Early in my ministry, I believed it necessary to observe having precise obedience to God in all things about life and faith. Because I held to such an observance of commandments and rules, I also believed that delineating from such bordered on if not warranted the fires of hell. These beliefs were reflected in my preaching as I warned listeners of the eternal damnation that awaited all who refused to live as God would have us all live. Before too long, most if not all things were matters of heaven or hell. Thankfully, I’ve grown a great deal from those early days. I’ve also matured (arguably) more since then. I no longer try to coax people into salvation through a fear of hell, and here’s why.
When I was a younger Christian, I was obedient to the gospel because I didn’t want to go to hell. I believed that I had sinned, as had all humanity. I also believed that God was just and would punish sin. Therefore, I needed to do what I had to so that I could obtain my eternal fire insurance policy through Christ. I’d go to church too, but as I came into the teen years where a young fellow’s hormones raged, I cared little for the faith that taught that if I did A and B, then I just might wind up in hell despite being a Christian. I started resenting the notion of a god who behaved in such a wishy-washy way. After all, if He loved me, why one moment would He want to forgive and save me, and then when I’d made a slip up here or there would He want to send me to eternal torment?
I indulged in sins of the flesh as a teen and young adult. I didn’t really care. I kept going to church thinking that I was keeping my eternal fire policy paid in full so that I wouldn’t have to be tormented. After all, preachers preached more on worshipping right and being saved the right way, so I’d done those. Based on that sort of preaching, and the tracts and articles I’d read, I needed most importantly to be saved biblically, which I was, and to worship according to “the pattern,” which I did. This thinking carried on into my early years of preaching, and it hasn’t been until the last few years that I began to see things differently. What changed it all?
I’d like to say that I did a deep Bible study on the topic, but that wasn’t it. What led to a shift in my perspective was the seeming contradicting beliefs that I had heard taught and preached myself. How can I stress so much the love and grace and mercy of God to lost sinners, while in the same breath tell Christians that it didn’t seem to apply to them? No, the parable of the prodigal son was one about a person of faith who strayed from his loving father. That loving father looked forward to his son’s return, so much so that he ran to his son and embraced him with gratitude for his return.
Let me be emphatically clear: I believe that hell is real and that some people, unfortunately, and sadly, will go there. Nevertheless, I’d much rather draw people to God by His love of us all than by having them fear Him. Fear Him, yes, but there has to be a balance between love and fear, and I’d often gotten it wrong. The god that I preached who was so temperamental was, so the Greek classics taught me, Zeus. That god was angry one minute and happy the next, a bi-polar god not worthy of human affection. Our heavenly Father, however, loves us despite our messiness.
Here’s the best illustration I can envision to demonstrate my point. My wife and I have known each other just over half our lives. She’s my best friend in addition to being my wife. I don’t remain faithful to her because I fear she would divorce me. I remain faithful to her because I love her dearly, I respect her immensely, and I cherish the love she has for me. I’d much rather people not come to Jesus for fear that He’ll divorce them by exiling them to eternal damnation. I want to help others come to know Him, to come to love Him, and then to want to serve Him because He means so much to them. I want to make disciples, not anxious, beaten down slaves. For this reason, I no longer demagogue people with hell but preach to them the good news of a loving God who wants communion with His creation.
Some might say that it’s irresponsible to not warn people of the dangers that lie ahead. After all, Ezekiel was made watchmen of Israel, so I should also be a watchman of people’s souls. I agree, but I never said that I don’t warn them of those dangers. I only wished to say that I don’t try to coerce or manipulate them with hell. Warn them, yes. Preach to them the good news of Jesus, yes. The sole content, however, isn’t hell, but of Someone who dearly loves us all. Just take note of the sermons in Acts, and count the number of times people are threatened with hell. You’ll be surprised at what you find.