Do we need to fear hell before we can love God?

'Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.'

That's according to a tweet by Tim Keller that was perhaps intended to be innocuous, but sparked a Twitter firestorm yesterday.

The progressive author Rachel Held Evans quoted Keller's tweet, saying: 'I will never understand a worldview in which one's security in Christ is dependent upon the eternal torture of millions of men, women, & children in hell. "Well at least it's not me" is not a faith rooted in love, but a faith rooted in selfishness and fear.'

It was a popular take, apparently, garnering more than 2,000 likes, as did Keller's original tweet. Some users clearly appreciated Evans' sentiment, others contested her theology. Keller later shared an article more clearly explaining his views on hell, emphasising that 'hell is not about fear, it is about love'. But for Keller, Jesus speaks about hell far too frequently for him to ignore it.

Do we need to fear hell in order to love God?Pixabay

What to make of this latest Twitter clash? Hell seems to be a favourite topic on the social media platform: it was there that John Piper famously 'farewelled' Rob Bell for his questioning of the conservative doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Meanwhile, with help from obscure trolls, culture warriors and the president of the United States, Twitter continues to resemble a very special kind of hell on earth.

Tweets don't often lend themselves to thoughtful debate, though in this case both Evans and Keller seem to have spoken in calm and considerate terms, and there's no need for a further polarising hot-take on 'why X is dead wrong on Y'. Keller is not some uncompromising fundamentalist delighted by fiery judgment and his various writings, from which I've frequently benefitted, show nuance and wisdom on the issue. Both he and Evans don't want to deny that hell exists in some way, and this isn't the place to take on that debate.

But there's a popular and influential idea implied by Keller's tweet that I think can be unhelpful: that you can't really know the love of God until you've heard about his judgment. Particularly: eternal judgment after death. It's popular in much evangelical preaching. Simply put: you're a sinner, you're destined for an eternal hell, but Jesus died to save you from that, now just believe in his salvation to receive eternal bliss.

Again, it would be absurd to pretend that not just hell but the notion of divine judgment is somehow absent from Scripture, only invented by mean old conservatives who have a thing for punishment. But is judgment the only context in which the gospel can be heard? Is the threat of eternal torment what most truly shows us divine love in action? I think there might at least be other ways of thinking about it.

Firstly, to say that human beings always need some bad news thrown at them before the blessing of good news assumes that they're otherwise comfortable and content, and that the only way God could be relevant to them is if you convince them of impending judgment after death. To that we should say two things: human beings know many deep, pervasive kinds of pain before they hear of hell, and the gospel offers hope not just to eternal horizons, but the here and now.

The evangelical rhetoric is often to show listeners their 'need' for a saviour. But I think many people know their needs already. Loneliness and insecurity plagues many in a culture of comparison. A sense of guilt, failure and never being 'enough' may weigh heavy too. Even if belief in God, particularly the Christian one, is not pervasive, many non-believers agree that a life without that 'big picture' is mostly meaningless. That's emotional and existential poverty, to say nothing of profound material poverty and global inequality, that can exist even in the wealthiest nations of the west.

Then there's toxic relationships and the 'torture' wrought by oppression, violence and terror. As Sartre famously put it, 'hell is other people'. And Christians have always believed, even if they haven't always prioritised it, that Christ meets those needs. He meets despair and struggle, and offered comfort to the afflicted and vulnerable. When he begins his ministry in Luke's gospel, he preaches 'good news to the poor' – he doesn't preface it with a stern warning about judgment after death.

Yes, it's true Christ spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture, though there remains debate on what he meant (there's a growing wing of evangelicals who, citing Scripture, now back 'annihilationism' – the idea that the unrepentant don't suffer for eternity, but rather cease to exist). But he often spoke of judgment in relation to complacent, hypocritical religious leaders, and many of his professions of gospel truth don't centre on staving off judgment but rather receiving a radical gift of life. John 3:17 emphasises: 'For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.'

All that's to say, whatever our perspectives on eternal judgment, it seems excessive to say that the knowledge of God's love rests on it. Expectant 1st-century Jews weren't imagining an eternal fiery judgment, yet many still rejoiced at the good news of the Messiah and his promise of divine redemption.

Paul's preaching centred on resurrection and new creation, not hell. Since God at the very least allows hell to exist, making it central runs the risk of an absurd contradiction: 'God loves you so much, and you can see that because of all the millions who will be tortured for not believing in him'. That's a caricature, but it might be one that many hear: a fiery message but not a heart-warming one.

Hell's a tricky doctrine, not to be dismissed lightly. But if we need eternal 'bad news' to preface God's glorious rescue, we might be doing him a disservice. Isn't he bigger than that?

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