This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talking About Hell

Recently, there was a discussion on a Facebook forum about whether or not it is essential to mention hell when talking to a non-believer, and that got me thinking personally on the subject.  So, today's talk is a little different - it is not a teaching, a devotional, and definitely not a discourse on hell, but rather just a sharing of some thoughts.  I hope this can be of help to someone, and if so, feel free to use the material.

When I was around 6 years old, the First Baptist Church in my hometown of Parsons, WV, showed a film entitled The Burning Hell.  Originally filmed in 1975 I believe by an independent Baptist evangelist in Mississippi, Rev. Estus Pirkle, it was a graphically realistic film that was designed to more or less alert sinners to the possibility of eternal damnation if they didn't accept Christ as Savior.   The message in the film is Biblical and sound, but when Mom made me go see that as a child, I had nightmares about it for weeks.  You see, growing up in a very conservative Holiness/Pentecostal environment in rural West Virginia, it must be understood that religion is a little more strict and high-test than it would be in a similar church setting elsewhere, and although one of the strengths of that is that it produces a well-grounded and staunch faith unfortunately the downside of it is that it can also lead to a faith based on legalism and fear.   Hell, the Second Coming, and sin were three subjects that were taught extensively in mountain churches when I was growing up, and although this is not a problem in itself, often the other side of the story - namely, the love of Christ, joy in the Spirit, etc. - was not emphasized as much.  My own mother, as a matter of fact, once came to Christ not out of a desire to know Him as her Savior, but out of fear, and the weak foundation of her conversion later caused her to backslide miserably.  Even in my early Christian walk, I served God more out of fear than out of joy and love, and it took several years for me to understand there was more to Christianity than just the negative, and when I did, then I became stronger in my own convictions about the reality of hell, but with a difference - this time, I was seeing in retrospection, and I saw Christ delivered me from that awful place, and it became a source of joy.  I have never wavered in my convictions - hell is a very real place, and a very real danger for someone who doesn't accept by faith the grace God offered through the Blood of His Son, Jesus Christ - and in a way I have become a more staunch defender of them.  However, if I could have chosen to come to Jesus differently, I think I would have preferred it if someone had grounded me in a more balanced way.  That being said, let's talk about witnessing a little.

Many Protestant Evangelicals for years have relied upon vocal, direct witnessing for bringing converts to our faith, and it has been viewed as an acceptable practice in which a lot of time and resources have been invested.   However, as I have grown personally in faith and also after becoming part of a more liturgical/sacramental expression of Christianity, I began to see that this approach might not have exactly been the best thing, and it doesn't seem to have Biblical precedent.   Personal evangelism is vital and needed, no doubt, but an important factor has been left out of the equation, and that is the Holy Spirit.  When I accepted Christ as my Savior and became born again at age 16, for instance, it was the Holy Spirit that led me to my pastor, and he led me to Christ at the altar of the church.  There was no knocking on doors, tracts, or "sinner's prayers" involved in my conversion.  And, over the years, I have come to realize that the most effective conversions are those where the Holy Spirit is preparing the hearts and minds of a person to receive Christ, and if that be the case, they will come looking for that.   If you are the vessel God uses, then that is where true evangelism starts.  The Gospel is not to be hawked door-to-door like a peddler's gadget, and it is not to be advertised like a Billy Mays project either - the Gospel and its seed are sown in ground that has been prepared to receive it, and only then can an effective witness and evangelism take place.  A lot of churches could save a lot of money if they would just let the Holy Spirit draw the people to them instead of trying to do it with futile efforts.  It may not bring great numbers, but the people it does bring to Christ will be people who will joyfully receive Him.  Something to think about the next time your church tries a big soul-winning workshop!

That being said, back to the subject of hell.  Is it appropriate to bring up hell when you are actually witnessing in this way to a person wanting to come to Christ?  I would say yes, but again, we must be led of the Holy Spirit to present it to them.  Hell is not a pleasant subject, and it is not something that Christians need to be throwing around casually either.  Hell is a serious topic, and the idea is to keep someone from going there, and sometimes talking too soon or too much about it scares them away and is counterproductive.  That is what the Holy Spirit is for.  The Holy Spirit, not us, is who convicts a person of sin.  And, the Holy Spirit is the one who opens the ears and hearts of a person to receive the Gospel.  And, if that desire is strong in the seeking person wanting to know the Lord, the subject of hell will come up somewhere, I guarantee it.  Thing is, usually it will be the person themselves that brings up the subject, and our duty as Christians is to be informed about it enough to tell them the truth.  This is true especially in dealing with children who feel led to be born again, and with them in particular we need to be especially sensitive to the Spirit.  Little kids, for instance, don't need to see movies like The Burning Hell, and even some adults may not be prepared for something that bold either.  However, what is interesting is that teens are often responsive to more blunt discussions like this, as they have been immersed in many cases in a culture of rock music and slasher films that glorify hell and Satan, and thus that presents an opportunity to show them that as Christians, hell and Satan are indeed real, and also not something that should be glorified in popular culture as it often is.   Adults too are varied in how they respond - some take the delicate touch of a neurosurgeon, while others are more "in your face" and can have a more bolder witness on the subject.  Again though, the Holy Spirit is always the determining factor in the way the subject is to be approached, and exercising good discernment is vital; a person's eternal soul could depend on that.

