Carrot-and-stick evangelism. (Mostly stick.)

Why hellfire and brimstone is the worst way to proclaim God’s kingdom.

Recently I got to talking with a member of my church about evangelism. She wanted to know how I shared Jesus. Not to pick up any pointers or anything; she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t spreading heresy. (She’s one of those folks who’s not sure anyone’s doing Christianity right but her.)

So I talked about how I usually lead pagans to Jesus: First I try to plug ’em into a church. Doesn’t need to be mine, but it should be a fruitful church. They’re more likely to encounter Jesus for themselves if the people in the church know him personally, y’know.

She. “And what do you tell them about hell?”
Me. “Not much. They don’t usually ask.”
She. “You don’t warn them about hell?
Me. “I don’t need to. I’ve already got ’em interested in going to church.”
She. “But you’ve gotta warn ’em about hell!”
Me. “Why?”
She. [gonna burst a blood vessel over my perceived stupidity] “Because that’s where they’re headed!”
Me. “Oh, they know that. That’s the one thing they definitely know about us Christians: We think they’re all going to hell. I don’t need to repeat that. Not that they believe in hell anyway.”
She. “They have to believe in hell. The bible says…”
Me. “Half the time they don’t believe what the bible says either. You know how people think nowadays: Books are just the writings of old dead white guys. Seeing is believing. That’s why I’m trying to get ’em to go to church: I want ’em to see stuff. Not that they will, but I don’t just want ’em to take my word for it. Even if I quote loads of bible at ’em.”
She. “If they don’t believe the bible, they can’t be saved.”
Me. “Well, lucky for them neither I nor God believe that.”

Pretty sure I didn’t convince her I’m not doing it totally wrong.

But the reason I share Jesus this way is ’cause I used to do it her way. And didn’t get anywhere. It’s what I call carrot-and-stick evangelism: Heaven’s the carrot; hell’s the stick. And be sure you preach about 75 percent stick, lest they think there are no dire consequences for rejecting heaven.

It’s a common dark Christian practice, and it has the bad habit of creating more dark Christians.

The kingdom runs on grace. This tactic definitely doesn’t.

Fear’s a powerful motivator. Right after public speaking, most people’s greatest fear is death. They’re afraid to die. Not necessarily because they fear a painful or wasting death; it’s because they fear what’ll happen after they die. They don’t know what comes next.

They fear maybe nothing’ll happen at all. You die, and everything goes black, ’cause this life is all there is… and they’re wasting it on boring jobs and video games.

Or they fear there will be something after death… and it won’t be at all what they wanted. Something awful, like getting reincarnated as bacteria. (Hey, if everybody gets reincarnated, and we could potentially wind up as some other species, statistically it’s gonna be bacteria. We’re totally outnumbered, humans.) Or going to the bad afterlife. I mean, if the destination is based on karma, the vast majority of us are screwed. We don’t have enough to appease whatever gods assign us to Valhalla or Naströnd.

Carrot-and-stick evangelists promise us the good afterlife, and give us a really simple, easy-to-follow method of getting there: State “Jesus is Lord” aloud, believe God raised him from the dead, and you’re golden. Ro 10.9 Say the sinner’s prayer. For “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” Jn 3.16 KJV and you too can become a “whosoever.”

The problem is the carrot part of the pitch? It’s not the whole story. Jesus didn’t merely offer us heaven. He intends to put us in his kingdom. This kingdom doesn’t consist of lounging in your heavenly mansion eating Tree of Life apples. It consists of the stuff Jesus spoke of in his Sermon on the Mount. But instead of explaining the good news of the kingdom to ’em, we leapfrog it and start talking about the bad news: Hell.

And spend a lot of time on the bad news. So much so, our “gospel presentation” is mostly, if not all, bad news. Fear, not grace.

