“You’re going to hell, but…” isn’t good news

As I continue responding to the discussions on my post about Ricky Gervais, I now come to the second of three challenges I made to Christians (first here). It’s to do with the message we have to offer.

I said we often begin explaining our faith with “You’re going to hell”, before carrying on with “but…” and then explaining they don’t have to if they’ll sign on the dotted line. To quote myself:

It seems there is a two-step ‘evangelism’ method being practised far too often. Step 1: tell someone God is angry enough with them to send them to hell. Step 2: tell them God loves them enough to let them into heaven after all.

Hell is not good news

I’m laying my cards on the table: I don’t believe this is good news. It’s bad news, then a remedy for bad news. My main problem is that it uses fear as a tactic, not love. It even has a slogan: ‘Turn or burn’.

Turn or Burn

I believe there’s a better way. When the book of Acts talks of the early believers telling people the good news, I believe it means just that – they had good news to offer. They didn’t have a “You’re going to hell, but…” gospel.

That’s my real beef with this presentation of the Christian faith. Not just that it isn’t good news, but it isn’t the good news. It is not the gospel. It just isn’t. The gospel is far bigger and more wonderful than “You’re going to hell, but…”

How about something like this, instead…?

Restoration is good news

Christianity doesn’t start with us, it starts with God. God is brilliant. He’s perfect, He’s good and in His very being He is love. In fact He has so much love He couldn’t keep it to Himself. The whole created world is an overflow of His love, His desire for relationship.

God’s perfect world was defined by love, and people were the pinnacle, the high point, the part of creation into which God poured His very being. We were companions of God, made to love Him, be loved by Him, love and care for each other, love and care for the world around us.

Love isn’t love unless it’s a choice. Forced love isn’t love at all. So God gives us that choice, and since the dawn of time people have chosen not to live their lives directed towards love of God or each other. The world was meant for love, and without it became broken. The ripple effects of that brokenness affect all relationships: with God, each other, and the world. We see that brokenness every day. But here’s the good news.

Good newsEver since, God’s been in the work of restoration. He’s continued to pour out His love. Instead of staying far from us, leaving us broken, He entered in. He rubbed shoulders with us in the person of His Son, Jesus, who showed us what God is really like, and what it means to be truly human. He died, and as He did all the brokenness of the world was placed on His shoulders, dealt with there, once and for all.

And now the brokenness has been broken! When that happens, what’s left is wholeness.

Whole relationships: with God, with each other, with the world around us. All that was broken is being restored. It isn’t finished yet, but one day it will be. One day Jesus will return to our world and the work will be completed. And then all there will be is wholeness. No more pain, sickness, death, sorrow or hurt. Everything will be made new. Everything will reflect the perfect and goodness and beauty of God.

These are God’s purposes and plans, and He will achieve them. He has proven His power to bring life and restoration by the resurrection of His Son. He has poured His Spirit into people’s lives to begin the work of perfecting them. One day He’ll finish everything He’s started.

And He invites us – each one of us – to join Him in that restoration. This isn’t a threat. It’s an invitation. We can cling to that brokenness if we choose, because He still won’t force His love on us, and He will honour that choice. If we don’t want Him to be part of our lives, He won’t be.

Or we can step forever into the restoration He’s bringing about.

He will restore this world. He will restore relationships. He wants to restore you, too.

Isn’t that more enticing?

Is Hell real? I believe it is. It is God granting us our wish to have nothing to do with Him, and it’s horrible. Is avoiding Hell the reason I’m a Christian. Absolutely not! I have stepped into a story of hope, joy and great beauty.

I have taken up an invitation, not submitted to a threat.

So my question really is this: if we have a story of life, hope and restoration, why do we sometimes choose instead to tell a story of death, despair and destruction?


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  • Matt Knight

    Yes Dave – this picture of restoration is so much more helpful and thank you for putting it so succinctly. I like to think of humans as “glorious ruins”. Just as an old ruined building offers hints of its former glory so all people, regardless of what badge of faith they choose to accept or not, reflect the glory with which they were created.

    The good thing about restoration is that it is a process that can start now, even if the completion is way off in the future.

    • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

      Absolutely Matt! I love that picture of restoration – thank you! And I’m so glad it’s a process. If it weren’t, and I were expected to be the finished package now, that’d be a rather unpleasant thought…

  • http://www.faith-wideopen.blogspot.com/ Matthew Bryant

    Brilliant. You’ve touched on something great here – Hell didn’t factor into the disciples message of good news! I’m so glad I’m alive when the Church is waking up to the idea that God has never been in the business of scaring people into his kingdom. The Gospel is about a broken relationship made whole.

    Maybe there always will be the ‘… and then?’ question. So Hell is real right? How could a loving God send people there? I ask that question all the time, but I know one thing has to be true; if people do end up thereout of choice that choice will have to be based on a lot more than recoiling at the message preached by a chauvinistic, homophobic, money-grabber every Sunday.

    • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

      “God has never been in the business of scaring people into his kingdom. The Gospel is about a broken relationship made whole.” If you’d written that before this post, I’d have totally quoted you! Great stuff.

      The ‘… and then?’ question is definitely still there. Hell is an uncomfortable idea, but I’ve been asking another question recently: would a loving God really be loving to force all people into an eternity with a God they chose to have nothing to do with? Is that love, if it’s not even a choice we get to make? I’m not sure.

      (I also feel I need to say this next bit. I don’t believe we can equate quite so strongly this sort of ‘gospel’ presentation with chauvinism, homophobia or money-grabbing. There may be a part of the venn diagram where they overlap, but they aren’t in and of themselves the same thing. I do take your broader point, though!)

