Hey man! Love your wisdom & needing some of it. I answered a question about guilt recently & discussed repentance, explaining that God uses love, not fear, to motivate us & draw us to Himself. The anon wrote me back saying that no matter how much I speak of grace, the reality of hell still stands, thus fear persists & remains as a motive for repentance. I don’t know how to answer, and would love any insight you may have on the topic. Thanks! -LB
Hey there my dear friend: First of all, I love your blog. I think you’re quite popular around these parts and I can totally see why. Please continue to do what you do.
Your question has actually bothered me under the surface for as long as I’ve been a Christian (which is, admittedly, not too long). It’s one of those icky things we don’t like to think about very much. I’ve heard smarter people answer this question while dancing around the reality of “eternal torment” and “the worm that never dies,” and it’s like we mince words or gloss over these realities with tons of verbal trickery. I don’t think I’ll fare much better. So feel free to skip around and make of this what you will.
Please allow me to present my former atheist view on the issue. Basically the problem is posed as:
1) Sure, God offers Heaven through Jesus. But there’s a place called Hell, which according to your Bible, is eternal punishment.
2) So no matter what you say about God’s love, there is only a binary option with God — Heaven or Hell — and that can’t possibly be loving.
3) It doesn’t matter that you say “free will,” because people either must choose God and be rewarded or not choose God and suffer.
4) Conclusion: Your faith is always undermined by the promise of reward and the fear of punishment, which is a barbaric doctrine that reeks of inauthenticity and materialism and a coercive deity.
But the more I thought about this, the more I saw serious problems in this argumentation. Whether you believe in God or not, at the very least this “binary-choice” argument is vastly Swiss cheese.
1) God doesn’t want Hell for you. If Hell actually exists: God already paid the price for you not to go there.
Most people think the idea of Hell is unfair: but mostly everyone forgets that Jesus paid the very price of Hell for you, and I don’t see anyone saying “It’s unfair that Jesus had to die for me.” Yet the latter statement is true.
No other religion or philosophy even comes close to this sort of remarkable reality. I mean imagine if I built a prison and said, “If you break the law, I’ll go to prison for you.” So if God made Hell, He already made a provision for you not to go there. More than that, God desires that you be with Him and He doesn’t gloat over this by using Hell as enticement. Check out 2 Peter 3:9 and Romans 2:4.
Anyone who says, “I don’t like a God who would threaten us with Hell” hasn’t read the Bible very far. Jesus took it on already. Anyone who says, “God is shaming me with Hell” probably has an ulterior motive for using such a bizarre argument.
2) The fear of the afterlife is a common human fear that doesn’t diminish God’s love, but only enhances it.
I have to say: If Hell is really real, then dang right we should be afraid of it. No one in their right mind would laugh at the idea. To acknowledge God because of this reality is not altogether a bad thing. And it’s not even always a fear of God or a fear of Hell, but simply a fear of what awaits.
Yes, God wants us to know His love and to love Him with pure motives: but are our motives ever pure? No. We’re human beings. There will always be some trepidation involved when it comes to God and death and faith. It’s not a perfect process to get from the fear of God to the love of God. Everyone, and I mean everyone on their deathbed will be a little afraid of what’s on the other side. Can anyone blame them?
So of course, I must throw in 1 John 4:18 — There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
In other words: God offers a time when we won’t be afraid anymore. This is when we’ll be “made perfect in love.” What He is ultimately offering is complete closure between our fear and His grace. Our motives, no matter how mixed they are today, will be purified.
3) Our faith is built primarily on a relational intimacy, not reward or punishment.
When anyone says “God uses fear to make people repent,” we’re still thinking on the wrong premise of reward and punishment. It’s not even close to talking about God. Both Heaven and Hell as a motive for faith present a false dichotomy of choices which is completely outside the faith-relationship of Christian theology. It’s a phantom argument that doesn’t even approach the real God and so remains an abstract doctrine.
See: God offers everything, most especially Himself. If the richest, most attractive person in the world were to say, “I want to be with you forever because I like you for who you are” — it would be weird to say, “Well what’s the other option?” The reality that you’ll be alone forever is not some driving force to be with this person. The driving force is the relationship, not anything else.
