Why Do We Need to Believe in Hell? (Part 1: Fear)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Discussions on hell in the Bible can quickly become emotionally heated. Whether you feel the strong need to defend the doctrine or the strong need to argue against it, the concept of hell is not just a theoretical discussion.

Ironically, debates on the subject are typically focused on fact claims of what the Bible says, as if emotions played no role at all. The motivations of why we either seek to defend or question hell is considered to be a liability, a weakness in one's argument.

Consequently, those in support of it focus on the Scriptural evidence for hell, and those arguing against it similarly focus on Scriptural fact claims as well, for example, arguing that the Greek word translated as "hell" does not mean what you think it means.

In short, one side says "the Bible says there is a hell, and that settles it" while the other side says "no it doesn't say that, it's a mistranslation." Both focus on the "facts" of what the Bible says, ignoring what motivates each to focus on what they do.

But let's dig a little deeper. What motivates people to either embrace or reject the doctrine of hell? What drives a person to assemble an arsenal of verses upholding the doctrine of hell? Conversely, what motivates a person to dig into the Greek to try and find grounds to question the doctrine of hell? If we are unreflected and unaware of these motivations that drive our interpretation of Scripture, they will still drive what we see and don't see. So if we want to have anything approaching an honest and objective reading, we need to face them.

For those of us who object it's pretty clear. We object because it seems awful and immoral. Speaking for myself, as my love for God and my neighbor increased, the horror at the thought of many of those who I love suffering eternal punishment increased with it, leading me to ask how can a loving God send people to hell? In other words, the reason I became troubled with hell was because I was growing closer to Jesus. It was as I grew closer to Jesus that I saw more and more the moral problems with the doctrine of hell. Many people feel that way, and that leads us to really struggle with the doctrine of hell.

However, the way we see this framed is that while we are struggling because of moral or emotional reasons, those who defend it are just focusing on the facts of what Scripture says. I want to propose that that is simply not true. Those who defend hell are just as much doing so motivated by moral or emotional concerns. There is no side that is just rationally and non-emotionally looking at what Scripture "says." Everyone is motivated to defend what they do because of deep-seated things under the surface.

So why it do some people feel the need so defend hell? I was shocked at how matter-of-factly my fellow Christians accepted that the majority of the world was going to hell. How could they believe this and not be deeply broken and grieved over it? The reason is because there is something going on that causes people to need to believe in hell, to want there to be a hell. This may be masked in a matter-of-fact non-emotional tone because this works well as a debate strategy to pretend to be detached and just focused on the "facts," but until we can recognize the things that are really there behind this, motivating us to "see" what we see, we will only have a superficial understanding.

I would propose that there are two basic underlying reasons that people believe in hell. I'll deal with one of those here, and discuss the second next time.

One reason people believe in hell is rooted in an urgency to see people repent, and a corresponding belief that they can be motivated by fear. That is, they fear for the person, and so they attempt to communicate that urgency through threat and fear. We can see this in the prophetic "warnings" of Scripture, including the NT, where people are told that unless they turn from their ways, they await pain and suffering. While the OT does this with a focus primarily on earthly suffering (threatening people with starvation, famine, war, rape, etc) the NT shifts the focus to suffering in the afterlife. In either case, the intent is to cause the hearer to turn from their path to avoid the suffering. Be loving or else. This is motivation by fear.

We can see this continued in the classical fundamentalist preachers of hell, perhaps best exemplified by Johnathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Here's a taste,

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

That's how the "good news" is preached, with a mandatory intro focused on hell. Such "hellfire and brimstone" sermons can still be heard today, Sunday after Sunday throughout the Bible belt. This is not about making sober factual claims, the way a doctor might tell you that if you do not change your eating habits there could be adverse heath risks. Rather it is intended to evoke fear and alarm. The idea is to (literally) scare the hell out of someone. That's what Hell House is supposed to do. It's meant for good. However many can attest that this focus on fear has actually resulted in damaging them, pulling them away from God and away from love. So even if it was meant for good, we need to look at whether motivating people by fear may in fact make things worse, and we also need to look at whether there are more effective means for reaching our goal (seeing people repent of hurtful and destructive behavior).

Psychologists have observed that threat and pain only work as motivators temporarily. To remain effective the threat or punishment must be escalated over time. The context of the NT, scholars tell us, is that they saw themselves at a point where they believed the end of the world was close at hand. When the world did not end, for the threat to remain effective it needed to become more and more extreme until we arrived at Dante's graphic visions of hell, and the idea of conscious eternal torment. It's kind of hard to top that, so there is no place to go from there. All you can do is scream louder about it.