Regarding the Facebook discussion, a fellow named Greg mentioned that the actual purpose of the Gospel is reconciliation, and he was quite correct.  We don't come to Christ to be merely saved from hellfire, although that is definitely an important component.  The primary reason God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the Cross for us is quite simple - He died in order for us to be reconciled to the Father, and to break the separation that original sin imposed upon humanity.  In other words salvation is restorative, not just redemptive, in focus.  If we were merely just saved from hell, then we would not grow spiritually nor would we need the joy and peace Christ gives.  Also, God does not send people to hell, nor does he will for us to go there - as a matter of fact, originally hell was created as a solitary confinement for Satan and the fallen angels and their demonic charges, and not for man.  However, we choose the consequence of hell and eternal damnation if we reject what God wants to give us, which is eternity with Him as He originally intended for us to be in the first place.  Also, I want to clear up another misconception - it must be understood that God does not need us!  Before the stones start to fly, let me explain that - God doesn't need us, yet He desires us because He loves us and we are made in His image.   When a person dies in their sins without knowing Christ, it breaks the Lord's heart - I believe He weeps over that as the person is created in His image and thus a loss of such a great treasure as a human life eternally is a tremendous blow to the Lord.   Christ deals with us as individuals, and does take an interest in us personally because He loves each and every one of us.  However, He also is a perfect gentleman, and will not force His will on us;  that is why we choose to follow Jesus and to receive by faith the precious gift of His ultimate grace - His very life! - to redeem and restore us.  And, that is what the Gospel is all about.

For those that say hell is not part of presenting the Gospel to others, I want to point you to Romans 3:23 - it says the wages of sin is death!  Now, you may say that does not directly refer to hell, and no, it does not.  As a matter of fact, common sense will tell you that most sinful activities, if they are not stopped, can kill you.  However, I also want to refer you to Revelation 20:14 - this is a verse about the Final Great White Throne Judgement, and states the fate of the unrighteous dead.  What it says is this in the second part of the verse - "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.  This is the second death."  This earthly body will die, yes, and sin often accelerates the process.  However, let us also remember that our temporal death is only part of the story - we have an eternal soul and spirit.  And, it has to go somewhere!  If we are in Christ, that means eternal life in the presence of Christ in heaven, but if we die in our sins, it means hell.  Hell is the lake of fire, and it is like death to the soul although not in a literal sense.    And, it must be understood that the dread of hell is not in the literal lake of fire (and I do believe it is a literal place, although that is another subject entirely - for more on that, read Perry Stone's Secrets From Beyond the Grave, as it will be an eye-opener!).  Related to this, we must also understand that we are a creature in which an important principal applies - our choices do have consequences!  Choices are just that - choices.  We make them everyday, and with every one a chain of reaction results as a consequence.  Choices can be good or bad, and bad choices do have bad consequences - for instance, it is a bad choice to stick your finger in a live light socket, and the consequence is that you will be electrocuted.  However, let us ask this - if a light socket was an important element to mention in educating someone ignorant about electricity, would you not warn them of the dangers of handling it wrongly?   It is not something you have to think about, but rather just a safety measure that could save a life.   Same way when approaching hell - hell is the consequence of a bad choice, a choice we have the freedom to make but a bad one nonetheless.   Therefore, it is important that it comes up somewhere in the conversation.   Now, ideally, if a person is led to you in order to find Christ and His salvation, sooner or later in that conversation they are going to bring up the subject.  So, do we just skirt it?  NO!!  God is a God of integrity, and He wants His truth to be shared openly for those seeking it.  Therefore, an informed and Spirit-led response regarding hell is something we need to prepare ourselves for - II Timothy 2:15 tells us to "study to show ourselves approved," and this is a good example of why the Apostle instructed his young minister St. Timothy to do so.  That being said, hell is an aspect of the Gospel message - it is not the central aspect, but it is important.  To avoid it, even when the inquirer asks about it, is unthinkable. 

A lot more could be said on this subject, but I feel this gives a basic position on the issue.  Therefore, next time someone approaches you and wants to know about Christianity or how to become a Christian, it is important to understand the Holy Spirit sent them to you to reach them, and you need to be open to the Holy Spirit to do that.  And, we need to present our faith honestly and truthfully to them, even seemingly unpleasant thoughts such as sin and hell.  If we do that, a life could be eternally saved.  God bless and be with you this week.