Q&R with Brad Jersak: What if you’re wrong about hell?
Recently, in response to my rejection of the hell of eternal torment, one of my readers offered a fairly common objection: “I hope you’re right about that. BUT if you’re wrong about hell, then a lot of people will go there … and it will be your fault. Wouldn’t it be better to play it safe just to be sure?”
The following response was adapted from a much longer essay from Clarion Journal, titled, “Let’s Talk about Hell BETTER or “If You’re Wrong, a Lot of People Will Go to Hell & It’s Your Fault” by Brad Jersak.
Response: The Wager
This high stakes objection is worthy of a careful response.
- “Wrong about hell” in what way? The implication seems to imply that I don’t believe there’s a hell or that the hell I believe in is not something to worry about. Not so! Of course I believe in hell. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it with my eyes, in my spirit and in my Bible. And now I preach the good news, knowing that Christ conquered hades (Rev. 1:18) to rescue us and he came back victorious with a host of captives (Mark 3:27, Eph. 4:8). I see no reason to believe that my conviction that hell is horrendous but not eternal would endanger a single soul of going there.
- Are we saved by belief in Christ or by belief in hell? I assume that objectors believe that the material cause of our salvation is Jesus Christ and the efficient cause is faith in his name. Nowhere do the Scriptures demand belief in a particular doctrine of hell as a requirement for saving faith. No doctrine of hell entered New Testament evangelism or our confession of faith at baptism. One can check every evangelistic sermon in Acts to verify this.
- The ‘Safe’ Wager: The charge seems to be rooted in a fear-based wager that ultimately bites itself in the behind. The wager goes like this: IF eternal conscious torment is even a possibility, then we’d better warn people about it or they will end up there. Makes sense, right? Well… that might have worked in Jonathan Edwards time. I say might because can we be so sure that those who repent out of fear of being roasted alive forever actually responded in willing faith to Jesus Christ? Did they love him because they’d God’s love in the revelation of the Cross? Or did Edwards merely convince them to convert with the eternal conscious gun to their heads? Is that saving faith?
But for the sake of our wager, let’s say it was. Let’s say that gospel did work. And let’s say Edwards was completely right: that hell is eternal conscious torment and salvation is Jesus’ way out of the white-hot wrath of God. Let’s say eternal conscious torment is the clear and present danger. If so, then we need to determine which gospel will BEST save people from that fate.
Here’s the troubling news: preaching eternal hellfire no longer scares people into Jesus arms. Statistically, it creates atheists by the millions. If you’re truly worried about people going to hell, then you had better NOT mention it, because such preaching is among the top stated reasons why people now reject Christ.
This is a fact in the 21st century: people today reject the good news of Jesus Christ when we import hellfire preaching into our gospel. They do this because:
- * It sounds more like medieval mythology than gospel truth. It doesn’t resonate at all.
- * It looks more like a B-grade horror movie than something anchored to reality.
- * It sabotages the evangelist’s credibility because it doesn’t sound like the foolishness of the gospel (Christ and him crucified). It sounds more like the silliness of radical fundamentalism.
- * It enables the listener to defer judgment to an imagined “later” rather than facing all the ways they are already perishing and in bondage to the kingdom of hell today.
So, if you are truly afraid that people will go to hell, DO NOT tell them about it. But my suspicion is that the greater fear is that we ourselves might go to hell if we don’t get it right, even if we cause others to reject Christ through our hellacious threats.
How to Talk about Hell Today
If we’re going to talk about hell in the postmodern era, here are three tips to bear in mind:
- Be humble, not dogmatic: Given the range of ways the Bible talks about hell, we should be a lot more humble about claiming to know what, where, when, why and for whom hell happens. Insist on one image of hell as “this is it!” and you’ll discover that your deal-killer proof-text is countered by ten other conflicting passages. I’m not saying we should ignore the Bible’s dire warnings and frightening imagery. I’m just saying that our dogmatism is misplaced and unhelpful, especially when the apostles and evangelists saw the wisdom in saying less when they took the gospel across the world.