Fear and threat only work in the short-term  because they are external, rather than internal motivators. That is, when a person does something motivated by fear, they don't do it because it is right or because they care, but simply because they want to avoid punishment. They are not actually good, they are simply complying with it to avoid pain. They are not motivated by love, which cares for the other, but by fear, which only sees the self.

This is why many Christians, when they lose the fear of hell, turn away from God. They do this because they never actually loved God, they only feared God. To understate the case, it's hard to maintain a constant state of fear in any relationship without it messing you up. So people running from a relationship rooted in fear -- including a relationship with God -- is probably a healthy and good thing to do. John tells us that love and fear cannot coexist. "There is no fear in love" he says. Many Christians fight that statement tooth and nail because they believe that fear goes hand in hand with love. Fear is so internalized by them that they can't imagine a relationship without it. So while some Christians question hell and fear, others question love and forgiveness. The fact is, we all question things based on what we really believe in.

That strategy of motivation by fear of punishment may work with parking tickets, but it simply does not work when the goal is to produce people who love, who care for others as they care for themselves. If we really want to see people repent from being unloving and selfish, we need to show them how to develop empathy and social maturity. Fear cannot do that. Love can. Fear may work in the short-term, but we need to go deeper than that and move people long-term towards real internalized moral maturity and social development. 

We might ask here, "If that is true, why does the NT use fear as a motivator?" This is a place where the NT is stuck in the morally wrong assumptions of the culture of the time. At the time it was assumed by everyone that physical punishment (and to be clear, we are not talking about spanking, but physical punishment that we would today consider to be criminal abuse) was "for your own good." Compared to that, simply threatening people with suffering, as opposed to inflicting it yourself with a whip, seems comparatively mild. But it is still hurtful, and perhaps more importantly it is simply not the most effective means to achieve the goal in mind, which is to motivate people to be loving and good. We need to be able to see that end goal of the NT -- motivating people to embrace Jesus' way of radical grace and forgiveness -- while recognizing that there are better, more loving, and more effective means to get there. Fear of hell is not a prerequisite to accepting the good news of the gospel.

Next time we'll discuss the other major motivation behind people's need for hell -- a deep-seated desire for retributive that shapes most people's understanding of justice. CONTINUE TO PART 2 

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At 6:01 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

A good initiation to a topic many fear to broach.

The "pro-hell" contingent seems quick to accuse those that don't "believe" in their kind of hell as being unable to accept hard truths because they are "emotionally weak." But couldn't it also be that they have subconsciously disconnected their emotions and conscience because they are too emotionally weak to even consider the darkness -- like reading a Stephen King novel?

While it is true that hellfire and brimstone sermons still exist in certain areas and within certain denominations, isn't it also true that the frequency of those sermons has greatly diminished over the last century? Could it be that the reason for this decline in frequency is because of an emotional weakness to defend it?

Looking forward to the next post.

At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


When authoritarian folks accuse others of being "emotionally weak" this means that they think it is weak to have emotions. If I understand you correctly, you are then saying the reverse, that their inability to face their emotions is a weakness.

Could you expand on your statement that "the reason for this decline in frequency [of preaching hellfire] is because of an emotional weakness to defend it?" I'm not sure I am following you here.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Tony Corsaro said...

Steve, An emotional weakness to defend hell or a moral conviction to reject it? What one sees as an emotional weakness might in fact be another's conscience stepping in and saying no.

Just a thought.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger nwphotography said...

I think of it like this. There Jewish people had a relativity clear understanding of what a messiah would look like. When he came he looked and acted differently than any one thought.

As Christians we say we have a relativity clear understanding of hell and heaven. Chances are were are wrong again on both of them.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger SteveO said...


I'm thinking there are two sides to the emotion coin and the hellists use one side while ignoring their own emotional issues. They claim that weak people let their emotions get the better of them and this lack of sound judgment prevents them from accepting their proof texts. "It is weak to have emotions," or the emotional argument is a weak argument.

I'm saying it's even more emotionally weak to emulate Spock from Star Trek. Rather than courageously addressing emotional issues, they chicken out by being dismissive. Rather than defending the theology of a cosmic cook committing eternal conscious torment, they passively stop preaching it. According to one old funeral director, 99% of pastors are universalists at funerals for the wayward.

