If We Are Free to Approach God Without Fear, What Becomes of Our Other Religious Fears—Like Hell?

To many believers God is love. This is the primary thing we know about God from Jesus—unconditional love. This is what Jesus told us about the Father and also what Jesus demonstrated in his own life as the representative of God. On the other hand, there are many believers who see God as angry, violent, and vindictive toward us instead; it is an integral part of the theology they have been taught.

This perspective on God can lead to great fear. And what do we fear most from God? It is Punishment. When the ancients suffered from forces of natures, they felt they were being punished by the gods. Why else would there sometimes be rain and good crops and other times drought and starvation? So they thought the gods punished them when they were displeased.

The Israelites understood the same thing, as we discussed last time. It was God who sent the flood, and it was God who sent drought, heat, and disease. It was God who sent the 10 plagues on Egypt as punishment for not releasing the Israelites. When God was displeased he punished people severely.

And many believers today are convinced that God is displeased with the majority of people who have ever lived—to the extent that he will punish them in the fires of hell eternally. Billions of them. Forever.

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Justifications for God to Punish People in Eternal Hell for Not Measuring Up to His Expectations

When we think of our fear of being punished by God, burning in the eternal fires of hell has to be our biggest, most significant fear. It is horrifying—terrifying even to contemplate! As my fundamentalist pastor used to say, ‘Hell is hot and forever is a long, long time.’ I can hardly imagine such eternal conscious torment. My mind rebels against it; I just want to throw up in despair at the thought of people going through such torment—forever.

How could God do that? Well, the Good News is that God won’t do that—and the Bible does not teach that he will. But some believers argue that he definitely will.

First of all, God can do whatever God wants to do. God is God.

Secondly, God hates ‘sin’. And God is also infinite, so when we ‘sin’ against the infinite righteousness of God our punishment must also be infinite—like eternal conscious torment in hellfire. Infinite punishment for infinite ‘sin’. This is the idea that lies behind the popular theory of penal substitutionary atonement which was conceived only about 500 years ago. God was filled with wrath toward our ‘sins’ but created an escape for us by pouring out his wrath against Jesus on the cross instead of on us. So those of us who know the secret password (process) can avoid eternal hell. Everyone else is sunk—for eternity.

In addition, God has given us numerous commands to follow in order to not displease him covering all sorts of details in life. And we do NOT want to violate these laws. This is what lies behind the practice of legalism—making sure that we keep all God’s laws without fail—to avoid punishment in eternal hell.

All three of these beliefs: That God’s wrath is stored up against us (penal substitutionary atonement); that God demands that we carefully observe many specific laws (legalism); and that God is willing and ready to consign us to eternal conscious torment in hell are all fraught with fear—intense fear.

But the God of love casts out fear.

Will the God of Love Really Punish Us in Eternal Hell for Displeasing Him?

I don’t think so. The idea completely contradicts everything Jesus teaches about loving others—teaching that is grounded in the character of a loving God. And the Bible never teaches anywhere that God will punish people in eternal hell.

However, some believers are fully convinced that the Bible does teach eternal punishment in hell. They think this because they read certain biblical passages through the filter of their belief in hell and assume that they confirm their belief. But these passages are not at all what they are assumed to be.

The Old Testament has no concept of punishment in hell, though some translations render ‘Sheol’ as ‘hell’; but Sheol refers only to death. No punishment. No fire. Just death. The New Testament uses ‘Hades’, often translated as ‘hell’, but again it is only death—nothing more. The other word in the New Testament often translated as hell is Gehenna, which is a place of destruction in Jerusalem described in Jeremiah 19.

But doesn’t Jesus’ mention fire in the New Testament? Yes. Jesus, who loves to use imagery in his teaching, combines the imagery of destruction from Gehenna in Jeremiah 19 with Isaiah 66:

And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.

This is certainly gruesome, but it does not describe eternal punishment and torture in hell. It is destruction—but not eternal punishment. The idea of eternal punishment in hell comes from combining biblical passages that are all about something else completely. The Bible does not teach such a thing. For more demonstration that the Bible does not teach eternal punishment in hell, see the articles listed by myself and others in Resources on Hell.

We Have No Reason to Fear the God Who Loves Us

We need not fear God’s wrath for our ‘sins’. We need not undertake legalistic burdens in fear of God’s wrath. We need not fear that God will punish us in eternal hell. Does this then mean that everyone will have eternal life with God after death? Perhaps—Perhaps not. We will talk about that next time.

Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.

Articles in this series:
How Some Misguided Christian Beliefs are Very Harmful
Belief in Angry God is Perhaps the Most Damaging, Misguided Christian Belief of All
If We Are Free to Approach God Without Fear, What Becomes of Our Other Religious Fears—Like Hell?
Hopeful Universalism and a Gentle Alternative
A Gentle Alternative to Punishment in Hell for Those Who Reject God’s Offer of Eternal Life—Conditional Immortality

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This entry was posted in atonement, fear, God, hell, Jesus, legalism, love and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to If We Are Free to Approach God Without Fear, What Becomes of Our Other Religious Fears—Like Hell?

  1. tonycutty says:

    Superb

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ken Hogan says:

    I look forward to each Monday morning essay Tim. Thank you for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. theotherlestrangegirl says:

    The penal substitutionary theory, combined with the belief in hell, never made much sense to me.

    So, per the theory, Jesus took the pain and torment of God’s wrath, in our place, so that we can avoid hell and be saved.

    We are told over and over again (at least I was) that Jesus died for us all. Yet, those who believe this will also tell you that you can only receive this gift if you follow the formula and accept Jesus.

    So, Jesus did not die for us all. He only died for those that accept him.

    Oh, no (as the people who believe in this will say) he definitely died for us all.

    So, then we are all saved from hell by the sacrifice of Jesus?

    Oh, no, you have to accept him as your Lord and Savior first.

    You can see the circles my brain goes in when I try to think this out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Strange Girl, you seem to speak from experience, and it sounds quite familiar. However, for many years the penal substitutionary theory, combined with the belief in hell, DID MAKE SENSE to me–along with ‘Jesus died for us all but you must know the secret password to take advantage of it.’ That is until I began to think about it, question it, and read the Bible more carefully.

      I like what you said: “You can see the circles my brain goes in when I try to think this out.” That is a very good visual!

      Like

  4. For many, especially Reformed circles, penal substitution IS the Gospel. When I point out that it’s a relatively new idea, they usually just tell me I’m going to hell. I was pleasantly surprised the other day when one guy decided he would research it, and found that I was telling the truth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Prog Mind, they can tell me I am going to hell if they want to since, really, they have no say in the matter. I am glad your friend did some research and made a good discovery!

      Like

  5. newtonfinn says:

    I’m in this strange, uneasy place with regard to this week’s post and the former one, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to clarify that uneasiness, both to myself and to Tim and to all of my JWOB friends. Not sure this is going to work, but let me try it. Picture the parable of The Prodigal Son. He’s talked his father into giving him half the family’s wealth and then squandered it. He’s living with the pigs when a thought strikes him. “I’ll return home,” he says to himself. “My father takes good care of his servants and maybe he’d let me become one of them.”

    Now let’s focus on what the prodigal son might be thinking on that homeward journey, DEPENDING ON HIS VIEW OF HIS FATHER. First scenario: “You know, my father is a really good and kind guy, almost a pushover when it comes to compassion. The more I think about it, he won’t really be THAT mad at me–it’s simply not in his nature. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he welcomed me home, threw a party, and took me back as a son, and then I’d have it made all over again! Why didn’t I think of this earlier?”

    The second scenario, which I won’t flesh out because we all intuitively understand it, has to do with genuine fear of fatherly anger and genuine risk in returning home. The father, while a good and kind man, would also be understood as a strong and righteous man with the capacity to lower the boom on a wayward son who squandered not only wealth but life itself. Now in Jesus’ magnificent parable, the father CHOOSES to show love and mercy in an extraordinary act of grace, and this is surely meant to tell us something about our Heavenly Father. But I don’t think the message Jesus intended to convey is that we should simply, at the outset, erase from our theological blackboard all possibility of divine anger and judgment. I don’t think it’s that simple.

    So in this sense, and in this sense only, do I subscribe to the saying that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Yet having said all this, I’m still not sure whether I clarified my nagging issue or muddied the waters even more. Hopefully others will join in and take us farther with their own spiritual wisdom. One thing I do see clearly is that this is a vitally important subject for followers of Jesus to talk about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I think I see your point. I don’t think God is a softie or a pushover of whom I can take advantage. And I don’t think that negative behaviors do not lead to negative consequences. I don’t think that God really doesn’t care what we do; God wishes our spiritual growth and maturity.

