Even if we say we believe in hell, do we really mean it?

October 3, 2012

Jerry Walls

Because if we mean it, how does that not instill within us a great sense of urgency about evangelism? I believe the question I asked at the end of last Sunday’s sermon is on point: Do we we think it’s possible that people we know and love can be separated from God eternally? (This is obviously a follow-up to Monday’s post.)

Jerry Walls, in his book on the subject, discusses the question in an interesting way:

Since I profess to believe in hell, I have often wondered what it would take convincingly to show this belief in my life. If I am in a supermarket, should I stop all my fellow shoppers and urge them to believe in Christ, lest they be damned? If I am at a concert, should I stand on my seat during intermission and warn everyone within earshot of the wrath to come? While these scenes may strike us as silly, I submit that such actions would be at least plausible for a person who took hell with utter seriousness. For surely, if I knew the concert hall were going to collapse before the concert ended, it would be appropriate for me to warn everyone of the impending danger.[1]

Of course, in my own life, I am often made uncomfortable by those very Christian evangeliststhere are more than a few of them out there—who do behave in ways similar to what Walls describes here. I haven’t seen them in supermarkets, but I often see them on sidewalks outside sporting events—with large signs, bullhorns, and a word of warning to passersby. I may question their methods, but not the sincerity of their belief in the wrath to come.

But am I justified in being uncomfortable with their methods? After all, I wouldn’t hesitate to warn non-believing neighbors if their house were on fire. In fact, as self-conscious as I am, even I would gladly risk looking like a fool in order to save their lives. If anything, hell is an infinitely greater danger, and yet I look down on people with the signs and bullhorns? What’s my problem?

My problem, some theological critics would say, is that I don’t really believe in hell. If I did, my behavior would change. Most Christians, these critics say, don’t really believe in it. Otherwise, how could they be so easily reconciled to the thought that their friends, family, and neighbors will be eternally separated from God unless they repent and believe in Jesus Christ?

Walls points out a couple of flaws with this argument. Regarding the house-on-fire analogy, he writes:

In the first place, if his house were on fire, he would certainly want to know about it. And second, he would surely consider it a real danger and would immediately react to it. However, these assumptions do not necessarily hold with respect to hell. It is very likely that our neighbor has already heard about hell and knows as much as he wants to know. He does not consider it a real danger and would not react with anything like the same decisiveness with which he would react if informed that his house was on fire.[2]

I would only add that there may be times when your neighbor would be receptive to a frank but appropriate discussion about hell—for example, after they’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. I suspect that more people than we know walk around with at least a small fear of hell in the back of their minds. I’ve talked to a few of them in hospital rooms. They hope for heaven when they die, but the foundation on which they set their hope is not faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection, but their own good works: “I try to be a good person,” they say. If we’re self-aware, however, we know that that’s a thin reed to rest our hopes on, and thus our consciences convict us.

Walls continues:

My point is that the seriousness of damnation and salvation cannot be instilled in a moment in the same way that a person can be alerted to the fact that his house is burning. This suggests that we should persist in trying to convert our neighbor, but it does not mean we are insincere in our beliefs if we decline to warn him of hell in much the same manner as we would warn him if his house were on fire.[3]

Besides, citing Kierkegaard, Walls argues that the “disproportion” that exists between what we profess to believe and how we then live our lives is hardly limited to our belief in hell. “What a robust claim it is that we live before God and are able to know him as Father. And what a puny difference this knowledge makes to most believers.”

But not all believers… Walls, a United Methodist, cites John Wesley, who, over the course of his life, rode 250,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons, among many other things, in large part because of his firm conviction that people risked being eternally lost unless they repented and believed.[4]

I’m no Wesley, obviously. But I can make small strides in his direction. And I can start by allowing the real and present danger of God’s final judgment and hell to inform my words and actions related to ministry. The stakes, after all, couldn’t be higher.

Footnotes:

1. Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 22-23.

2. Ibid., 23.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 25.

2 Responses to “Even if we say we believe in hell, do we really mean it?”

  1. Nelson Says:

    It’s much easier to stand on a corner outside of a sporting event to warn people of hell than it is to build the relationships and trust it takes to have a meaningful conversation about hell and salvation with an unbeliever. Hard, too, to know when that level of trust has been reached. Hard to know if you are going to risk a friendship or a relationship with an unbelieving family member by bring up faith “again”. We want to warn our friends and family but we don’t want to become a pariah in the process. Street corner preaching is looking pretty easy.


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