Preaching Hell All Wrong

This week I watched the video of a young man giving his testimony. He had been saved as a young child, but now, as a teen, he knew that conversion wasn’t real. He had this reverberating thought: “I’m going to hell, I’m going to hell, I’m going to hell.” So one night at a youth crusade he went forward and recommitted his life to God. His weight of fear was lifted and he felt free and happier than he had been in years.

I was happy to see a young man freed, saved. But part of me was left wondering where is Jesus in this story? Where is heaven? What is the promise he is basing his life on? It could have been the way the video was edited. It could have been just the emotional point of emphasis – “I’m going to hell” – but it just seemed like what transformed the young man was pure, unadulterated fear.

Hell needs to be taught, needs to be preached. We don’t get to ignore it. We don’t get to pretend it doesn’t exist because it’s unpleasant or confusing. We don’t get to turn it into a metaphor. But what is the best way to present it?

In my context, conservative evangelicalism particularly in the Bible belt, it has too often been hellfire and brimstone and turn-or-burn. Hell is the great threat, “get saved or else . . .” but this is the wrong emphasis. It leads people to turn from damnation, yes. But to what? There is no desire to be with Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ role in this kind of salvation is that of the ticket broker – He provided the means to be transported far from the lake of fire.

The biggest issue with using hell as a threat is that it doesn’t lead people to a new life. Salvation is a moment when the soul is instantaneously changed in the eyes of God through the work of Jesus Christ and his righteousness being laid on us, and it is followed by a life of ongoing change. It is walking with Jesus, following Jesus. That doesn’t come from fear. It comes through hope, through promise, through what we know we are following Jesus toward. Fear motivates change. Hope motivates commitment.

The best way to teach hell is in the context of heaven. By offering the promise and beauty and majesty and perfection of eternal happiness with Jesus hell is actually made far more terrifying because it is the eternal opposite. It doesn’t require hyperbole and bluster because it naturally shows its own horror as the antithesis of heaven. It needs to be depicted as pitch black against perfect white. And when a person makes the choice to follow Christ they will have fear, but in that same moment they will have comfort. Hell will be a horrible reality, but not a threat.

When I think of that young man who told his story that’s what I hope for him. I hope he has the promise of heaven and the power of Christ today, tomorrow, and for the rest of his life. I hope he is not looking over his shoulder to see how close hell is. I hope the freedom he feels is freedom to follow Jesus with his whole life with an eye always toward heaven.

I live in the Nashville area and spend my days helping churches with leadership development. My nights are spent writing and rooting for Minnesota sports teams. I also podcast a bit. I'm the author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith, and The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life