Thinking the fear of hell can save


When I was younger, the people in my church community would often tell frightening stories of hell (many still do). And not the Biblical version of hell for those that ultimately reject Christ, mind you, but one where demons torture people who simply didn’t try hard enough, or weren’t perfect enough. This tactic, among many more, was used to drive fear into the hearts of impressionable children, like myself. I spent many nights in cold sweats, imagining that the gates of hell were open and seeking to devour me. I made sure to pray every single night and beg for forgiveness, knowing that if I did not, I would surely be severely punished in hell for secretly watching television or etc. In my mind salvation was not something that Jesus accomplished, but a very conditional “gift.” It had to be maintained by our own good works and one single misstep would literally damn you to hell.

Many times in my childhood I heard stories from the pulpit of men who claimed they went to hell and saw other Christians there who had made one simple mistake right before death and were eternally condemned. In one specific case, the visiting preacher spoke of seeing hell with his own eyes and reported that in there was a pastor who said one small lie before dying by accident. This pastor, allegedly, had been a good Christian his whole life, but let his guard down, just once, and Satan tempted him. This pastor did not even realize he lied, and only upon entering hell remembered. And so, according to our visiting preacher, the eternally condemned pastor had begged this preacher to tell all the Christians that one small sin would send them to hellfire, regardless of their life of good deeds. “Be watchful and ask forgiveness of things you don’t even remember” our visiting preacher had said as a great waterfall of fear rushed over me.

Later that night I struggled to find a hole in the man’s argument, yet how could he, standing behind the pulpit, lie? In my mind I could only hear the misquotation of Jude 1:23, “save some with fear,” and think that “since God talks about saving with fear, it must be what that preacher is doing.” Only later did I learn the real meaning of the passage does not say “motivate Christians to good deeds by keeping them in a perpetual state of fear.” Instead it speaks of showing “mercy with fear” and that during the salvation of non-believers from a state of being hell-bound to a state of being redeemed and fully saved. I was neither a non-believer, nor saw any mercy. The only thing I did see was fear, and that fear of hell was the main thing used to motivate Christians to do good.


Fear is selfish

Today when I speak to people from a similar background, and explain the details of God’s Grace, and that salvation is completely free, some freak out… but not from fear. Mostly they are confused as to how its fair that they get saved apart from becoming a good person (I try to explain that it’s because Jesus is a good person and He accomplished our salvation on the cross). But their biggest objection is always this: “if you teach people they are saved from hell 100% because of God’s Grace and not their personal holy life/goodness then they will become bad!”

It is indeed a powerful point. And it clearly exposes the anti-Gospel mindset which basically affirms that “if you tell a Christian they will go to hell for sinning, that person will stop sinning because they don’t want to feel pain.” Forever is a long time and fire hurts. C’mon lets be logical, any selfish snob can figure out that 100 years of fun is not worth infinite years of burning. Every narcissist and hedonist in this sinful world would rather choose to torture himself for a hundred years in order to receive infinite years of pleasure and relaxation at the best eternal vacation resort in the universe. The only motivating factor in this version of Christianity is the selfish desire for personal comfort and safety.

If we believe we will lose our salvation when we are not good, then the sole motivating factor for us to be good, is the selfish desire for self-preservation. Salvation becomes solely based on how selfish you are. The more selfish you are, the more likely you are to force yourself to be good and avoid out eternal punishment.

The Gospel is selfless

The above scenario is completely antithetical to the Gospel, for the Gospel teaches us to be more concerned about others than ourselves. The Gospel teaches us to be selfless not selfish. The Gospel teaches us to imitate Christ who gave selflessly, who sacrificed His comfort and safety in order to show his love to those who don’t deserve it. We see glimpses of a God who was not selfish, who did not stay in comfort and safety, instead he was selfless. The Gospel shows us a Jesus did not selfishly avoid the angst of hell. Instead Christ took up the cross, paid for our sins, and received the full brunt of hell upon his shoulders. Jesus was condemned, he sought the terrors of hell, not avoided them, only that we would be justified.

For this reason fear as motivation in the Christian life desperately fails; it is selfish and completely against the spirit of the Gospel. We no longer live out of fear, we no longer strive to do good to avoid punishment.

We who are in Christ, can rest in the certainty of our salvation and our good works come from our salvation, not for our salvation.

As Scripture says “fear has to do with punishment” yet that is not what the Christian life is about, for Jesus already took the punishment. Jesus loved us, and his perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Because His love and His life “secured and eternal redemption” for us, we can stop worrying about selfish self-preservation from hell and learn to be selfless and love others with our life.


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