A Presbyterian pastor's reflections on God and everyday life.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Going to Hell
Not long ago I was leaving my classroom at Flagler College where I teach a course on world religions. On the sidewalk I passed two young men holding inflammatory religious signs and speaking loudly at students.
The young men with signs were yelling threats of hell at students. When I tried to speak kindly to one of the young men, he rebuffed me. When I asked if we might speak privately about his method of spreading the good news of Jesus, he shouted at me, pointed a finger, and then promptly condemned me to hell.
I guess the young man had not read the latest news. A recent poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that condemning nonbelievers to burn in hell for eternity is not an effective means to convert them. The study interviewed more than 10,000 participants by phone and found that of 2,342 professed non-believers who were told they would suffer the fires of hell for their disbelief, not a single one converted to believing in God.
Hell should never be wielded like a club by religious folk. Who is going to hell, if indeed anyone is going to hell, and for what, is God’s business. It is certainly not the business of young men in suits and ties to judge college students and offer up condemnation for an array of imagined sins.
The Greek New Testament concept of hell originally referred to a garbage-dump outside of Jerusalem where fire continuously burned trash. The Greek word, Ghenna, does not appear very many times in the New Testament. In one text, hell is described as the punishment for calling a sister or brother “fool (Matthew 5:22)” and in another text hell is offered as the punishment for despising of “little ones,” i.e., “outcasts” (Matthew 18:9). Typically, when hell (Ghenna) is spoken of, it connotes generalities and not behavioral specifics.
All of this is to say that any reading of the Bible that focuses on the fear of hell as a means for converting the unchurched or dechurched is a poor tool for evangelism. But such attempts at evangelism do a fantastic job engendering negative stereotypes of Christians.
So, if you happen to be the type of Christian who points your finger at people and then beats them over the head with threats of hell, you may want to examine how many fingers are pointing back at yourself. You may also want to recall the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”