Even “Christians” who turn to God out of fear or reward are not making a real choice. They’re thinking conceptually, thinking in a Christianese way about Christianese things outside the actual living God.
The argument that God says “Choose me or else” is actually dead in the water, because even if you choose based on this motive, you still haven’t chosen God.
If you don’t choose God because you think He’s saying “Choose me or else,” then that’s still thinking in terms of materialistic opportunism. You would be rejecting God based on what He can give you or not give you, which is hardly digging deep enough about the meaning of true relationships. This is all conceptual vague religion which is purposefully meant to keep God at a distance.
4) Hell is a natural consequence of our choices and not a “scary tactic” by God.
Hell is a gradual, eventual deterioration if you go against the way you were designed. Those who don’t believe in it still know exactly what it is. And those who don’t believe in Hell still want justice for every crime on the planet, because inherently we want wrongs to be righted. So Hell is also a place for those who have perverted justice — and secretly, we do want this. Only sensitive Westerners with a pseudo-political-correctness have a problem with it, until it involves injustice against their family.
So an example: Every relationship ever can go one of two ways.
If you only try to enjoy the “benefits” of the relationship, you turn inward until there is only the lonely self, and this is a private hell (whether the person feels bad about it or not). A selfish person with agendas to gain more will always gain a vacuum of loss, because selfishness always self-destructs and destroys others. It becomes its own consequence. This is just a microcosm of what Hell will actually be like.
But if you actually enjoy the other person in the relationship for who they are in their essence, then everything else is bonus and you’ve entered a special sort of bliss. The generous always end up with intimacy, but since even their motive is not to have “more intimacy,” they’re free to actually enjoy others. It becomes its own reward. This is just a microcosm of what Heaven will actually be like.
When someone says, “Heaven and Hell takes away our free will,” this is presuming that “free will” means we can do whatever we want and still have everything we want. Most people will do all they can to slip out from the Christian faith, including accusing God of “infringing on my free will,” when they’re really saying (like Aldous Huxley admitted) that they just want mindless sex and unchecked consequence-less living. That’s not free will, but self-will, and it’s slavery to the tyranny of self, which is hell.
But in choosing God, I turn over to G.K. Chesterton —
“And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
5) A life apart from God will get you a life apart from God: which is an objective choice that is exactly what most people wanted.
If you choose not to get married, you’ll be single. No one “threatens” you with singleness, and even if you got married out of fear: you’ll be a single person who signed a paper and moved in with someone.
There are certain objective realities that remain unavoidable, no matter how you feel about them. If you don’t want God for whatever reason, you’ll get exactly what you wanted.
Hell must be at least two things:
– A life apart from God, which is what happens when you choose a life apart from God.
– The endless closed loop of our selfishness <==and==> consequences, played out for eternity — which is also what you will have chosen.
Since God created us to be in a relationship with Him, anything else would be falsely saying that creation is more important than the Creator.
No one was designed to live this way. We’ve all seen what happens when people take creation — whether shiny new toys or political ideology or actual human souls — and use and abuse and neglect and worship them. There are consequences. Again: When you continually prioritize creation over Creator, you become a more selfish person who will self-destruct and destroy others. This is an objective reality that is inevitable and will extend into eternity, if you really want that.
This is why Jesus says it’s better to enter Heaven with no hands and no eyes than to enter Hell with a whole body (which is quite a superlative, since Jesus was a preacher) — because it’s better to have the Creator than the created.
Personally: I think people who end up in Hell will have tried very hard to get there.
6) Conclusion: This is a lazy argument that only exposes an entitled mentality. And even then, God has grace for you.
When someone poses the issue of “binary-Heaven-and-Hell,” they’re only exposing they want the best of all worlds, therefore denying the common reality of our choices. They’re trying to say, “No matter what I choose, I want to have it all.” It’s trying to smuggle in the benefits of a relationship while trying to stay single. Or they’re saying, “True love would never threaten me with singleness” — even though singleness is a concrete positional truth that will happen if you do not choose the relationship.
Yet here God is, extending grace even amidst our constant preprogrammed parroted defenses to keep Him away. He gives grace for those who falsely believe He is about fear.
The bottom line: God did absolutely everything in His power to ensure you would be with Him for eternity, and He even loves us so much He gave us free will to choose it for ourselves.
Originally posted here on my Tumblr.