In the recent debates about hell, stirred by the book Love Wins and the various blogs, articles and books now written in response to Rob Bell, I have heard many rather ridiculous arguments and statements on every side of this debate. At some point I may say more but there is one argument I want to take up today that I’ve heard all my life and find completely lacking in biblical evidence.

hell The argument goes like this—if people are lost eternally without consciously knowing and hearing about Jesus then if we remove this doctrinal point, namely that they must “hear” or they will burn in hell forever, we destroy the/a primary motive for our doing evangelism. My point here is not to open Pandora’s Box about the destiny of the un-evangelized but rather to ask a simple question: “Is this motive about saving people from hell who have not heard really a necessary and biblically given motive for evangelism?” So far as I can tell it is not.

To ask the question in another way, “Why should we take evangelism seriously?”

1. Because of the commission Christ gave to his church; that is the mandate he gave to all of us as members of the body of Christ. Matthew 28:18-20 says this commission is rooted in the “authority” of Jesus. The primary reason the church ought to go and make disciples is because Jesus told us to do so. If we love Jesus then we want to do what he tells us to do. If that is not motive enough something is desperately wrong in our understanding of Jesus and his love.

Evangelism is not the last step in making disciples but rather the first. We cannot “make disciples” unless people hear the good news and believe it. Jesus calls people us all into life-transforming relationship with him and his followers (i.e. the church). He does this through a message that must be shared (preached/proclaimed) with people. Simply put, Jesus tells us directly and indirectly that the church is to spread the good news. But note carefully—it is the church holistically that spreads the good news. Not every single Christian is an evangelist. But every single Christian shares in the work of evangelism as part of the mission of Jesus, namely by being a vital part of his church on earth. This is at the heart of a missional understanding of the church and the Trinity.

2. If we keep this gospel message to ourselves then we fail to share  the most power life-giving message that brings meaning to life now through forgiveness and positive hope for eternity to come. Is sharing this news an act of love? How does the love of Christ actually inform our personal and collective actions in this regard?

3. Playing off number two above I believe one of the most loving things that we can ever do, if not the most loving, is to share this good news with needy and broken people. There are many things that we can and should do so that we truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves but for the Christian evangelism has to be very high on the list of things we do when we love our neighbor.

We should collectively and personally ask God to give us a passion for the spiritual welfare of others. We should pray for a longing to extend his kingdom (reign of grace) into the lives of all people everywhere. This starts right where you and I live. And it extends to all people everywhere according to the New Testament (cf. Revelation 5:6-10).

The desire of God’s heart is to seek and to find the lost, as we saw yesterday. We act in accord with God’s seeking heart when we join him in seeking for the lost. This is THE motive for evangelism. And if understood and correctly taught it will motivate people to evangelism.

But where, I must ask again, does hell come into this picture? Jesus warned about judgment and hell for sure but nowhere can I find him telling his disciples “You must now go tell everyone this message or they will die and go to hell because you failed to do this work.” This is a huge deduction. It is a powerful leap from one category to another. It is common but it needs to be challenged.

I have personally known two missionaries who went overseas to preach the gospel driven by this sense of obligation that they had to go or they would answer for those who perished without them going and warning them about hell. They spoke graphically of multitudes plunging into hell unless they went and preached. It was convicting stuff when I was a young minister. But I’ve always wondered about this appeal, especially the logic and motive behind what they appealed to in these stories.

Sadly, both these missionaries left the field and their wives. Both gave up the mission and quit. I’ve lost track of them both.

I am not saying they quit their mission because they believed this way about hell as a motive for doing evangelism but it makes me wonder. I am sure of this—you cannot sustain, at least in a healthy emotional and spiritual way, the logic and fear bound up with this kind of appeal. It is not plainly biblical and it is clearly not healthy.

