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”.
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.