The Story: A significant portion of practicing Christians reject evangelism. Could it be because they also reject the doctrine of hell?
The Background: A new Barna report, based on research commissioned by Alpha USA, looks at the views on evangelism by practicing Christians (defined in the report as those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church within the past month).
Almost all practicing Christians believe that part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus (ranging from 95 percent to 97 percent among all generational groups), and that the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus (94 percent to 97 percent). Almost all practicing Christians (ranging from 86 percent to 92 percent) also say they know how to respond when someone raises questions about faith, and a majority of each generational group (ranging from 56 percent to 73 percent) believes they are gifted at sharing their faith with other people
Yet despite recognizing the importance of telling people about Christ and claiming to know how to share their faith, a significant portion of practicing Christians say it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.
Almost half of all Millenials (those ages 20 to 34) say it is wrong to share one’s beliefs, as do more than one in four (27 percent) Gen-Xers (ages 35 to 53), and one in five Boomers (ages 54 to 72) and Elders (age 73 and older).
What It Means: As Penn Jillette, half of the magician duo Penn & Teller, once asked, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize,” the famous atheist said. “I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?”
Perhaps it’s the case that many evangelicals truly do hate their neighbors. But the more likely explanation is they do not believe in the existence of hell.
We know hell exists because Jesus—the one through whom all things were created (John 1:3; Col. 1:16)—tells us that hell exists. For example, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
In fact, Jesus has more to say about hell than he does about heaven. Jesus uses the term gehenna (which is translated as “hell”) a dozen times in the Gospels, and uses synonyms involving fire about 20 times. He also describes it in vivid detail, saying it is a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), and eternal torment (Luke 16:23). He says it is where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48), where people will gnash their teeth in anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42), and a place from which there is no return, even to warn loved ones (Luke 16:19–31).
More than anyone else in the Bible, Jesus talked about the doctrine of hell because he wants us to take it seriously. As Leslie Schmucker explains,
Jesus has to talk about hell because it is the fate that awaits all people apart from him. Because of Adam’s sin, we’re all guilty and deserve God’s eternal punishment. Contrary to popular belief, hell is not a place where God sends those who have been especially bad; it’s our default destination. We need a rescuer or we stand condemned.
You cannot believe in the Jesus of the Gospels and not believe in hell. Jesus doesn’t give us that option. You can also not love your neighbor and be apathetic about their spending eternity in hell. Jesus doesn’t give us that option either. If we believe Jesus and love our neighbor we will bring the doctrine of hell back into our churches.
“[W]e should shudder at churches that don’t know what it means to shudder about hell, Trevin Wax says. “I don’t know how you can take Jesus’s message seriously and miss that glaring and frequent aspect of his teaching. Mock ‘fire and brimstone preachers’ all you want, but take care that in the process, you’re not mocking Jesus himself.”