Do we need Hell as a motivation?

The question of whether we need Hell as a motivation often comes up. As I think it’s an important and difficult question, I’m going to try to sketch out a response.

On the one hand, I think there are people who don’t believe in Hell at all, yet are still motivated to love God and each other. I think this is partly because, being made in God’s image, love, truth, beauty, life, light, joy, goodness, mercy, justice, hope, forgiveness, peace, and wisdom, are attractive and motivating things. Likewise, in the New Creation I believe we will remain motivated forever without the fear of anything1. Afterall, God identifies Himself as our loving Father, a relationship that should be taken into account. Because Hell can come across as the opposite of all these good things, for some people the idea that God would even consider Hell is repulsive, something that hinders them from loving God.

However it is hard, at least for Christians, to avoid noticing that Jesus did warn of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. While they do appear in symbolic literature, surely they indicate unpleasant experiences of some description. To some degree we are already experiencing the consequences of humanity’s selfish and destructive behavior. Most of us do desire for things to be put right but that probably involves correction, pruning and deconstructing some things first. Change usually isn’t easy.

When I talk about reforming hell, in particular that I believe one day everyone will be reconciled to God, there is a risk that people will use that as an excuse to postpone coming to Jesus. As I long to see as many people saved as soon as possible, this issue is a real concern. Indeed some who share my beliefs don’t even discuss them in public for fear that hearers will use it as an excuse to continue living in rebellion against God.

I should point out that this problem isn’t uniquely a universalist one. Anyone who is gracious, or tells people about God’s grace, risks people taking advantage of it. Sometimes people will use it as an excuse to be lazy and put off action—“I’ll convert when I retire or when I’m on my death bed”. Nor is the problem new. I think the Apostle Paul discusses this, “Shall I go on sinning so that grace might increase?” and “Do you spurn God’s grace?”. He emphatically says we shouldn’t, but that God’s grace should “lead us to repentance”.

And they're off! The last plane for the season departs and winter begins for those left behind (Photo: Gordon T)
And they’re off! The last plane for the season departs and winter begins for those left behind
(Photo: Gordon T)

Imagine you’re visiting Antarctica and become sick. A plane is sent to pick you up but you refuse to leave and so it departs without you. You will experience the unpleasant consequences until another opportunity to go home arrives. Both in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ parables, there are plenty of examples2 of God giving people opportunities that are rejected. After a period of consequences, thankfully God offers further opportunities.

Consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son3. When the son realises he is mistaken he doesn’t instantly appear at home, he still has to walk all the way home from the pigpen. Likewise, the further we run from God, the longer it takes to walk back. Or to put it another way, it’s easier to tear down than to build up. I suspect the longer you leave a disease, the more work the doctors will have to do and the longer the rehab and recovery will be. I assume the longer you’ve been addicted to a drug, the more severe the withdrawal.

I think the Apostle Paul captures the current tension between taking things seriously and being encouraged that God is working towards His good purpose4:

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.PHILIPPIANS 2:12-13 (HCSB)

In summary, I think we shouldn’t need Hell as a motivation but it is important to consider the consequences (which may include time in Hell) of wrong thoughts and actions.


1. Reminds me of “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18 (ESV)
2. Robin Parry gives some examples on p206 of “The Evangelical Universalist”
3. Luke 15:11-32
4. Hopefully wholeheartedly enjoying and praising and Him—together, forever! See Everyone Repents & Rejoices.

7 thoughts on “Do we need Hell as a motivation?

  1. Pamela Lillyblad

    It seems that some people have refused to receive Christ because they didn’t like what the Church taught on hell. Then I don’t know my friend who is a Pagan witch does seem to very subtly be turning to God. Then at times she says if there is no hell then she thinks it does not matter how she lives. For me to think there is no hell may at times make it so I might not be as careful to be obedient to the Lord at times, I would say overall I feel the freedom to stand up when I make a mistake and have the freedom to continue to love God all the more and joyfully walk close to Him. To live a life motivated by love for God and the freedom to love others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree it’s a tricky issue. I’m glad that overall you’re more motivated by love, as I think that’s better and what God is aiming for.

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  2. Pingback: Engaging Others For The Sake Of Truth And Unity – Chris Date’s Rethinking Hell Talk | Reforming Hell

  3. GetOffThisPlanet

    This concern is parallel to the discretion with which (IIRC) Origen regarded the doctrine of the ultimate reconciliation of all things to God. Perhaps not wise to advertise this to immature believers who have not yet firmly broken out of (or been released from, if you prefer) the yoke of their prior lusts. How much more would be it unprofitable to display this theology to unbelievers?

