God was always a touchy subject with my friend.
Talking to him about my faith was never simple. But I never felt like I was standing in a minefield until the day he asked me the question.
“So, what you’re saying is that if I don’t believe this, I’m going to hell?” my friend asked, barely able to look me in the eyes.
I paused. I had explained that I believed Jesus was the only way into God’s presence. I believed that the definition of hell was being outside of the presence of God, forever. I felt stuck.
“Yes,” I responded in tears.
We’d been talking for hours about his background, and his objections to the Christian faith. I tried just listening, asking questions so I could understand him better. But this question changed the conversation.
I can’t forget the look of anger on his face, fueled by pain. The friend he trusted had just placed him under the ultimate judgment.
Eight years later, I’ve discovered ways to respond that I wish I’d known then. But the topic of hell never gets easier, especially with people we’re close to.
By the world’s standards the Christian view of hell is narrow and judgmental. And Christians can be so caught up in having correct doctrine, that we become detached and unsympathetic when talking about other people’s eternal destiny.
Is there a way for Christians to avoid shying away from the question of hell without seeming uncaring?
To understand hell requires understanding sin. Sin isn’t just doing something wrong. Sin is what separates us from God, the source of all good things.
Sin is ascribing more value to anything in our life than we do to God. When we do that we become slaves to those things. Sin is the ultimate form of slavery.
Pastor and author Timothy Keller writes, “Every person, religious or not, is worshiping something – idols, pseudo-saviors – to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them) or anger (if someone blocks them from us) or fear (if they are threatened) or driven-ness (since we must have them).”
Guilt, anger, and fear are like fire that destroys us. Hell is being left to struggle with those things alone, forever.
The Bible clearly outlines how broken humanity is apart from God. In Romans chapter 1, Paul writes that God “gave them up to…their desires.” Keller elaborates, “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from Himself.” Either we choose God and give our lives to Him, or we choose a life apart from Him, and he honors that choice for eternity.
In a sense, He’s both.
When someone says that they can’t believe a God of love would send people to hell, they probably have a one dimensional view of love. But think of any loving parent and you see a more complex picture.
Love means to adore someone, to forgive, and to be patient when wronged. God does these things with us. But offering correction or discipline is also loving. A parent often teaches a child right from wrong by demonstrating the consequences of making poor choices. The parent “judges” the actions of the child in order to nurture. So does God.
But God is more than just a parent. He himself is the definition of goodness, and the creator of life. The natural order working as it was designed depends upon our willingness to accept His authority and trust in His total goodness.
We need to let God be God. The alternative is allowing broken humanity to be the ultimate authority over itself. Not a good plan.
When talking to non-believers about the doctrine of hell it’s vital that we speak with truth, but also with compassion, love, and respect. Ultimately our aim is to point people towards Christ, God’s solution to our imperfection. (Read a fuller explanation of how Jesus saves us from hell.)
So how can we go about difficult conversations in a loving way?
Let’s return to that moment in the minefield with my friend. He asked me if I thought he was going to hell, but what was he really asking me?
Was he asking me if I worshipped a God who judged him or was he asking me whether I was judging him? Given the anger on his face when I answered him, I suspect it was the latter.
You’re not just dodging a bullet by telling your friend that it’s not ultimately about what you think in the end, it’s about what God thinks. You are simply doing your best to help them hear what God would say to them.
We don’t have to be on the defensive. Find out why your friend is asking you about something you believe, and ask them how your explanations sound to them.
What does your friend think you are saying? Are they correct?
If someone expresses anger or frustration, there’s likely pain in their life causing them to distrust God or Christians.
That conversation with my friend was one of the last times we ever talked deeply about our beliefs.
But I’ve never forgotten being asked that question.
It drove my desire to focus on knowing what I truly believed and why I believed it.
Some useful resources to help you talk about your Christian faith:
a Pittsburgh native, serves as editor-in-chief of digital and print communications for Cru. A 2012 graduate of Ohio University, she received a journalism degree, which so far has taken her around the U.S., to Morocco, Russia, Spain and Moldova. Contact Rachel at Rachel.Ferchak@cru.org.
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