Why don’t we preach hellfire any more? That’s a question asked frequently today by a lot of sincere religious people who worry that too many churches, and too many priests and ministers, have gone soft on sin and are over-generous in speaking about God’s mercy.
The belief here is that more people would come to church and obey the commandments, particularly the sixth, if we preached the raw truth about mortal sin, God’s wrath and the danger of going to hell when we die. The truth will set you free, these folks assert, and the truth is that there is real sin, and real and eternal consequences for sin. The gate to heaven is narrow and the road to hell is wide. So why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of hellfire?
What’s valid in this kind of reasoning is that preaching about mortal sin and hellfire can be effective. Threats work. I grew up subjected to this kind of preaching and readily admit that it had a real effect on my behaviour.
But that effect was ambivalent. On the positive side, it left me scared enough before God and life itself never to stray very far morally or religiously. On the negative side, it also left me religiously and emotionally crippled in some deep ways. Simply stated, it’s hard to be intimate friends with a God who frightens you, and it’s not good, religiously or otherwise, to be overly timid and afraid before life’s great energies.
Admittedly, fear of divine punishment and hellfire can be effective as a motivator. So why not preach fear? Because it’s wrong, pure and simple. Brainwashing and physical intimidation are also effective, but fear is not the proper fuel for love. You don’t enter a love relationship because you feel afraid or threatened; you enter because you feel drawn there by love.
More importantly, preaching divine threat dishonours the God in whom we believe. The God whom Jesus incarnates and reveals is not a God who puts sincere, good-hearted people into hell against their will, on the basis of some human or moral lapse which in our moral or religious categories we deem to be a mortal sin.
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