoid the threat of hell.

We live in a society where telling someone that they run the risk of going to hell is frowned upon. Rather than risk being labeled as judgmental, we are trained to avoid such absolutes. After all, the argument goes, God’s grace is bigger than we can imagine. And it’s not our place to make such a judgment.

That may be true, but the Bible also makes it clear that certain behavior or actions will plainly have the consequence of hell. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” And in 2 Peter 3:7, Peter talks of wicked men’s fate, by saying “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” These men were not afraid to raise the issue of hellfire and damnation.

I love to read the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher who lived in America prior to the Revolutionary War. In 1741, in Enfield, CT, Edwards spoke these words in a sermon – “Let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let everyone fly out of Sodom: ‘Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.’”

We can be motivated to live the Christian life in two ways. We can have the motivation where we long for heaven and strive to think on positive things like grace, peace, and truth. But we can also be motivated by the fear of condemnation to an everlasting hell. For me, pondering an eternity without hope, without peace, and without God is extremely moving.

Is it wrong to be motivated by the threat of hell? I don’t think so. A healthy viewpoint is to see both heaven and hell’s consequences. The sentence of hell will also motivate us to share our faith with others, perhaps even more than the promise of heaven. For example, if you pass a stranger on the street, you will likely warn them of an open manhole just in front of them – but you might not be as inclined to share with a stranger that there are free theater tickets being given away up the street. We tend to speak more boldly when danger is present.

Personally, I would welcome a few more “hellfire and damnation” sermons. I recall the passion that they aroused in me, even as a young child. Nothing was going to keep me from the glory and beauty of heaven…and away from the eternal separation from God that is hell itself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

David and I were discussing this topic today.We have recently found that people are all about the God of the new testament. A God full of grace and mercy. Always answering prayers like he was Santa. Somewhere along the way people stopped reading the old testament. No one wants to learn about a God who wipes out nations(men,women,children,animals)and sends angels with some challenging requests.
Sorry got carried away. Liked your thoughts.