When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell? I’m guessing that, for the majority of you, it’s probably been a while. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view. Generally speaking, I’m not uncomfortable with talking about hell. It can be helpful, even necessary at times.1 But it depends on context. There’s a sense in which, for some, knowing what we have been freed from can lead to greater appreciation of what we have been given.2 But if the goal is simply to scare people into believing in Jesus, we’re probably not going to be too successful in the long run. Why? Because the Christian life can’t be sustained by terror. It needs something more powerful. Matt Chandler (aided by Jared Wilson) makes this point well in To Live Is Christ, To Die Is Gain:
Most people coming to Christ fear hell and punishment for their sins. That’s a completely rational fear to have once you know the facts. And it’s a good fear. But it’s not the best fear to have in that moment of conversion, mainly because it cannot sustain the Christian life. We are not called by a spirit of fear into a spirit of fear but by the Spirit of grace into a spirit of love and power. This fear we ought to have of God is not so much terror as it is awe.
Fearing punishment for our sins isn’t wrong, but it’s not enough. Longterm obedience—life-long, fruitful faithfulness—flows from growing deeper in our joy and affection for our Creator and Savior. Awe is what we need. Let’s be sure to emphasize that, even when we need to talk about the consequences of sin.