|N THE U.S. “BIBLE BELT” (OF WHICH MY own state of Georgia is a part) the days of hellfire-and-brimstone preaching are still very much alive. A while back, a young man called, responding to a piece of literature from our local Bible Research Center. He wanted to know more about teachings in the Bible that he’d found to be radically different from the teachings of current popular Christianity.
In our conversation I asked him how he had come to be a Christian. His answer was one I have heard numerous times: “I was in church with my mom and heard a sermon on the torments of hell. The preacher painted such a graphic word picture of poor sinners suffering the torments of hell throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity that I was afraid to put off my decision to accept Christ another day!”
Thank God that he made a decision. However, is accepting Jesus in order to keep from going to hell an adequate or appropriate response to the gospel?
What this young Christian had heard was very similar to that found in a “Tracts for Spiritual Reading” series that has been in circulation for more than a hundred years. One of the tracts reads as follows: “Look into this little prison. In the middle of it there is a boy, a young man. He is silent; despair is on him. He stands straight up. His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. His breathing is difficult. Sometimes he opens his mouth and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalded veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones! Ask him, put the question to him, why is he thus tormented? His answer is, that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things, and he did them, and it was for that he went to dancing houses, public houses, and theatres. Ask him, does he think the punishment greater than he deserves? ‘No,’ he says.”1
Young Robert Ingersoll heard a similar sermon in the mid-nineteenth century and trudged out of the church muttering to himself, “If that is what God is like, I hate Him!” He became a lawyer, lecturer, and avid proponent of agnosticism. Many know God only as a vindictive being who is watching with vengeful eye to catch every misdemeanor as a reason to keep them out of heaven. As a result, millions have become infidels.
A Different Picture
The Bible pictures God, however, as “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).* It says that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
On the day of Pentecost, Peter said to the people: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). It’s the “goodness of God [that leads] . . . to repentance” (Rom. 2:4), not the fear of the fires of hell.
We would make much more progress in our spiritual lives if, instead of accepting Christ as a fire escape from hell, we were to recognize the fact that it was our sins that sent Jesus to the cross so as to bring about our forgiveness, and that every repetition of sin, in a sense, is “crucify[ing to ourselves] the Son of God afresh, and put[ting] him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6). If all the ministers of the gospel were to preach the truth that “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4) and that “the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Ps. 19:7), there would be more true conversions. The apostle Paul taught that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20), and that “where no law is, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15).
The emotional response to the fear of hell produced by hellfire-and-brimstone preaching might well be likened to catapulting someone into the air without a parachute for safe landing. If one is “saved” only from the fires of hell and not from the sins that could send them there, then the fear of hell will be short-lived in its restraint, and whatever “conversion” may have been experienced will dissipate.
So What About Hell?
Jesus did warn the people
of His day about the realities of hellfire: “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Matt. 18:9; see also Mark 9:43-47).
But what would hell be like? What do we make of Mark 9:44? The passage speaks of hell as a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” I found a good explanation of this issue in an Adventist Bible commentary (see sidebar).
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible consistently teaches that the “wages of sin is death” (see Rom. 6:23)—not eternal life in torment. In the Garden of Eden God instructed Adam and Eve concerning the consequences of disobedience and said: “In the day that thou eatest [of the forbidden tree] thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The only being to promise them eternal life in spite of transgression was the serpent (Satan). In a brazen contradiction of God, the devil said: “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4).
Today that first recorded lie in the Bible is being repeated by well-meaning pastors at nearly every funeral. To make matters worse, it’s preached
to unconverted sinners in hellfire sermons to scare them to respond.
After the sad mistake of Adam and Eve, God said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22, 23). Thus, God took steps to ensure that there will never be an immortal sinner—whether on earth or in hell.
Misunderstandings About the Soul and Death
The record states that “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The word for soul here is nephesh, the same word used in the expression “living creature” in Genesis 1:21, 24, there referring to animal life. The formula in Genesis 2:7 suggests that the combination of “body” plus “breath of life” equals a “living soul,” or, more correctly, a “living being,” as the New International Version puts it. The soul is not an independent entity capable of existence apart from the body.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 the phrase “spirit and soul and body” is used. Here the word “soul,” sandwiched between “spirit” and “body,” signifies individuality, personality, or the cognitive characteristics of a person—not an element that can survive apart from the breathing body.2
Death is not a transition from one form of life to another. Rather, it’s the complete absence of life. When a living being dies, it dies all over. No part continues to function. Between the moment of death and the moment of resurrection, we are simply dormant.
In the beginning there were two prerequisites for eternal life: (1) loving obedience; and (2) eating of the tree of
life. And the first gave right to the second. According to Revelation 22:14, the same conditions will apply to the kingdom of God in the hereafter. It says: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”
Transcending Death and Hell
Sin did not catch God by surprise. In His infinite wisdom He foresaw the possibility of disobedience when He gave intelligent beings the power of choice. In the end, “all that dwell upon the earth shall worship [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). But He has “chosen us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
When Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God’s only restriction on them, God made known His “preemptive plan” in His sentence on the serpent: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). A new element was here introduced into the requisites for eternal life: belief in Christ and His substitutionary death for our sins.
There has always been only one way of salvation—the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12), and in the end all will honor Him. The apostle Paul wrote that “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and . . . every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10, 11).
The proper response to the gospel is not fear of hellfire. Rather, it’s love to God in return for His love for us. He sent His only begotten Son to pay our penalty by His death on the cross.
*Bible texts in this article are from the King James Version.
1See SDA Bible Students’ Source Book, Commentary Reference Series, vol. 9, pp. 460, 461.
2See The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 257.
Alvin A. Wilson is a retired minister, now living in East Dublin, Georgia.