Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Limited Usefulness of Fire and Brimstone

We've all seen it, or at least been given a mental image for it:  The bold, itinerant preacher travels the streets, and warns poor sinners that, unless they repent, they will perish in the flames of Hell for all eternity.  I have to admit, I've often looked at such men as heroes, even though our modern world would frown on such methods:  I say, after all, that it's compassion to warn someone in a burning building that he should get out of the building and into safety.  If done with kindness and tact, there's nothing fanatical or judgmental about warning someone to flee the path that leads to eternal damnation.'s somewhere just to the left.  Hence the fleeing.

Yet there's one thing which becomes a problem:  Many Christians believe that their duty is merely to go out into the world and warn people to "flee the wrath to come."  They believe that, if they go to an unbelieving world and tell them "If you don't repent, you will perish!" then they have "done their job."  But preaching fire and brimstone to a bona fide unbeliever is not enough, on its own, because they have no reason to take the danger seriously.  The fact in the Gospels is this:  Jesus Himself preached about hell, but He also did a lot more than that in order to convince people to believe in God or the true religion.

I've read, time and again, the witty (and true) claim that Jesus mentions hell (or Gehenna, the eternal lake of fire) far more often in the Gospels than He mentions Heaven.  So surely the message that we must repent or else go to Hell is an indispensable part of preaching the Gospel, right?  Sure.  I agree.  But when preaching to those who do not already believe in the true religion, we cannot expect such a message, by itself, to change hearts.  "Indispensable" does not mean "sufficient."

Now I want to re-emphasize that I fully appreciate the importance of warning people about hell.  This post is not the work of a modernist, or a flimsy sort of Christian who believes we mustn't risk "offending" unbelievers by preaching God's word.  I believe that Hell is very much real, a place of literal suffering that will never end for all eternity.  And I believe that only by belief in Jesus Christ, which necessarily leads to also taking His commands seriously, can one find salvation from that fate, and so we have a duty to try to lead people to Him.  As a Catholic, given that Catholicism teaches that the Catholic Church alone contains the fullness of Christ's teaching and commands, I even want to lead people to this Church, which we believe to be founded by Christ.

I'm clearly a radical hippie.  Why, just look at my coexist sti--Oh wait...

So needless to say, I believe evangelizing matters.  I do not hold the vague convictions of one who would say that preaching and conversion of souls is unimportant, that if we're just "nice" to people and we treat them kindly, that's all that matters.  We must thirst for the conversion of souls.  We must have a passion for bringing others into the Lord and His Church!  And part of that is warning unbelievers about the dangers of Hell.

And yet I still stand by the statement that shouting fire and brimstone at unbelievers is useless if not combined with more, and if used by itself it's not even in following the model of Christ nor the early Apostles.  Jesus did preach about Hell, but He also won people over with the beauty and wisdom of His teachings, and with His miracles.  And isn't this, after all, what makes the most sense?  If I preach to an atheist that he risks going to Hell for his unbelief or his obstinate sins, what use is that on its own?  He doesn't believe in Hell!  Even if I preach to someone who does believe in some sort of Hell but who doesn't believe in our religion, what use is that on its own?  He believes in Hell, but if his own religion permits the behaviors or omissions mine would call sin, he has no reason from his point of view to take me seriously!

Now, if I preach to a fellow Catholic, someone who knows what the Church teaches and yet goes against it anyway, then the doctrine of Hell is at its most effective.  Like the Israelite of Jesus' day, he should know better.  If he is in fact a Catholic, then whether he admits it to himself or not, he has the information he needs to know that Hell is a real place and to know what roads lead there.  The same applies to a Protestant who shares my belief in a Divinely inspired Bible, yet who staunchly commits to an ethic that goes against it; he has enough information to know he's violating the commands we do believe in common, and to know what Scripture says the consequences are.  The point is, it's most readily useful to talk about Hell as the consequence of certain actions or of unbelief to those who already believe enough to take that possibility and the wrongness of their deeds seriously.  Otherwise it's similar to a scenario where someone preached to you that the great ZiMah would leave you to some terrible fate for all eternity if you committed the grave sin of, say, eating beef and never repented.  You simply have no reason to take that seriously unless you were already a believer in ZiMah and his hatred of beef.  You need more than a mere proclamation of danger.

It's what's for HELL!

What about the others, though?  How must we reach out to them?  We must do what Jesus and the Apostles did:  We must preach not only about Hell, but also of all the glories of Heaven, the joys of Christ.  It's also true that we should appeal to the sense of reason.  But that's not enough.  The greatest sign of the authenticity of our message will be shown by our works.  Even Jesus said, "If you do not believe Me, believe My works!"  If we preach our Faith with great conviction and soundness of reason, and back up that preaching with works of beauty and charity which surpass that of the world, the unbelievers will notice, just as surely as people took notice when the apostles did great works.  It's a tall order though:  Our works and way of life--enabled by Christ's Grace and the Holy Spirit living within us--must shine so brightly that no other way on earth, neither of any other religion nor any secular philosophy, can be said to match them.  We can't do this on our own, of course, but we can "do all things through Christ Who strengthens" us.

In addition to this, the best way to convince unbelievers that perhaps their sins will lead them to Hell is to draw their attention to the "Hell on Earth," that their sins reap, things they can actually see if they admit it to themselves; we for our part must suggest that maybe these earthly miseries are signs that an eternal misery awaits those who walk such paths without repentance.

This is, after all, what the apostles themselves did:  The apostle Paul, for example, appealed to pagans not merely with talk of Hell, but by pointing out how beautiful and reasonable the Gospel was, and he confirmed his message by doing good and beautiful works which--just as Christ promised--pointed to the authenticity of the message.   He also pointed out the emptiness of sin, which predisposed his listeners to take more seriously the eternal emptiness sin might breed.  If we proclaim and defend that our Lord is the way of true peace, joy, and life, while the way of sin leads to emptiness and loss, and if we then demonstrate these truths by actions that really point to the reality we proclaim, people will begin to at least consider that maybe there's something to this religion of ours.  As they see the emptiness that sin sows in their lives (and indeed in our lives, when we sin--we mustn't pretend to be perfect), compared to the peace that is found only when one walks with God, they may begin to hunger for the latter and to leave behind the former.

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