Is it possible to love someone in healthy ways after they threaten, “Love me or I will do you harm?” No. But isn’t that what God does to us with the threat of hell? Isn’t the point of hell to scare us to salvation?
Jesus taught that whoever is forgiven much, loves much; and whoever is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47). Truly loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind requires that we understand He has forgiven us much. Our love treasures God, not simply a means to avoid His wrath. So threatening people harm if they don’t love you can’t produce biblical love. At best it can create a parody of obedience.
This means we (and God) can’t scare anyone into heaven. Our walk with Christ is not simply a self-serving choice to live in heaven rather than suffer in hell. In order for us to experience the joys of heaven, we must love Him.
To motivate genuine holiness, hell must first be perceived as a just destiny of those who have broken the righteous standards of God. Those standards must be seen as rooted in the holiness of God, and their transgression as deserving an eternal penalty. When this is properly understood, then the MERCY of God that saves us from the just penalty of hell, more than hell itself, is what generates love for Him.
But this is the problem: this mature understanding of God’s holiness, justice, and mercy is not where most people begin their Christian walk. Most people turn to Christ because of the despairs of this life, not because they are dodging the despairs of the afterlife.
Most people love Christ initially because of His rescue from the present hell of earthly existence, the falleness of our humanity as seen in loneliness, emptiness, guilt, shame, depression, addiction, sickness, relational fractures. This is why Jesus was being true to the human experience as well as the spiritual task when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He understood the pains of this life could be as compelling as the threats of the next.
Early in their Christian experience most people have no concept of what they have done that would deserve eternity in hell.
Theologians defend the doctrine of hell with the rationale that people deserve infinite and eternal punishments of hell because sin is against an infinitely holy and eternal God. It makes sense to a theologian but not for almost everyone else.
If even Hitler or Stalin were to scream in agony for thousands of years, most people would be ready to end these monsters’ pain. And arguing that an unending hell awaits if my neighbor or my aunt whose greatest earthly crime appears to be an unkind grouch, seems outside any standard of of justice that we associate with Christ’s nature.
So how do we explain that Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? Part of the answer lies in the fact that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who were relying on their self-righteousness to get them to heaven. They needed to know that separation from the blessings of God was the future of all who do not seek God through His Son.
Jesus’ greatest expressions of mercy and grace were poured on those who believed they had no hope of heaven due to their failings and sin. Their despair in this life and the provision of security for the next life made Christ’s grace welcome and powerful. His love for the outcast and despicable is what drew hearts to him. He usually reserved comments about hell with the intention of making the proud understand how desperate they were apart from Him.
One reason that hell is eternal is that no one there says to God, “Let me out–I want to honor and serve you now!” Hell is total, conscious, eternal separation from the blessings of God because those there get exactly what they want: total and continual autonomy from God’s influence and care.
For believers, such freedom FROM their Savior would be agony. Christ’s warning them of hell and offering to save them from its just consequences is a grace that makes want Him forever.
Though the sinful suffer in hell, they prefer its agonies to honoring Christ’s glory.
Christ speaks so much about hell because His grace requires that He warn all about the consequences of their choices. Because God is holy and just, He will punish wickedness and purify His kingdom. Grace requires that He do each of these. Grace also compels Him to offer peace to those alarmed by the realities of hell.