      If we think of God as the ultimate psychologist who completely understands our inclinations and motivations, then I don’t don’t think God is angry with us for what we are but rather wishes to see us change and grow into something better. Is God often very disappointed with us? Perhaps. And we might call that anger–but I don’t think it is a relationship-destroying anger; nor do I think it is an anger that leads to vindictiveness.

      I agree that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But I think this ‘fear’ has to do with respect and alignment rather than being afraid or terrified of God. I think that maybe we are thinking of fear and anger in different ways. Your thoughts?

      Liked by 1 person

    • theotherlestrangegirl says:

      Newton, I wanted to add something about the “fear of the Lord.”

      I think this can be a fear, not of God, but of the consequences of our actions in relation to God.

      So, for example (this is going to be silly because I’m making it up on the spot), let’s say I think about lying to my mother about where I’m going (assuming I’m still a teenager).

      I don’t, though, because of fear. Not fear of my mother, as in I am not afraid that she is going to beat me or yell at me. I’m not even afraid of whatever punishment she may give me. I’m just afraid that my actions will change how she sees me, only for a moment, because I know she will be disappointed in me.

      I believe that God gets disappointed sometimes. I don’t think this overpowers anything else, certainly not His love, but He does feel it. And then we live with the knowledge that we have let our Heavenly Father down.

      Of course, we let Him down all the time because we are very imperfect, so I’m not saying we should all go around moping about how terrible we are. I’m just saying that what we fear, deep down, is the knowledge that we have failed someone who loves us.

      Also, keep in mind that fear, inherently, is not a bad thing. It’s a defense mechanism that your body employs when something doesn’t seem right. It’s a warning signal of sorts, but it doesn’t always have to be a warning about something external. Sometimes it’s an internal danger.

      Liked by 2 people

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Well said, Strange Girl!

        Like

      • newtonfinn says:

        You make a perceptive and helpful observation, strangegirl, about the difference between the fear of disappointing a parent and the fear of being punished by that parent. Tim makes a similar point about God’s potential “anger” toward us being better characterized as His potential disappointment in us. I think there is much truth in this way of looking at these ultimate things, especially in contrast to the wrathful, vengeful God with which more fundamentalist forms of evangelicalism seem to be obsessed.

        But these wise and useful observations still do not go all the way for me when I try to comprehend, for example, what John Newton felt in his mind and heart when he juxtaposed the slave trade and his participation in it, with God’s awesome majesty and righteousness, somehow ineffably coupled with His infinite mercy. I tend to think that the man who later became a profoundly-committed Christian leader and wrote magnificent hymns like “Amazing Grace”–AT THAT MOMENT WHEN THE MAGNITUDE OF THE EVIL OF HIS ACTIONS WAS BROUGHT HOME TO HIM–must have come close to wetting his pants, must have been terrified and overwhelmed by the possibility of his damnation, and thus felt the irresistible compulsion to flee to God in the desperate hope that somehow, some way, he could be reconciled with humanity and with his Maker.

        I think that when you really listen to that great hymn, you can sense what I’m talking about far better than I can put it into words. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to FEAR, and grace my fears RELIEVED.” Is there not a kind of yin/yang here, a tension or paradox of opposites that can be reconciled and transcended only on the divine level? “For man it is impossible, but all things are possible for God.” Thanks again, Tim and strangegirl, for keeping alive this conversation, strangely important to me as a rather liberal Christian.

        https://www.last.fm/music/Judy+Collins/_/Amazing+Grace

        Like

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Newton, I really like your example of John Newton. His realization about slave trade made a huge difference in his life and very likely created a measure of fear (and anger) along with his sorrow. He certainly seems to have had righteous indignation (anger) regarding slavery after that. Do you know whether it manifested as hate and vindictiveness towards slave traders?

        Liked by 1 person

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  10. michaeleeast says:

    Tim, I don’t believe in hell at all.
    Why?
    Because during my prayers and meditations I struck upon the idea that perhaps God doesn’t punish anyone. And this thought was followed by the statement “Someone has seen me!” I know this sounds preposterous but I believe that this came from God. And if God doesn’t punish anyone there can be no hell. Others have come to the same conclusion. An all-loving God could not punish people in hell for eternity. So more and more people are beginning to think that there may not be a hell. This position also contradicts the idea of destroying evil people. God does not punish them either. He seeks to redeem them and reconcile them to His Love. Hence “Love your enemies and pray for those who abuse you.” It makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, I think large numbers of believers are abandoning the idea of punishment in hell–and that’s a wonderful thing! I agree with you that, “An all-loving God could not punish people in hell for eternity.”

      Like

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