Witnessing is different today than 50 years ago. Obviously we have the same gospel of Jesus Christ. That hasn’t changed. That never does. But the culture most definitely has.
In Evangelism in a Skeptical World, Dr. Sam Chan provides a fantastic analysis of how modern western culture has shifted in its perception of truth. He describes how gospel presentations like Four Spiritual Laws (CRU), The Bridge to Life (Navigators), and Two Ways to Live (Matthias Media) were all tried-and-true ways to share the message of Jesus in the twentieth century. All of them were highly effective presentations that helped bring people to faith in Christ. But Chan, an internationally respected Christian apologist for several decades, notes that as he toured America giving lectures, something changed in the early 2000’s. He says that he found people becomingly increasingly unimpressed with his presentation. He came to understand this was due to the fact that society’s spiritual questions had changed. Americans were no longer asking the questions those older gospel presentations were designed to help navigate.
Chan has many helpful thoughts about evangelism in general, but for our purposes today, I want to limit the conversation to his insights about discussing hell with modern people.
There is arguably no doctrine more offensive to our relativistic, postmodern society than the teaching of hell. But it’s impossible to truly witness to a non-believer without eventually getting to the doctrine of hell. Any attempt at doing so would necessarily change the gospel itself. Many Christians, sensing this, just avoid witnessing entirely. The vast majority of Christians that I talk to have never had a single conversation with a skeptic about the reality of hell.
But there are ways to refute the bad logic of someone who has misguided perceptions about hell – to help people in our current era see the wisdom, and even the love, attached to hell.
The following are 3 examples of responses to give when someone pushes back against the biblical doctrine of hell:
1) “Hell Makes God Unloving”
This is perhaps the most commonly given reason for a rejection of the teaching of hell: “I don’t see how a loving God could inflict eternal punishment upon someone.”
What you need to start here is to ask the person where they get the idea that God is, in fact, a LOVING God?
In Greek mythology, the gods are immoral. In Asian mythology, the gods are mischievous. In Islam, the conception of god is certainly holy, but not inherently loving and merciful. Of all religions throughout world history, the ONLY place you get this idea that God is fundamentally and essentially LOVING is…in the Bible.
Consequently, if you want to accept the idea that God is a loving being as an a priori argument, a truth assumption, then it stands to reason that you seemingly would also have to seriously entertain the rest of the body of work from which that argument comes – i.e. the Bible. And the Bible certainly teaches the doctrine of hell. In fact, by a considerable margin, Jesus talks about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. If Jesus is obviously and unarguably loving, as most would attest, if he is the embodiment of God’s love for us (1 John 3:16), then you can’t ignore what he establishes as an important truth for the world, i.e. the danger of hell, as a caution of love.
Furthermore, if someone has a general conception of God’s love and suggests, “My God is so loving that he would never send anyone to hell,” my response is always, “Then your God loves you less than my God loves me, because my God went to hell and back to rescue me. What does it cost your God to love you?” The point here is the same one I bring up in virtually every wedding sermon I preach – there’s really no way to measure love apart from the depths we’re willing to go in order to be with someone. If Jesus went through hell in order to rescue his people, then, by definition, he loves those people more than any God who wouldn’t go through hell for them. Instead of hell being unloving, I’m here making the case that any conception of God apart from a belief in hell is necessarily LESS loving.
2) “Hell Makes God Exclusive”
This claim comes up when it is suggested that someone’s beliefs are held primarily (or exclusively) due to cultural upbringing. For example, “You’re only Hindu because you were born in India.” If that was the case, and belief in Jesus was the only pathway to salvation (John 14:6), it would then seem unfair that certain people were raised in “Christian cultures” with access to the gospel whereas others were raised in predominantly Buddhist, Hindu, irreligious, etc. cultures.
Here, what you do is ask the person, “If they were in charge of heaven, who would you let in?” They might say that they’d let everyone in. And then you should respond with “Are you really okay with mega mass murders like Hitler, Mussolini, and Pol Pot, or even lesser murders, serial killers like Dahmer or Manson, coming into heaven, completely unrepentant of transgressions? Is that loving to their victims and their victims’ families?” If those individuals are impenitent of what they’ve done, and likely do it all over again if given the chance, why would you bring them into heaven and give them another chance to do so? At this point, the skeptic of hell might say,“Okay, maybe not those guys.” But then the skeptic has to establish his own criteria for letting someone in. If he says whoever is good enough, he’s excluding based on the criteria of moral behavior. If he says it doesn’t matter what someone believes so long as they’re sincere and authentically true to self (a common postmodern spin on religion), he’s doing the same thing – making it exclusive.
What you come to realize is that if you let everyone in, you’re not being loving to the victims who need justice, but the moment you make conditions, you’re being exclusive. The person who was critical of heaven’s “exclusivity” is then guilty of doing the same thing they’re condemning the God of the Bible for doing. And if God’s condition is simply that whoever repents and trusts in Jesus will be received, then I’d venture to say that based on THAT criteria, more people are going to get into heaven than on whatever criteria you or I could come up with. Sam Chan has a great line in his book where he says, “The scandal of the Bible is not that people go to hell. The scandal is that God lets people into heaven that you or I likely would not.”
3) “Hell Makes God Bitter & Angry”
In the Netflix political thriller, House of Cards, the two main characters are a husband and wife who no longer possess any affection for one another. The wife has an affair. And when the affair is exposed, the husband doesn’t really care. The wife actually then confronts the husband about it, saying she thought he’d be more angry. Since we only get angry over the things we care about, the revelation is that the husband’s LACK of anger was the ultimate evidence that he didn’t love her anymore.
If we were designed by God, to be in relationship with God, then if God loves us, he MUST be angry about us rejecting him. It’s not mere pettiness. It’s the product of him hating to see us violate our design, destroying ourselves through an eternal trajectory of self-centeredness (i.e. hell). And yet, because love is not true love if it is forced, God cannot force creatures to love him.
God’s anger in this case is simply evidence of his passion for us.
“Hell Makes God Unloving”
- Where do you get the idea God is loving?
- If there is no hell, how much does it cost God to love you?
“Hell Makes God Exclusive”
- If you were God, what would your criteria be for heaven be? Is that really less exclusive than God’s criteria?
“Hell Makes God Bitter & Angry”
- If you were designed to be in relationship with God, and avoiding that relationship is self-destructive, how should God feel?
- If Jesus is, in a sense, the “husband” to humanity, how should he feel if you give your heart to someone/something else?
God is angry about sin because he’s good. He goes to hell and back for us because he’s loving. But he doesn’t force us to love him. Instead, he sacrificially pays for us and invites us, no matter what we’ve done, to come live with him (i.e. heaven).