    I’m personally uneasy about reliance on “avoiding hell (with ‘hell’ as traditionally conceived)” as the center of one’s evangelistic appeal. In the traditional view, this is the single most important thing, and once one has “solved” this problem, all other problems pale to insignificance. I think that this leads to a kind of “self-centered” form of believism. As John Piper has put it, we make much of God because He makes much of us. Our pursuit of God can be (or become) fundamentally me-centered rather than God-centered. The purposes of God in our redemption, that we would be conformed to the likeness of Christ, so that Christ would be the head of large family of people who resemble Him (Romans 8:28-29), can be submerged by the personal self-interest in avoiding a horrifying future. I think that this problem is compounded in many Evangelical churches by the sola-fide understanding of justification. The only thing that matters (ie, everything else is by comparison insignificant) is to avoid the eternal fire, and the way to avoid the eternal fire is to rest in Christ as one’s substitute. I have seen this lead, in the context of conservative Reformed Christianity, to complacent inertia.

    I suspect that it is better to portray the beauty of Christ. Those who don’t find Jesus to be beautiful and worthy of pursuit (1 Jn 3:1-3) probably shouldn’t be induced, as a last resort, to “follow” Him out of fear of torments. That just fills the churches with self-absorbed hell-avoiders.

    Having said that, Scripture does in a number of places put the appeal to people’s consciences in a way that resembles the approach I am uncomfortable with. Moses, of course, set before Israel a path leading to exile and death and a path leading to a blessed life in the land of promise, and appealed to his hearers to choose the better path. Jesus famously spoke of a path that led to destruction and a path that led to life and urged His hearers to make every effort to enter the path leading to life.

    It’s interesting that Moses’ appeal to Israel does not seem to envisage post-mortem punishments or rewards; the horrors of ECT don’t seem to have been relevant to his hearers, or important enough to explicitly mention. I do wonder whether the attempt to “reform hell” needs to grapple with the possibility that Jesus’ prophetic warnings and appeals to Israel are similarly this-world focused, in the historic pattern of Hebrew prophetic utterance. This hypothesis obviously has a strong preterist tendency.

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    1. I agree that different people are at different stages. If they’re genuinely concerned that God doesn’t really love people then UR can be very uplifting. However, if they’re just looking for any excuse to ignore God, then I probably wouldn’t emphasise it but gently try to explain that there are real consequences to our rebellion and selfishness.

      I agree with your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs too. Some Christians seem to act like they have their golden ticket so no need for sanctification, possibly believing they are good enough already or that it will magically happen later without them having to put any effort in.

      I think there are some situations where it might be appropriate and possible to appeal to people’s consciences – although I agree it can be uncomfortable to do.

      Yes, I think there’s a distinct lack of ECT in the OT, and that even in the NT, some of it seems to make more sense as applying to this world (e.g. the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD).

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  4. The earliest church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, The Cappodician Fathers, Didimus-the blind, and many others believed in a temporal or finite hell to purge away the sinfulness and wickedness of the unrepentant after death, with different degrees of miseries, torments, and times. St. Clement taught of a “pantelos” Age of correctional punishment at the Last Great Judgment of the sheep and goats. Your essay on ” the sheep and the kids” seems to point to this. “Kolasis Aionion” does literally mean an Age of purging, correctional punishment. God is perfectly righteous in His judgments and punishments, and as it states in (James 2:13), “Mercy triumphs over judgment”. Jesus also stated, “that some shall be beaten with many stripes, and some beaten with fewer stripes” (Luke 12:47-48). Jesus also taught of the punishment of those who were wicked enough to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, “that this wickedness would not be forgiven in this Age, nor in the Age coming”. {not impardonable forever} (Matthew 12:31-32). When the Bible came out of the dead Latin language at the reformation into each nation’s language, the more dilligent bible scholars such as the Anabaptists, Moravians, Pietists, English speaking UR believers such as Thomas Allin and Ethanan Winchester taught a finite hell–not a teaching that there was no purging, correctional hell at all!

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    1. I totally agree with you. I wish the Western Church had stuck with Greek like the Eastern Church! I proofread Robin’s new annotated edition of Thomas Allin’s most popular UR book & I’ve started going through one of Winchester’s books.

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