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  1. Joe Schafer September 21, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Hi John. I think evangelism needs to be motivated by love: love for God and love for people. We tell people about Christ because God loves them and wants to make a relationship with them, and also because we love them and want to introduce them to Christ. All too often, evangelism seems to be motivated by some pressing need of the evangelist. The need to prove himself to be a “real” Christian, The need to prove that he is not a coward or wimp. The need to have a quiverfull of converts to validate himself and his beliefs and lifestyle. And so on. These hidden motives often masquerade as concern for the perishing. Over the long term, evangelism driven by the need of the evangelist rather than by love will lead to all sorts of problems. When I hear and see hellfire-driven evangelism, I usually don’t detect the aroma of love. It doesn’t pass the smell test, in my opinion.

  2. Roy Herbst September 21, 2011 at 7:24 am

    MOTIVATION for evangelism is only tangential to the argument. The question about what happens to the un-evangelized still remains.

  3. John H. Armstrong September 21, 2011 at 7:29 am

    You are clearly correct Roy but do not undersell how “motivation” is used by Christians in this debate. It is often played as “the trump card” for why we must believe a certain way or we will not act in the right way.
    Could it be that there are unanswered questions here that we cannot know in the present state and thus many, though not all, of the debates are not going to produce good fruit in the end.
    My neighbor needs to know Christ. If I love my neighbor I share God’s love with him. His response matters a great deal because God is love but he is also a just and holy judge. I do not know precisely how he will judge each person I meet, or never meet, and thus leave that to his wise response. Luther said, “Judgment is God’s strange work and mercy is what he delights in giving.” What is strange can be left to God’s wise bestowal without us knowing all we fuss and argue about.

  4. Ray Bebee September 21, 2011 at 7:51 am

    When the Holy Spirit is growing in someone’s heart, that person feels peace, joy, and excitement. It seems they can’t help but share those feelings through words and deeds. I think this is the Spirit’s way of causing evangelism. I have experienced this and have seen it in others too. It has nothing to do with who’s going to hell or heaven. That’s strictly up to God.

  5. Chris Criminger September 21, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Ho John,
    It is strange you are having this conversation because I just had a conversation with a friend yesterday who told me that the only reason he became a Christian was to not go to hell and he discovered later he really had no real faith or commitment to God. He then surrendered his life to the love of God and his life has been radically transformed since.

  6. BrianK September 21, 2011 at 10:45 am

    “I am sure of this—you cannot sustain, at least in a healthy emotional and spiritual way, the logic and fear bound up with this kind of appeal. It is not plainly biblical and it is clearly not healthy.”
    I would extend your thoughts in today’s post to include the appeal of disobedience. Clearly the “you’re going to hell if you don’t believe me” is the wrong approach, mainly because it is un-Biblical. I would add that the “you’re disobedient if you don’t believe me” is also the wrong approach. Both thought processes turn evangelism into a business process, using shame, guilt and fear to get people to do what you think they ought to do. For sure, these approaches to evangelism get people to jump on your bandwagon (for a time). But the wheels of that bandwagon will eventually fall off.
    Personally, I love Jesus’ approach, which was to just live a life of grace, truth and love. Jesus spoke out adamantly when needed, and tenderly when needed. I see that Jesus’ approach to evangelism always had the element of compassion. Jesus didn’t get into “brand promotion” or fear of hell tactics (though He clearly taught about hell). Jesus didn’t even like people calling Him the Christ during His ministry!

  7. Ray Prigodich September 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I’m not entirely on the same page with you, John. Although rescuing people from hell should not be our primary motivation for evangelism, it seems to me that it’s a valid, and important, secondary motivation. Even if our witness is motivated primarily by love, taking measures to keep people from eternal damnation is certainly one expression of our love for them.
    Although Jesus may not have commissioned us to be his witnesses for the explicit purpose of saving people from eternal punishment, this theme is very much present in New Testament soteriology. I think, for example, of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself told his hearers in Luke 13:3: “[U]nless you repent, you . . . will all perish.” And there’s also an actual directive in Jude 23 that we’re to “snatch [people] from the fire and save them. . . .”

  8. AdamR September 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    John, thank you for taking up this issue. Having read Bell’s book I think he goes too far in many places and is generally attacking a straw man, but I also see that many of his critics have taken up the challenge of personifying that straw man perfectly, in what amounts to a fundamentalist parody of Reformed theology. As I see it, Bells sees a caricature and responds with another caricature. His critics reply that the solution to Bell’s caricature of a solution is to reclaim the original caricature. And once again, constructive discussion is forestalled. You are so right that evangelism should be motivated out of love for the lost, not out of fear for the lost. Fear stops critical thinking and discussion, because, after all, Something Must Be Done. I think Doug Wilson has described this mentality as “setting your own hair on fire and running around in circles, screaming.”