Carrot-and-stick evangelists defend this modus operandi by arguing two things:

  1. Well it’s true.
  2. And it works.

Is it true? Technically yes. Embrace Jesus and receive the kingdom; don’t and don’t. So what’s inaccurate about the carrot-and-stick view? Like I said, the kingdom runs on grace. If we don’t show people grace—if we only show people fear—they’re gonna get the idea that’s what Christianity is about. Fear God’s wrath. Appease him, lest he smite thee.

When we lead people to Christ by preying upon their fears, it frequently means they’re gonna wind up in fearful, legalistic churches. Like I said, dark Christians breed more dark Christians. They’re not gonna have a healthy relationship with Jesus, where they grow in love and grace and other fruit of the Spirit. Instead you’re gonna get a bunker mentality, where they’re frightened of this wicked, corrupt generation. And instead of sharing God’s grace with it, they simply denounce and hate it, and tell it they’re going to hell.

Which is why, as I said earlier, pagans already know Christians think they’re going to hell. We’ve been mighty successful at getting that word out.

No, we don’t want anyone to go to hell. God doesn’t either. 2Pe 3.9 But have we really freed anyone from hell if we got ’em to surround themselves with Christians who teach nothing but fear, hate, and hypocrisy? When they still bite and devour fellow Christians who “aren’t Christian enough” Ga 5.15 and shun people whom Christ died for?

Worst of all, dark Christian churches tend to have the bad habit of disguising works of the flesh Ga 5.19-21 as fake fruit. And since such people don’t inherit God’s kingdom, Ge 5.21 it means—sinner’s prayer aside—they’re not saved. They’re still hellbound. Doesn’t matter what we preached at ’em; they have no real relationship with Jesus, ’cause we showed them hell instead of him.

“But hell is real, and they’re going there.”

Yes, Jesus taught about hell. As did the apostles. You’ll find the subject all over the New Testament. You’ll also find neither the apostles, nor Jesus, really talked about it with unbelievers. Either Jesus spoke with Pharisees, who already believed in hell; or the apostles wrote to new Christians, reminding them we shouldn’t want people to go there any more than God does.

When it came to evangelism, the apostles primarily talked about Jesus and his kingdom. Simon Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2 refers to hades once, Ac 2.31 which the KJV translates “hell,” Ac 2.31 KJV but Peter never warns people away from hellfire; only from “this twisted generation.” Ac 2.40 Paul’s first sermon in Acts 13 doesn’t mention hell at all. Not once. Not even after people overtly rejected the gospel. Ac 13.46-48 The apostles didn’t deem it necessary.

’Cause it wasn’t. Isn’t.

Like I said, pagans don’t really believe in it. Using it as a stick? You may as well use a pool noodle. It doesn’t impress them, and it makes ’em think we’re angry and hell-fixated. Gotta tell ya: They’re not wrong.

Yeah, some evangelists are gonna have anecdotes about how they once preached the gospel, talked about hell at length, and pagans came forward to receive Jesus, worried hell was exactly where they were headed. So obviously some pagans still believe in hell. And yeah, I don’t deny some pagans do. Plenty of people have seen stuff which convinced ’em hell is real. But they need to be cured of those fears, and get saved from them just as much as get saved from sin and death. They’re unhealthy. Bring ’em to Jesus but don’t cure their fears, and you’ll have turned ’em into unhealthy Christians. Fear cannot be their motivation for following Jesus. Fear twists. Love restores.

God doesn’t save by fear, 2Ti 1.7 but by his grace. 2Ti 1.9 Scaring people away from hell doesn’t proclaim the God of grace. It only exposes our own lack of grace. Our lack of fruit. Our works of the flesh. Carrot-and-stick evangelists seldom truly know the Jesus they proclaim. Sometimes because they’re immature and haven’t learned any better. Sometimes because they resist the Spirit and refuse to learn better: “My way works!” and people praise ’em for large numbers they draw. Instead of Jesus, they pursue human acclaim—and they’ve received their reward, and won’t get another once Jesus returns.

Don’t follow them. Follow Jesus. It’s God’s kindness which leads us to repentance and eternal life. Ro 2.4 Start new believers off right by proclaiming that God.