One day I spoke with an elderly believer who was a fundamentalist all her life, and the issue of hell came up in such a way that I shared with her that I didn’t believe eternal punishment in burning hell existed.
Her response was, ‘If there were no hell, then I would sin all I want.’
She is not alone. Many times I’ve heard believers say that if there is no hell then there is no motivation for morality. How sad! If the only motivation we have to live for God is to avoid eternal punishment, then I question whether we are truly living for God at all.
It is our heart, our inner being, that concerns God and not our conformity in order to avoid punishment.
Legalism is not Morality
These kinds of statements are often made within a legalistic world-view where morality is seen as keeping religious rules that are presumably from God. Sure, if I were still a legalist and discovered God was not going to punish me in hell, then I would start attending movies, dancing, or going mixed-swimming at the beach. But these are not moral issues; these are just rules. When morality is understood as observing religious rules, a true concept of morality is often absent.
As a fundamentalist, I didn’t really distinguish between morality and keeping religious rules; it was all the same to me. But while losing fear of hell might allow me to do things I would not do as a legalist, it would not lead me to cheat on my taxes, steal from others, or kill someone.
Even though I considered all ‘sins’ to lead to hell, losing the threat of hell would not make me a liar or a rapist, because there is such a thing as morality—apart from keeping rules. Hopefully, this would also be true of most legalists who lose their fear of hell.
Yet the question arises: ‘If there is no punishment in hell, then what is the motivation to not sin? Why not do whatever we want?’ The question is a good one and should be answered.
Many believers think the motivation for morality is to keep God happy, and they do this by:
- Keeping religious rules
- Believing the ‘right’ doctrines
- Saving sinners
Otherwise they could be in danger. Let’s focus for a moment on how fear of hell impacts how we go about sharing Jesus with others.
Sin, Hell, and Evangelism
To those who believe in hell, ‘saving sinners’ is a great responsibility. It is commanded by God, and his commands must be obeyed; but it is also motivated by the terrible consequence of letting ‘unsaved’ people burn in hell forever. This is a heavy responsibility, and it affects the way we reach out to unbelievers.
Some churches preach against sin from the pulpit each week with threats of hellfire and damnation, and they urge people to give up their sins and pray to be saved. Other churches send out members to witness to others and try to get them to pray the ‘sinners’ prayer’. The presentation usually focuses on their sinfulness, and hell often comes up or is implied.
I did this for many years, and I was good at it—before I gave it up.
In my opinion, these approaches to sharing Jesus are very negative, intrusive, and often alienating. I understand their motivation to do this if every person who does not accept Jesus burns in hell forever—what an awful thought! And if they don’t convert the person they are responsible for that person’s eternity in hell.
There must be a better way of sharing Jesus, and there is—and it doesn’t involve hell at all. Mark chapter 1 tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ work:
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
He shared with them the good news of the kingdom of God. He didn’t mention sin or hell; he only invited them to repent (change their thinking and priorities) and believe the good news of the kingdom. There is nothing negative, intrusive, or alienating about that.
Evangelism is simply sharing the good news. For me the good news contains at least 5 elements:
This is GOOD news, not news of a way to escape some terrible punishment. Does this mean that everyone will be with God in the afterlife? No; not if they don’t want to. I don’t think God will compel people to be in his presence against their will, but he will not punish them.
What is Our Motivation to Live Morally?
The challenge remains: ‘If there is no hell then there is no motivation for morality.’ This might be an honest expression, but it makes a false assumption that there is no reason to live morally other than to avoid punishment. Most people already know this; deep inside they know it is wrong to murder people, to force women and children into slavery, to burn down someone’s house, or to steal a TV from a store.
We know this, but some do these things anyway for their own benefit or in revenge. And why not, if there is no eternal punishment? The worst that can happen is they might be imprisoned or executed.
But for us who choose to live morally, the answer is within us. We don’t do such things because they hurt people. Our attitude is not be to take advantage of others; our attitude should be one of empathy and compassion. Wise people of all ages and throughout the world have said something like, ‘Treat others as you want to be treated.’
Jesus said this too but went further in saying, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. This may seem difficult, and it is; but, as we realize the unbridled love the Father has for all of us, his love wells up within us. And, as we internalize his love, we can begin to see others as the Father sees them and truly love them as we do ourselves—with empathy, compassion, and concern.
This is the motivation to live morally—recognizing that people matter and that we should not be agents of harm but agents of love, acceptance, and support.
This love does not need to be guided by religious rules or threats of eternal punishment.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?