by Timothy S. Thomas
Not too many years ago, hell was a hot topic. Evangelicals were big on telling people that unless they repented, they were going straight to hell when they died. And for a while, that approach to proclaiming the Gospel led to a reasonable amount of success in terms of the evangelical objective: many people realized they didn’t want to go to hell, so they listened to what the evangelizer had to say was the way to avoid going there.
But in the last decade or two, people have mostly stopped listening to what sounds like a bad news message concerning salvation. American (and Western) culture has shifted, so that truth is seen more and more as relative — whatever someone believes is true for them. As a result, the Bible has become less of an objective standard generally respected by the majority as it once was.
Partly in response to these changes, and partly because the message of hell seemed like a secondary issue from God’s perspective, many of us began proclaiming a Gospel that sounds more like Good News. This message is based on telling people about the great love God has for us, along with the message about God’s desire for relationship with us. This alternative approach leads naturally into talking about Jesus, explaining that Jesus died for us because he loves us so much, and that reconciliation with God comes through faith in Jesus.
But here’s the problem: somehow by reformulating the message, it seems that some of the urgency to tell people about Jesus has diminished. Since we put hell on the backburner, so to speak, many of us don’t seem to have the same sense of urgency for people to hear and embrace the Good News.
Yet while telling people that they are going to hell is not part of our communications strategy, the truth is that apart from faith in Jesus, people are going to hell. This is what Jesus taught, this is what the Apostles taught, and this is certainly part of any faith that is based on what is taught in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament.
Jesus told us in John 3:16-18 that apart from faith in Jesus, a person stands condemned. He also told us that “‘Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom… all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'” Matthew 13:40-42 (ESV).
Affirming this, the Apostle Paul wrote, “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [he will be] inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (ESV).
But we can help keep people from suffering eternal destruction. We can point people to Jesus. Our words can make a difference. The Apostle Paul reminds us that “‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'”, and then asks, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Romans 10:13-14 (ESV).
But, if you’re like me, you have to push yourself a bit to get more of the message out there. I try to talk to people about God, but I don’t often get to the part of the conversation where I tell them that they need to be reconciled to God, and that faith in Jesus is the only way to be reconciled. So I think I need to spend some time reminding myself of several things. First, that even though God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell (2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4), people are. Second, that hell is an awful place. And finally, that my words can make a difference.
And so can yours.