      • http://www.faith-wideopen.blogspot.com/ Matthew Bryant

        Damn it! That could’ve been the first time I was ever quoted! You’re totally right about the choice either way too, but that choice will be full and complete. You’re also right that that sort of gospel isn’t solely taught by the likes of people that I mentioned (or even only taught by these people), but such is my way to polarise things…

        • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

          I promise I’ll quote you sometime! Polarity is an interesting thing. It can be a useful tool in shining a light on certain things and stirring debate, but I’m never sure how constructive it can be as a long-term tool to really cultivate dialogue. I think a mixture can be a good thing. But I would say that – I’m a Christian, I love the middle-ground…

  • Richard Criddle

    Yes! Evangelism is come and see Jesus, come and have Jesus. He makes sense of everything, he fulfllls everything, he fixes everything. He is not fire insurance, he is the fountain of living water. So on the main line of your post I’m with you.

    But… I’m not sure about your summary of Acts. I’ve been struck this last term working through the early chapters that the gospel does sound like bad news before it is good news. In ch2 it is the Jesus “whom you crucified” who is Lord and Christ (v36). The people are cut to the heart (presumably) realising that they are on the wrong side of the judge. Astonishingly he offers forgiveness and the Spirit to all who repent (38), but the warning comes first. Acts 17 gives the same to Gentiles – repent because Jesus is the judge whom God has appointed.

    So what’s the place today for unsettling people that they are running in the opposite direction to the reality of the universe? That the Jesus they have ignored is Lord and Christ and Judge. That as well as an invitation to enjoy Christ, the gospel is a command to repent.

    I don’t know how happy I am with it, but I’ve had to come up with a one sentence summary of “the good news I feel called to preach” for my Anglican shenanigans. At the moment, I’m running with: Jesus is Lord (whether you like it or not), and he is the Lord we have always longed for. What would yours be?

    I’m probably going to ask you a question on Luke 4 on Monday when I’ve done some more work on it. I saw that you were looking at it again – lovely jubb-ly!

    • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

      Thanks bro! I’m glad that broadly we are in agreement. That’s always nice.

      I’m certainly not denying people are lost and in need to rescue. I also don’t think my presentation above holds back on describing the brokenness of people or the world, or indeed the root cause of that brokenness. Nor of course did the early church. I use the word ‘restoration’ a lot, and restoration is pointless unless we recognise our need for it.

      As with any summary this length, things will be emphasised and other things won’t. I think my initial impetus here is about which way round we have things. Is it that we need restoration to save us from Hell, or is it more that Hell is the result when we refuse restoration. They are saying similar things, but there’s a difference.

      The first makes God’s non-ideal (Hell, and a permanent broken relationship with people) the starting point, and then provides the fix. The second (I think rightly) places emphasis on God’s ideal and his purposes (restoration of the perfection of everything) and then rightly points to the consequences of refusing that. Of course both have a place, but my concern is an overuse of the first and an underuse of the second. I may of course be wrong, as always.

      It may also be that in revulsion at the MANNER in which I’ve seen people use the ‘turn or burn’ technique, I have become too skeptical about the MESSAGE itself. I believe that has led to a more rounded picture of the gospel, but again I could have made an error.

      I’ll have a ponder at my one sentence summary, though I’m never sure that kind of tool is a good one to use. I imagine it will at heart be very similar to yours, but use different words.

      Look forward to your question on Luke 4. I did look at it recently, though it wasn’t the focal point of what I was looking at. My general view on the Nazareth Manifesto (if that’s the bit you’re doing) is that there is loads going on and we (I) often just pick part of it.

      • Richard Criddle

        I agree more when you say more :)

        Believe me, the one-sentence summary is far from the worst thing the CofE has had me doing! It was useful in getting me to think through what I care about most, but I wouldn’t use it in real life. That said, I have used as the outline of a 5-10 minute talk on a couple of occasions.

        It is Nazareth that I’m working on this week. I’m teaching Luke 3-6 to our kids over 12 weeks, and finding that all of it has loads going on! But it’s been a long time since I’ve taught them a gospel – it’s massively refreshing for me.

  • Ciarán O’Ceileachair

    Hi, thanks for an interesting Blog post. It’s an issue I think many Christians struggle with.

    I know you want to point out the love of God, but I feel like you have portrayed a rather limited picture of God rather than painting the “panorama of his perfections” (John Piper). You spoke of brokenness, but you didn’t mention that sin is the route of that. You didn’t mention a God of justice, a wrathful and vengeful God and if you mention none of those, then you don’t have the God of mercy or the God of forgiveness. You don’t have the God of grace! You spoke briefly of Jesus’ death but didn’t speak of His resurrection, which Paul says is vital to our message (1 Cor. 15).

    You might get people interested in God by telling them your version of the good news, but what happens when they read the Bible and see all the other sides of God’s character that you didn’t mention?

    I do appreciate your focus on the love of God and I do agree with you that starting off by telling people they are going to Hell isn’t exactly the best beginning, but you will hit that barrier at some point and if you’re embarrassed by it, then you’re embarrassed by part of God’s character.

    Sorry, just one final point, “In fact He has so much love He couldn’t keep it to Himself”, might sound nice but there is no scriptural backing to it.

    I hope the tone of this reply doesn’t come across as condemnatory, I really do appreciate your focus on love, it’s much better than those at the other end of the spectrum who seem to have lost it altogether.

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