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.
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.