  9. Duncan September 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Please forgive me, but I am not certain that I follow your concern / argument. I am likely missing some key nuance that would explain what you are getting at.
    For example, I concur with your three reasons for evangelism. At the same time, I don’t follow the logic of ‘therefore, we should not “preach the gospel driven by this sense of obligation … or they would answer for those who perished”‘. Certainly, our Redeemer redeems from SOMETHING — the Good News that we preach is in juxtaposition to bad news. So, what is that Bad News? That without a Redeemer, people will perish and suffer without knowing Him — and this suffering is eternal (in juxtaposition to the everlasting life of John 3:16). So, surely the Bible is clear that God intends to rescue people from death and suffering. And our love for others is not simply to tell them some arbitrary message — as if the mandate in your reason #1 is simple obedience to share some idea like “teach people to wash behind their ears”. Rather, the love that the Holy Spirit grants us includes our desire for others to not die and suffer. Exactly as you say, in reason #2, when we evangelize, we share a “life-giving message”. Thus, it seems nonsensical to me to suggest that not sharing this message also somehow results in life — or else how did the message GIVE life? Therefore, logically — and not “a huge deduction” — the preaching of a life-giving message is a loving way to give life [otherwise there will be death]. I don’t mean to suggest that Bell and others are correct, nor certainly not that the personal responsibility must be enacted or God cannot save His people, and I agree that twisted understandings of the Gospel of Grace can lead to twisted lives (cf. your missionary friends), but I really don’t follow your point. The Bible is clear in the Great Commission and John 3:16ff that He will redeem through our evangelism, and that redemption is from deathly death (hell). What am I missing?

  10. BrianK September 28, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I’m not sure what you are missing, but I hear John’s point loud and clear. I think John made his point clear by his statement above: “Jesus warned about judgment and hell for sure but nowhere can I find him telling his disciples ‘You must now go tell everyone this message or they will die and go to hell because you failed to do this work.'”
    In my 20+ years of evangelistic efforts, I’ve never seen more of a turn off to Christianity than the “believe or go to hell” mantra. That’s not necessarily a uniquely Christian message.
    I really think we Christians need to leave the condemnation issue to our Lord, who is the only one how has power to through us into hell.
    What does open the hearts of the ungodly is a combination of compassion, grace and truth.

  11. Duncan September 29, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Okay, MAYBE I get it. Namely, I hear you talking about the CONTENT of the evangelistic message — the tactical approach, while I read about the MOTIVE for evangelism in John’s words — the strategic rationale (“Is this motive…” “biblically given motive for evangelism” “Why should we take evangelism seriously?”).
    If you (and John) are saying that we should avoid preaching hellfire condemnation [at least in part because you say that Jesus did not do it this way], then I think I understand your view and why you hold it.
    If, on the other hand, you are saying that salvation from condemnation is not one of the reasons to preach the good news, then I still don’t get it [at least in part because Jesus seemed to indicate that this was part of the plan and part of His graceful redemption].
    I see it fairly simply: The good news is that God lovingly revealed Himself to us through Scripture and through the work of Christ so that we may KNOW the Creator of the universe and thereby be saved from the consequences of our selfish desires. (Mostly because God generally graciously grants us the desires of our heart, and seeks to give us a new heart that desires Him.) To me, this message includes the truth that our selfish desires will lead to death and condemnation from Him — a truth that He told Adam and eventually the rest of us. I am unclear about what it means to avoid including this [significant] truth when sharing what God has said. I am unclear because leaving out parts of the truth seems unloving to me, contrary to God’s revelatory purpose, and somewhat in denial that the news is good (as opposed to bad).
    If I have said anything here that conveys that I hold a tight grip on preaching hellfire, please forgive me, since this is NOT my view. (In fact, I have been singularly unimpressed / disappointed with, for example, Ray Comfort & Kirk Cameron’s popularist view that this IS the Good News message.) I just don’t grasp why death & condemnation isn’t PART of the message and especially part of the rationale since it seems to be what God has talked about numerous times (cf. John 3:18 “whoever does not believe stands condemned” Rev 1:18 “I hold the keys to Hades”). Please tell me that sound evangelism doesn’t translate into disguising some of the truths of Scripture and/or that you are in a position to decide which of our Savior’s words are better than others?
    (Note, especially, that I don’t regard “evangelism” / “sharing the Gospel” to be a single moment of opportunity, but rather a lifestyle and process with lots of opportunities and varied conversation points.)