I like what Tony said. Rephrasing, "What one sees as an emotional weakness might in fact be a healthy conscience with the courage to say eternal conscious torment is morally repulsive."

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Derek,
I think another reason people can live with the idea of hell for some is that we naturally exclude, and like to feel superior to, other people- we get our sense of belonging and worth at others' expense. We feel they deserve misfortune because they are different to "us"(but really "me")
I don't now why this should be true but it does seem to be.
God is a God of love and inclusion and He longs for us to act in the same way.

At 5:54 AM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Fear is the opposite of Love, but what about the old testament and 1 peter 2 saying to "fear God." Wouldn't the path of fear be the opposite of what the God of Love would want us to tread upon in order to Love God?

At 6:50 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Regarding "fear God," the 1 Peter passage is often translated as reverence and respect in newer translations. When my fundy friends speak of fearing God I point out that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but a mature, healthy and loving relationship with God culminates in being His friend because there is no fear in love.

When my kids were very young there was a certain healthy respect or trepidation at the prospect of receiving discipline. But now that they are grown adults our relationship is one of friendship.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

It is true that "fear" is translated as "reverence" in many modern translations. There is something both good and bad about how modern translations "fix" words like this. For example Hebrews 12, quoting proverbs in the LXX, says "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts." The word translated as "chastise" here (which means "scold") literally means "scourge" (like Jesus was scourged by the Roman soldiers). In one sense I'm glad they soften it, but on the other hand it also can give people the false impression that the NT is something other than what it is.

As far as the translating "fear" as "reverence" obviously John is not saying "there is no reverence in love" so at the very least the same word is being used by different authors in different ways.

Also remember that conservatives have an a priori assumption that the Bible does not have any contradictions, even though it clearly has tons. It is a multi-vocal book where different people express different and conflicting views of God. So one author could say "fear is central to love" while another can say "fear is incompatible with love" because they disagree.

Looking at the context, at times when the OT and NT speak of "fear" (or "reverence") the consequences are truly horrific. In the OT is is profound suffering (starvation, rape, disease, etc) while in the NT it is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" so the word "fear" or even "terror" does seem appropriate, whereas "reverence" seems out of place.

Go read Deuteronomy chapter 28, beginning at verse 20. That's about terror, fear. That is the Torah context of "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

My take is that people in the past did think that terror was a legitimate means of motivating a person to good. They did not realize the harm it does, how easily it -- even if meant for good -- can become abusive.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi all,
I think the way Jesus reinterprets Deut 10:20 in Luke 4:8 is instructive;
He substitutes the word worship for fear.
I would imagine He is using worship in the largest sense i.e. all the ways we live in and for God.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Everything you said is good Derek. But in my encounters with fundamentalists having a history of fear-based religion, pointing out the many contradictions within a multi-vocal book gets you nowhere. But they do relate to the enhanced relational experience made possible through Jesus. They intuitively understand that love casts out all fear. They intuitively understand that while fear is a beginning of understanding, a more mature and intimate friendship with the Lord is to be more highly esteemed. Maybe your graduate level of theological understanding can only occur after the fear-based religion has been overcome or significantly rooted out.

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Oooooh that's great observation Lewis! Here's the Greek:

Luke 4:8 Κύριον τὸν θεόν σου προσκυνήσεις καὶ αὐτῷ μόνῳ λατρεύσεις
Dt 6:13 (LXX) κύριον τὸν θεόν σου φοβηθήσῃ καὶ αὐτῷ λατρεύσεις

Jesus changes the word "fear" (Greek phobeō which our word "phobia" comes from) to "worship" (Greek proskyneō which our word "prostrate" comes from). He also adds the word "only" (Greek monos) .

It is "fear" both in the LXX (the Greek OT that the NT works from), and the Hebrew Masoretic.

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I understand what you are saying about building a bridge to fundamentalists. That's true. But here I'm talking to you guys so I'm saying how I read it myself, in a non-fundamentalist way. I do think ultimately to be morally healthy we need to move away from that. So if they need a sort of "methadone" to wean them off of their authoritarian reading, I'm okay with that as transitional step in the right direction. :)

At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Hi Derek- so glad you are taking on this subject. I have a few fundy friends who say hell is real because God must use justice in judging sin. They say we all deserve hell because of our depraved sinful nature and since God has to be perfectly just, hell has to exist. Like to read you and your readers comments especially if any of you have fundy friend who believe this way


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