You’ve likely heard of similar stories. I remember one time a man preaching about hell at 9am at a chapel service at camp . . . to a bunch of 10-year-olds. “Hell is hot, and you don’t want to go there.” Certainly true. Maybe not the best time of day to scare the crap out of a bunch of elementary age school kids though.
Often the stories I hear about people “getting saved” out of a fear of hell happened when someone was young. It does seem a little disingenuous, doesn’t it? You know, using hell as a motivator on the people whose imaginations are most vivid.
It’s easy to see red flags with this approach. Real conversion happens by God’s grace through faith. That’s not necessarily the same thing as praying a prayer because you don’t want to burn forever in hell. No one wants to do that. This approach can lead someone to have a false assurance. I’m sure there are other issues with this approach as well–not to mention there is no gospel in simply telling someone, “You don’t want to go to hell, do you!?! Muahahahah!”
However, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are numerous examples in Scripture of God’s coming judgment being used as a warning to motivate repentance. See the Ninevites with Jonah, Jesus in a few parables and other places, the entire book of Hebrews, and many other places.
Hell is a motivator, but it can be used as a displaced motivator. It can motivate someone’s selfish desires–“I don’t want to go to hell!”– without that person actually having a love for God Himself.
How then should we use coming judgment as the right kind of motivator? Use coming judgment to point to the one who already suffered God’s judgment in our place.
Hell is a poor motivator unless it is used to tell of the one who went through hell to keep us from it. Using it in this kind of way actually exalts Christ in a powerful way because it helps show how much He has truly done. This kind of preaching and teaching about hell should lead people to see how glorious the King over hell is. By God’s grace, they would then avoid hell not in an effort to save their hide, but to worship and love an incredible Savior.
It is possible to use the reality of hell in a poor way, but there is also a way to use it to exalt Christ and tell of His glorious gospel.