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Must Evangelicals Stop Talking About Hell to Reach the Culture?

I have this theory: Evangelicalism is hated not for what it has become, but because of what it believes. There are many excesses and hell-2absurdities one can point to inside Christendom. But when it comes down to it, it is what Christians believe not how they act that torques most of its opponents.

One such belief is about hell.

I recently found another possible entry into The Anti-Evaneglical Hate Machine club. One of my progressive friends linked to it on Facebook. It’s called Jesus, American Style, and has all the requisite venom against all that is American Christianity. (I cribbed this info-graphic from JAS.) Hell is one of the favorite targets of progressives and secularists. Which leads to my point:

We can be as nice and loving as we want when approaching the topic of hell. The problem, however, isn’t our tone. It’s the doctrine itself.

Nevertheless, Christians are told ad naseum to change their approach to culture. Like this article about Louie Giglio who withdrew from praying at President Obama’s second inauguration after ThinkProgress, a liberal watchdog group, discovered a sermon Giglio preached in the 1990s in which he identified homosexual activity as “sin in the eyes of God.” Less than 24-hours later the inaugural committee announced a new, gay-affirming, faith leader would replace Louie Giglio at the event.

In his article, Giglio & the Weakness of the Evangelical Brand at Out of Ur, Skye Jethani uses the backlash from evangelicals to employ the predictable “Blame the Church First” approach. (bold is mine)

“…while there is some reason to view [Giglio’s] removal from the inauguration as a turning point for evangelical participation in the public square, it also provides the opportunity to reflect on how evangelicals themselves may be at fault. In other words, before we point out the speck in the eye of the LGBT activists who pushed Giglio out, perhaps we ought to see the log in our own.”

Jethani concludes:

“Rather than using the aftermath of the Louie Giglio inauguration mess as an opportunity to blast LGBT activists or President Obama for intolerance, which only serves to reinforce the brand image most Americans already have of evangelicals, perhaps the energy of concerned Christians would be better spent in self-reflection.”


Why is it that events like this are typically viewed as indictments of the Church? Why does this afford us “the opportunity to reflect on how evangelicals themselves may be at fault,” to “see the log in our own” eye? Why isn’t this viewed as evidence of a creeping bias against conservative Christianity? Why is this our fault?

So I left a comment on the article that concluded thus:

Sorry. No amount of re-branding will make opposition to homosexuality more tolerable to the cultural Left.

This is exactly what I feel the end-game of Jethani’s approach is. (bold mine)

Given [evangelical’s] commitment to relevancy, when evangelical leaders refuse to accommodate to the culture on matters of homosexuality it appears to those outside that they are violating their own brand. While Catholic clergy are understandably behind the times, the gay community has trouble believing that evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage is predicated on a principled religious conviction or tradition. As one leader in the LGBT movement asked me, “Evangelicals are fine with ignoring many other parts of the Bible, so why do they insist on holding on to a few verses about homosexuality?” The simplest explanation for many in the LGBT community is that evangelicals must be bigots.

Apparently, we would gain more respect if we simply “accommodate[d] to the culture on matters of homosexuality.”

But homosexuality isn’t the only subject evangelicals should back off of. The doctrine of hell is another one.

In a recent article on Rob Bell and his controversial book “Love Wins,” New Yorker contributor Kelefa Sanneh  describes Bell as a Hell Raiser who is searching for “a more forgiving faith.” Apparently, any religion that affirms a place called hell is not “forgiving enough.” Sanneh summarizes:  (bold mine)

Last year, [Bell] published “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which he questioned the existence of Hell. The central message of “Love Wins” is that the church needs to stop scaring people away; in publishing it, Bell hoped to spark a movement toward a more congenial, less punitive form of Christianity.

Once again, whether it’s “hell” or “homosexuality,” the intent seems to be the same — “to spark a movement toward a more congenial, less punitive form of Christianity.” And affirming “hell” or believing that homosexual activity is a “sin in the eyes of God,” is simply not “congenial” enough.

And everyone knows congeniality was one of the watermarks of the life of Christ. Not.

It may come as a surprise, but I agree with evangelical opponents that HOW we talk about issues like hell is important. Believing there is a hell, a place of destruction or torment or eternal isolation, that souls can go to is not a license for being judgmental, rude, unloving, etc.

