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Can the Fear of Hell Save Someone

I received a comment from a reader whom I highly respect. He referenced an article from Tim Keller on the subject of Hell and the reality that Jesus talked more about that place of literal torment than He did about Heaven.  The point of the comment and the article itself was the danger of using Hell as an evangelistic tool to draw the lost to repentance. I respectfully disagree. The quote below from Keller summarizes the concern for the fear of hell saving someone.

“Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God’s active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach Hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the One who embraced and experienced Hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.”

My Response

When Keller expresses concern that people “reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear…”, I would interpret that statement in two different ways. 

  • If Keller is suggesting that some FALSELY profess a saving faith to avoid the possibility of Hell, without actually experiencing a heart change, I would tend to agree it may not be the best strategy, since it can lead to being inoculated with “dead Christianity”. However, as Paul offered in 1 Cor. 9:22, we need to be all things to all people in order to save some. Certainly, Jonathan Edwards was thinking that when he preached the sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” which saw the beginnings of the legendary Great Awakening revival of 1741. 
  • Or, if Keller is suggesting that fear of Hell, (because it is a self-centered active avoidance of eternal pain and suffering), is not demonstrating a truly loving God, and therefore is unacceptable as a tool for evangelism, I would say he is totally missing the point. What is fundamentally most important is a personal relationship with Christ, for eternity. Regardless of how that state is achieved, drawn by God’s love OR drawn by the fear of its eternal absence, either is acceptable since God is the One setting the divine appointment that actually does the saving, not man (John 6:44).

Further, I disagree with Keller when he says, “the distinction… is all-important”, for the same reasons as above. We can begin as a “moralist” but I trust God’s sanctification process where a “moralist” still can be, and become, a “born-again believer”. One can certainly be excessively legalistic about their faith, but as long as it is truly saving faith, God will adjudicate their sins (as He will all our sins) in Heaven.

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