Threatened unto Salvation?
If it is impossible to express healthy love for someone who threatens, “Love me or I will do you harm,” then what’s the reason for hell? Doesn’t God threaten us with hell so that we will turn to him for our salvation from it? These are great, though hard, questions we must answer.
Why You Can’t Scare People into Heaven
Jesus taught that whoever is forgiven much, loves much; and whoever is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47). Love of God—his greatest and foundational commandment—requires that we understand he has forgiven us much. Our love necessitates treasuring his grace, not simply avoiding his wrath. So it remains true that threatening to harm people if they don’t love you cannot generate biblical love. Such threats can generate a parody of the obedience God requires, but they cannot generate the love he requires.
This means we can’t scare people into heaven. Our union with Christ is not simply a self-serving choice to walk streets of gold rather than be cast into a lake of fire. There is a love of heaven and a fear of hell that are straight from Satan if they are only about self-serving interests. In order for us to experience the joys heaven intends for the relationship Christ has secured for us, we must love him. The love that pleases God and satisfies us is not and cannot entirely be a product of trying to keep an ogre in the sky off our backs.
In order for us to experience the joys heaven intends for the relationship Christ has secured for us, we must love him.
Justice and Mercy Required
In order for hell to motivate biblical obedience and love, it must represent more than the pique of a frowning deity who has been crossed. To motivate genuine holiness, hell must first be perceived as the just destiny of those who have broken the righteous standards of God. Those standards must also be seen as rooted in the holiness of God, and their transgression as deserving an eternal penalty. When all this is understood, then the mercy of God that saves us from the just penalty of hell, more than hell itself, is what generates love for him. Knowledge that we are forgiven much causes us to love much—heaven’s basic requirement (Matt. 22:37–38).
Rescue from Life Desired
But here’s the problem: this very mature understanding of the righteousness, justice, and mercy of God is not where most people begin their Christian walk. Most people turn to Christ because they have despaired of this life, not because they are dodging a hellish afterlife. If escaping God’s judgment is all that motivates, then most are unlikely to love him as he requires.
Most persons’ initial love for Christ stems from his rescue from the present “hell” of their earthly existence: loneliness, emptiness, guilt, shame, depression, slavery to addiction, relational trauma, and so on. That is why Jesus was being true to the human experience as well as his spiritual task when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). He understood that the pains of this life could be as compelling as the threats of the next.
Making Sense of Eternal Punishment
I cannot deny that there are some who seek Christ’s mercy because they believe that they have committed sins worthy of an eternal hell. This is undeniable in a world of mass murder, child abuse, genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, jihad, and systematic torture. We should praise God when souls awaken to the evil of such crimes and see them for the hell-deserving sins they are.
A Common Misunderstanding
But such an awakening is not where most people are intellectually or spiritually when they first turn to the Savior. Early in their Christian experience most people have no concept of what they have done that would deserve eternity in hell. Even if they echo thoughts they have heard from a pulpit, or feel deep and profound guilt, few could identify why they would deserve an eternal hell of suffering for their sin.
Theologians frequently defend the doctrine of hell with the rationale that people are deserving of the infinite and eternal torments of hell because sin is against an infinitely holy and eternal God. That may make sense to a theologian, but it will not ring true or fair to almost anyone else.
If even Hitler, Genghis Kahn, or Idi Amin were to scream in agony for ten thousand years in a lake of fire, most persons (especially believers, who are made in God’s image and weigh what is just according to the standards and heart he grants) would be ready to end these monsters’ pain. And arguing that such an unending hell of physical torment awaits the Jewish, Hindu, or nominal Christian grandmother whose greatest earthly crime appears to be a sharp tongue, seems outside any standard of justice that we associate with Christ’s nature.
So, how do we explain why Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? At least a partial answer lies in understanding that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who were relying on their self-righteousness to gain them heaven. They needed to know that total, conscious, eternal separation from the blessings of God (that’s a pretty good summary of the Bible’s teaching on hell, taking into account all its discussions and metaphors, such as the eternal lake of fire, maggots, torturers, darkness, gnashing of teeth, and whippings) was the future of all who did not seek God through his Son.
Jesus’s greatest expressions of mercy and grace were poured out on those who believed they had no hope of heaven due to their background, failings, and sin. Their despair of God’s care in this life, and of his provision of spiritual security for the next life, made Christ’s grace welcome and powerful. His love for the unlovely, the outcast, and the despicable is what drew hearts to him. He usually spoke of hell only with the intention of making the proud understand how desperate they were apart from him. The self-righteous, no less than the obvious sinners, needed to long for his grace in order for heaven to be their eternal destiny.
This article is adapted from Unlimited Grace: The Heart Chemistry That Frees from Sin and Fuels the Christian Life by Bryan Chapell.