But I would say basically the same thing as I did in my comment at Out of Ur. No amount of re-branding will make belief in hell more tolerable to the cultural Left.

We can be as nice and loving and culturally accommodating and congenial as we want when approaching the topic of hell. The problem, however, isn’t our tone. It’s the doctrine itself.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • sally apokedak January 28, 2013, 6:54 AM

    Excellent post.

  • Skye Jethani January 28, 2013, 7:46 AM


    I appreciate your thoughtful response to my post on Out of Ur, but I fear you may have misunderstood my intent–or perhaps I failed to communicate my idea clearly. (I should point out the log in my own eye first.)

    I am NOT arguing that evangelicals should seek to be more relevant or accomodate in any way on our belief about human sexuality and marriage. In fact, I am arguing precisely the opposite–that we evangelicals should seek LESS cultural relevancy. It is our pursuit of relevancy that has caused many to see our refusal to accomodate on sexuality as bigotry, whereas the Catholic church often gets a pass. I think if we adhered to more of the historical teachings, styles, and customs of the Christian church we’d find less backlash from a culture that we cannot remain in step with.

    So, I do hope a more fruitful dialogue may proceed as I agree with your main point. Relevancy and acceptance of the culture’s normative beliefs are absolutely not what I am advocating.


    Skye Jethani

    • Mike Duran January 28, 2013, 9:42 AM

      Thanks for writing, Skye. I’m not sure I can get behind that point either. Is it really “our pursuit of relevancy that has caused many to see our refusal to accommodate on sexuality as bigotry”? The examples you give of evangelicals’ pursuit or relevancy are all methodical — “worship, new communication technologies, new music genres, new models of church leadership and organization” — NOT theological. Methodological, stylistic adaption seems like a no-brainer (heck, even the Pope tweets now!). As I say in this post and in the comment at Out of Ur, it’s the assertion that “homosexual activity is ‘sin in the eyes of God’ ” that causes cultural flak, not our “pursuit of relevancy.” If we were LESS culturally relevant, would that position be more palatable? I think not. Once again, thanks for dropping by and commenting, Skye!

      • Skye Jethani January 28, 2013, 9:58 AM


        Yes, much of how evangelicals have sought relevancy has been methodological, but in my post I explicitly mention our theological accommodation on divorce. This is, by far, the most commonly sited issued I hear from leaders in the LGBT community. Whereas the Roman Catholic church has stuck by its conviction that no-fault divorce is unchristian, much of the evangelical church has accommodated. In fact, when these no-fault divorce laws were being passed you couldn’t find an organized evangelical resistance to them. Today there is overwhelming evidence that these laws have hurt the institution of marriage, children, and the fabric of our society far more than same-sex marriage has.

        I’m simply saying that the RC church has been consistently irrelevant on these matters while evangelicals have waffled. This waffling is what’s opened us more to the charge of bigotry than Catholics. And, yes, we have sought not only methodological but also theological relevance at our own peril.


  • Bobby B January 28, 2013, 8:22 AM

    It’s both. Judgment starts in the house of God. I’m convinced if Jesus were to make a kind of “intermission” return, not the Revelations return but to walk among us, He would not be happy with a lot in the American church and Evangelicals would probably treat him a lot like the Pharisees did…myself included!

    That said, the world has never liked the Gospel and, as Jesus said, never will. Hell is one facet of that Gospel and thus non-Christians use intellectual, psychological and emotional reasons to not confront hell, God, or what Jesus did on the cross.

    It’s a balance. Or, perhaps like Ecclesiastes says: There’s a season for critiquing the church, and there’s a season for calling others to repentance.

  • Jessica Thomas January 28, 2013, 9:00 AM

    I haven’t read your post in its entirety yet. I haven’t gotten past the JAS “Swag”.

    Well, I’ll start by saying, I find the photo above humorous and harmless. It’s a valid question people ask of Christianity, believers themselves ask it. “What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus?”