- Invite others to God’s love, not to fear of hell: What does 1 John 4 tell us? That “God is love” and that God’s “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” John warns that “the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
This perspective should radically form our way of sharing the gospel. We are to draw people to Christ, not merely scare them away from fiery punishment. John’s implication is that a fearful person who uses fear to preach a gospel of fear has missed the mark and the point. Fearful rhetoric may have a place when confronting abusive religious leaders, blind guides and oppressive hypocrites (as Jesus did) … but notice how the apostles and evangelists in Acts always preached a gospel of Christ’s death, resurrection and lordship in our lives and did not once appeal to or even mention hellfire.
- Draw people to Jesus, don’t drive them away: After decades of evangelism and a 12-year study of every judgment text in the Bible, I’m now convinced that:
- * hell is a realphenomenon—the real question is, “What is its nature?”
- * hell is noteternal conscious torment—the Scriptures envision a far better outcome;
- * preaching fear of hell fails to draw people to Jesus—it’s badfor the gospel.
We DO need to talk about hell but we need to talk about it better because the way we’ve talked about hell doesn’t save people from hell—it drives them into it! The way we’ve talked about hell no longer attracts people to Christ (if it ever did)—the way we’ve preached hell makes them hate Christ (and us). But if we preach the good news of God’s love revealed in Christ and you may just see people respond to him.
Best Practices: the Johannine Option
So, my question is, how do we best talk about hell in the 21st century? Is there an appropriate way to share the gospel and talk about hell that is faithful to the Scriptures? I propose that, given the vast selection of biblical images we could draw from, we should choose one that is both central to the teaching of Christ and relevant for our current culture. In other words, if we must speak of the final judgment, we have numerous choices … will it be Jeremiah 7? Or Matthew 25? Or Revelation 20? We are free to choose the version that maximizes God as love, Jesus as Savior, and uses love rather than fear as the motivator. I propose we adopt John chapter 3.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus provides a beautiful gospel of God’s love, one not based on the afterlife: no promise of heavenly bliss or threat of eternal hell. Nothing is deferred. Instead, for the Jesus of John’s tradition, “eternal life” is experienced now, in this life: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). This “eternal life” or “life more abundant” (John 10:10) is not a someday reward for believing the right things about Jesus. It is “fullness of life” now, experienced by knowing the Father and his Son by the Spirit, from the moment we (re)turn to the Light.
In John 3, Jesus doesn’t threaten us with forthcoming retribution for failing to believe in him. Rather than using the word “hell,” he opts for terminology that says we are already “perishing” and already suffering “condemnation” in our alienation from God’s life, love and light.
As the conversation with Nicodemus climaxes, watch how Jesus addresses the human condition as an “already” problem, not imposed by an angry God as punishment but as the very real and present consequences of turning from the Light of Love:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
If we are to speak of hell in this age, John 3 guides us to see how the darkness of our turning from the Light of God’s Love creates the shadow. In that shadow, we strive for self-will and generate our own hell, personally and collectively. In that condition, we experience condemnation, not from God but as the inevitable result of turning into the darkness. In that condition, we experience “perishing.”
But Jesus tells us the great news: in God’s great love for us, he’s sent his Son to rescue us from whatever condemnation, perishing or “hell” we find ourselves in. Through turning to the Light–through knowing him—we experience fullness of joy (i.e. “eternal life”).
My experience is that this beautiful gospel takes seriously humanity’s hell-on-earth BUT does not place hearers under an ultimatum that triggers a flight impulse. It is a loving invitation to know God whose Son offers what our hearts the life we truly desire. We’ve sought those desires at tables that gave us food-poisoning but now we’re invited to a banquet of divine goodness (Psalm 23, Matt. 22).
In practice, I sometimes need to add a deconstructive preface: “Look, God is not the angry judge who threatens you with the flames of hell after you die. That’s a horrible way to talk about ‘good news.’ No, he’s the loving Father who sees the hell you’ve already been through and wants so much better for you. He’s offering a hand into freedom. Does that interest you?” When someone is interested, I teach them how to turn to the Light, to have that conversation with Jesus and to experience the one who lifts burdens, break chains and restores life.
All that to say, YES, I do talk about hell and I’ve chosen to talk about it with a Gospel-based, Jesus-composed model that draws people rather that scares them away from him. My wager and my experience is that the fruit will be far better.