  12. Duncan September 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    I agree with your tempering of the point…It would seem that rescuing people from hell is a clear and biblical secondary motivator. Namely, the Savior calls us to be His hands and feet and mouth so that He can save His people [from death and hell] [through His people].
    John described three very good, biblical reasons to evangelize — two of which contain the implicit reality of sharing life-giving good news as opposed to allowing deathly bad news to prevail.
    Maybe more directly to John’s point / concern, at a minimum, this secondary motivator should never be understood to be the primary (or worse, exclusive) motivator for sharing the Gospel. And maybe even more to his point, those who internalize that THEY are responsible for saving others from hell — that others WILL perish if they don’t evangelize — are sadly confused about the reality that it is Christ alone who saves and He can do this with our without us / them. In general, He has graciously chosen to work through us, and this should be a motivator for rejoicing! (and certainly not a downer — or we have presumed too much of ourselves)

  13. BrianK September 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I can’t speak for John, but my view is your first point “we should avoid preaching hellfire condemnation [at least in part because you say that Jesus did not do it this way], then I think I understand your view and why you hold it.”
    I wholeheartedly agree that death and condemnation must be part of the message. the key for me is how to make it part of the message. I think the error occurs when death and condemnation spill over into our tone (or “smell” as Joe points out in another comment here).
    Just a side note, I appreciate your articulation of things. I am a computer guy, so I am lacking in that area!

  14. Duncan September 29, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    I GREATLY appreciate the [virtual] dialog. I really enjoy John’s site — both because of his great insights as well as the God-glorifying contributions from additional voices. Thank you for sticking through with me as I try to understand what all is being said.
    It sounds like we are of similar minds, then. Namely, that the Good News does involve acknowledgment of death (‘saved from what?’) but we face a challenge of how to not allow the stench of death to foul the news.
    I like how you said: “we Christians need to leave the condemnation issue to our Lord, who is the only one how has power to throw us into hell.”
    This is a good reminder not just for what we say but — to John’s apparent point — for why we say it. Any condemnation is really in God’s control. We are called to share the beautiful reality that He has loving plans, loving purposes, and a loving law. Still, as John points out, some apparently well-intended missionaries (and some of us, sometimes, no doubt), hear our calling to obedience as a mantle of responsibility and authority, as if we are not just adopted co-heirs, but ordained ministers of justice in His stead. And then we seek to let others know that we are the chosen and they ought to get on board like we did before it is too late.
    I weep for this all-too-common error. Just as Paul likely wept right before sending his letter: “You foolish Galatians!…I would like to learn just one thing from you…Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?…Are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3)
    His last question there is beautiful rhetoric: You trying…Your goal…Human effort. The story of my life. My life without Christ. Every day I need to hear the good news: “Duncan, are you trying to attain your goals by your effort? Christ redeemed you from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for you…He redeemed you in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to you…The whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given in faith through Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe…including you.” (cf. Gal 3:13-14, 22) Praise God!

  15. BrianK September 29, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Yes, I *really* appreciate the dialogue also…
    This is an awesome statement: “the Good News does involve acknowledgment of death (‘saved from what?’) but we face a challenge of how to not allow the stench of death to foul the news.”
    Also, I’m at a time in my life when your additional point from Galatians 3 hits home to me like never before: “Are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” I’ve come to realize my “preaching” has been mostly human effort for over two decades… I’m finally trying to sit back and letting God be God and the Spirit do what He wants. I really believe now that ANY evangelism must be done by the Holy Spirit. We are His instruments.

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