05 September 2022

“Nobody wants to talk about hell anymore.”

There’s this church in town whose members really love to leave gospel tracts in my local Walmart. They especially like the really bitter, bilious tracts; the ones which inform people IN ALL CAPS that they’re totally going to hell unless they give up all their favorite things, reject the pope and all his works, and turn to Jesus. You know, typical dark Christian tracts. Especially the ones full of half-truths and conspiracy theories, ’cause they’re those kinds of wackjobs.

I typically find them sitting on top of the urinals. I wonder whether the tract-passers realize how easy it is to bump ’em into the urinals and whiz all over ’em. And how often it probably happens—both by antichrists who wanna show their petty contempt for Christians, and by fellow Christians who are irritated when people turn the good news into bad. Only Walmart’s janitors know for sure.

This particular tract caught my attention because it began with the line, “Nobody wants to talk about hell anymore.” In my experience this always means the person definitely wants to talk about hell.

And in fact loves to talk about hell. Won’t shut up about hell. Usually such people talk about hell more than they talk Jesus. They’re sick ’n tired of Christians like me who want them to stop exalting it: Hell’s a big deal. If people don’t turn to Jesus, and shun rock music and socialized medicine and the New World Order, they’re going to hell! Shouldn’t people be warned about this? Shouldn’t we tell them this?

So the tract wrote plenty about hell. Not in a lot of detail, ’cause the bible doesn’t actually provide details. Mostly to emphasize what the bible does have in it—that hell’s all weeping, wailing, teeth-gnashing, and suffering. Contrary to the movies, it’s not a fun place where you can party with pornstars and your favorite heavy metal bands and all your sinful friends, and snort all the “marihuana” you want with no worries about overdose. You actually don’t wanna go to hell.

And I agree; you don’t! But you know why I don’t care to talk about hell when I’m sharing Jesus? Because I’m trying to help ’em believe in Jesus. They kinda don’t. Not really; not enough. I’m nudging them towards more faith.

When people don’t believe in Jesus, they definitely don’t believe in hell. They think it’s imaginary. Either they think everybody without exception goes to heaven, or otherwise advances to another plane of existence; or we entirely cease to exist, and go nowhere. So hell is the fiction of horror movies and comic books and gothic literature and Bugs Bunny cartoons. If I imagine I’m gonna terrify them with it, I’m gonna be greatly disappointed.

So those of us Christians who don’t talk about hell, don’t do so for no reason, nor because we don’t believe in hell. We don’t talk about it because it doesn’t work. People might turn to Jesus out of fear… but either they won’t stay Christian, or they’ll use Christianity to justify all their other paranoid fears, and really be more Christianist than Christian. They’ll fear their neighbors, not love them.

Plus all this hell-talk has the unfortunate side effect of corrupting those who preach hell. Like I said, our gospel becomes bad news, not good. We stop being heavenly-minded. We grow as fearful as our message. We’re constantly watching out for devils instead of listening to the Holy Spirit.

“But they need to believe in hell.”

I’ve said such things before whenever I speak with hell-minded Christians. Not that it changes their behavior or their minds any. In fact they’re kinda outraged that I claim talking about hell is generally a waste of time. Hell is real! People need to hear about it! ’Cause at this rate, it’s where they’re going!

And even Jesus says so. In fact they regularly claim Jesus talks about hell more often in the scriptures than he talks about heaven. More often than any other person in the scriptures spoke on hell. More often than any other subject. He describes it vividly, as an absolute reality. He doesn’t want us to go there either!

You’ll find very few things frustrate hell-minded Christians as much as people who, despite all their warnings, despite all Jesus’s supposed warnings, won’t believe in hell. Who think hell is mythology; who think we Christians are ridiculous for believing in it. Who insist if God were truly good, he’d never create such a place. (That last bit really twists their knickers. I’ll discuss it another time.)

I’ve caught hell-minded Christians in debates with pagans over the existence of hell. Yeah, they could’ve been sharing their experiences with the goodness of Jesus (assuming they have any such experiences—we Christians all should!), but they opted to share warnings of Jesus’s wrath.

Okay, lemme address these misbegotten beliefs about Jesus and hell.

Yes Jesus did bring up hell more often than anybody in the bible. Mainly that’s because Jesus speaks more often than anybody in the bible. (Except the LORD, when he’s handing down commands to Moses, or speaking through the prophets… but the LORD is Jesus, so technically it’s still Jesus who speaks the most often.) And because we have four gospels, he’ll say certain things three or four times. One of Jesus’s statements about hell gets quoted multiple times. But seeing as there are four words for “hell” in the bible, it’d be a good idea to sort out which hell he meant, and whether he has the same ideas about hell as hell-minded Christians.

But no Jesus didn’t talk about hell more than heaven. The topic he speaks on most, the topic all his parables are about, is his kingdom. Or as Matthew tends to call it, “the kingdom of heaven.” It’s how he expects us to live on earth, but it’s also how heaven works. He speaks about kingdom more than anything, and whenever he speaks on hell, it’s usually to point out how hell’s the lousy alternative to his kingdom.

Which of these two are meant to draw people to Jesus: His goodness or his wrath? Well, for hell-fixated people, Jesus’s goodness gets just a little bit of lip service; they’ll quickly acknowledge it exists. But in all their sermons and tracts, far more emphasis, and typically far more time, is on the wrath part. They’re fond of carrot and stick evangelism, but especially the stick part. So if people don’t even believe in the stick… well it’s no fun anymore, is it?

Take away hell, and they’ll actually argue evangelism loses all its urgency, all its motivation, all its power. In other words hell was its power. You getting that? Let that sink in a bit: The engine of their gospel is hell.

Not Jesus’s love and compassion. Not God’s desire to be with his people forever. Not the grand plan God has for our lives—to give us grace and hope, to make us better people, for us to inherit his kingdom and tap its kingdom’s power now instead of waiting for the second coming. Not a loving, beneficial, personal relationship with Jesus; not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; not God’s kindness, peace, and love.

They’ve traded all this good news for the fear of hell.

In fact, when you look at their own lives, you’re gonna find way more fear in them than any of God’s good fruit. ’Cause producing fruit means you actually have to submit to God, and recognize there’s stuff in their lives which needs a lot of work—and they’d much rather imagine they’re just fine. It’s everyone else who needs fixing.

Fear’s a powerful motivator. It’s why they value it so much: It actually does get people to turn to Jesus in fear, and actually does get people to join their churches. But like I said, such people either don’t stay Christian, or become sucky Christians. Since fear-based dark Christians are exactly the kind of sucky Christians I mean, they of course can’t see what the problem is. They think grace-minded Christians are the real problem in Christendom; we need to preach about hell more!

Yeah, they really have the gospel upside down. Arguably it’s not even the gospel anymore.

So… you wanna talk about hell? Fine. Let’s talk about how hell is corrupting Christians and the gospel they proclaim. How it’s driving certain Christians to be less and less like Jesus: Less charitable, more jerklike, less loving, more fearful. Weaker, not stronger—because when pagans don’t believe in hell (and many don’t!) they can’t preach the gospel anymore. I can still talk about the One who powers my gospel; they can’t. Shouldn’t our gospel be undefeatable? Why then is theirs so easily defeated?