The Fear of Hell

In my life as a Christian I have heard a few sermons on the subject of hell, but none has really made much of an impact on me. Certainly not enough to stick in my mind, I am unable to recall any of these sermons, let along count them. I don’t think the number is huge, but there have definitely been a few. What I recall best is various conversations and varied opinions on the subject.

I pretty much always believed that hell was a real place; after all, you can’t have a real heaven and not a real hell can you? Many others I know take the view that hell is just not being in the presence of God; in other words, hell rather than being an actual place is simply not heaven. I always had an issue with that logic as you can’t have you next life not in heaven and not actually be somewhere else. The counter to that is the always convenient get out clause of “you can’t know what the afterlife will be like”. Hell therefore would always be a subject on which you could guarantee a variety of opinion, but very little meat to back up a viewpoint.

The teaching that I can best recall on the subject has always focused more on the assurance of being saved rather than the fear of not being saved.

The Trouble with Reading

My long held views on hell came when I read the book “The Road to Hell”. I found it an easy read and I found the conclusions logical and there was nothing that I objected to in the theology. Even now I will agree that if you are going to profess faith, this book on hell will be a useful guide.

The biggest single impact the book had on me was its warning to those with the responsibility of teaching others. The book made the point that all the teaching that Jesus gave on the subject was to his disciples (and possibly also those who already followed him) I can’t remember if that second clause was made in the book, that’s me covering my own memory; it was about 17years ago so I can’t claim to be recalling it perfectly. The key point being that the teaching on hell by Jesus was not to those who were unsaved but to those who Jesus was training to be his fishers of men. I never did check the bible to confirm that fact as claimed so I would welcome comment from anyone who has made that check.

The point that is made is Jesus would not have reserved his teaching on hell for those he was closest to if it wasn’t of critical importance to them. If hell was for the unsaved, why preach it to the converted? The conclusions drawn on the subject parallels with other biblical subjects that issue warnings to teachers, specifically “it would be better for a millstone to be tied round your neck than to lead one of my flock astray”. The essence being that hell is preached to the followers of Jesus because it was a warning to them and not a tool to be used to scare people into conversion. More crucially, it’s a warning to those who would lead and teach.

There is much more in the book about hell than just this and I think what I have recalled above probably just comes from a single chapter. It is however, my take away message from the book and what struck me most on reading it.

Motivating fear

At the time that I read the book, I had been in youth work for about five years and would be for most of the next decade. The message of the book did serve to focus me somewhat. I wanted to make sure that the message I gave was true and in keeping with the Bible. I didn’t want to invoke a hellish punishment by leading young people astray.

On balance I think its an unhealthy form of motivation but I also think that its also a good way of reminding those with responsibility and authority that they do have someone that they are answerable to and that they can’t manipulate with impunity. For those that still believe, I think it can be a good reminder of who holds ultimate authority and it is certainly more useful than preaching hell, fire and damnation to the unsaved.

 

God takes the Good People Early

This week I found myself in conversation (over the internet) with a Christian and we got onto the subject of death. I was then told that some people believe that God takes his people early and leaves the evil to live longer to give them more of a chance to repent.

I was stunned. It was a proper jaw hit the floor WTF! moment.

I didn’t ask if the person concerned believed that or if they knew anyone who did or even where the information came from. Quite frankly it wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss, so I let the conversation move on.

The comment did get me thinking though. Why would anyone think that? And more importantly, is there actually a theological precedent or biblical passage that supports this idea? I certainly can’t think of any reason why this could be deemed a reasonable theological position to hold. I concede that I’m not exactly the world’s leading bible commentator, however with my years as a Christian and the number of sermons and Christian talks I’ve heard, you’d think that I’d have heard it if this was a reasonable position to hold.

Given this is the first time I can consciously say I’ve met this particular line of thinking, I think I can safely say that it’s something that is in the minority. However, what makes it concerning is that either there are some people who do believe and teach this, or there are some people who choose to believe this, despite not being taught it.

Of course there is the simple fact that looking at the evidence of deaths of history proves this particular line of thought to be utterly wrong.

It is not a comforting theology

The conclusion I have come to is that people who believe this only do so because it must be comforting to them. It taps into the ‘in a better place’ mentality, that being that those Christians who have died are enjoying fellowship in heaven and ultimately that’s where all good Christians want to be and death in this life is a relief, a good thing even, something to be rejoiced in even. This is denialist theology, it’s what happens when people invent things to try and ease the pain of a deeply unfair happening.

On a personal level, the only good thing about my mother’s death in her early 60s is that she is no longer suffering with cancer. If God was a merciful god and took the good people early then he should have taken this servant of His in that first year and not left her to suffer an appalling cancer for three years before finally going unconscious and dying a week later.

There is nothing good about her sons missing her terribly and there is nothing good about her never getting to see her granddaughter grow up. The suggestion that the loving God she worshiped all her life took her that way and at that time because he loved her and she was good is utterly wrong. The more I think about this, the more I get upset and angry about it. Time to go to my happy place….