    However, wearing a T-shirt that says “No Jesus Required” is a different story. By wearing such a T-shirt, a person is admitting that they know who Jesus is. So, let me ask you (I’m preaching to the choir, I realize), who is God going to judge more harshly? The little boy (or adult for that matter) who never had the opportunity to learn about Jesus? Or the adult who willfully denies His name, and proclaims that denial to the world on a T-shirt. These people think they are enlighted? Really???

    The grapic with the Jesus body/cross head, American flag, and dollar sign is the equivelant of Nazi propaganda, although in this case it’s not against Jews, it’s against Christians. How do some people not see the ugliness in this???

  • Nicole January 28, 2013, 9:02 AM

    Pious religion is exactly why Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. If we take it upon ourselves to spread the Word without the education, discernment, and leading of the Holy Spirit, we get the smack down from unbelievers. If we truly are Christian people who adhere to the Word of God, we learn to be selective and distinctive in our presentation of the Gospel. Not formulaic or even predictable but definitely keeping to the spiritual content/truth of the message given with humility. Hell and homosexuality are inherent in our doctrinal beliefs as is their prerequisite salvation message. Presented with care and anointing the message packs a wallop. The Word is very specific about being “friends” with the world as in compromising truth. The world does hate the Truth and there is no compromising it to please them.

  • Jim Hamlett January 28, 2013, 9:32 AM

    Love your line “No amount of re-branding….” But many in evangelical circles are giving it their best shot. We want to be “liked”, but that is not going to happen, not if we stick to the fundamental doctrines taught in the Scriptures.

    I’m not calling for an in-your-face approach to teaching the truth. We should always give an answer with gentleness and respect (I Pet. 3:15). But I think we often side-track the bluntness of some Scripture in favor of an answer that’s more culturally palatable.

    In our wholesale pursuit of relevance, we’ve abandoned the one thing we really need to hear: the Word of God. Pure. Unadulterated. And without a slew of ancillary quotes, videos, and clever commentary whipped into slick PowerPoint presentations.

    A man dying of thirst doesn’t need a glamorous water container designed by clever marketers. He needs the water.

    • Bobby B January 28, 2013, 10:26 AM

      This. One of the strongest Christian Evangelists I know was saved by a preacher man in a suit with one of those huge black Bibles preaching nothing but repentance. The Evangelist at the time was a teenager with his friends and the preacher walked right up to them and let them have it. They made fun of the preacher, and he went home and was saved.

  • Andy Decker January 28, 2013, 10:01 PM

    Do you reckon this is all a bit cart before the horse? Writing about his earlier visit, Paul told the Corinthian believers, “…I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) It doesn’t make sense to expect people to accept any doctrine if they don’t believe in Christ. Golly gee whiz Wally, of course non-believers are going to not understand a few things, let alone believe them. Homosexuality as the latest crusade is not what we should be spending our energy on. Now, the preaching of Christ and Him crucified necessarily includes hell. This is a doctrine much closer to the bull’s-eye. Salvation begs the question, ‘Saved from what?’ Hell is a part of this. And, a widespread opposition to the doctrine of hell is a fairly recent historical development. Yes, there are examples to be found in history, but the magnitude of the rejection is scads greater this time around. One might say it is a sign of a great falling away, were one so inclined. The problem is we are a hyper-solipsistic and existentially navel-gazing culture. We think it is all about us. Yet how many cultures, including our Great American Society, are going to be relevant outside our three-score and ten years? My guess is, those who will not accept the idea of hell are not going to fully accept a risen savior as the only way to God in heaven – setting themselves up for a Mattew 7:22-23 moment. This is tragic, but the gospel is the gospel, people still need to hear it, and Jesus still saves. Meanwhile, seeking ‘relevance’ in a sin-sick world is akin to serving two masters. It can’t be done very well and believers need to take the long view.

  • DD February 2, 2013, 6:08 AM

    What Christians should take away from this is that when they try to soften or change to fundamental beliefs of Christianity, it is no longer Christianity. Then it is just another social activity or something to help you get through the day. Kenneth Richard Samples wrote about this in his new book last year, “7 Truths That Changed the World.” He called these truths “dangerous ideas” — the ideas that make Christianity what it is. No humans would come up with such a religion full of unsafe, dangerous proclamations.

    And I guess that’s the point.

  • PS April 5, 2013, 8:49 AM

    Part of the issue for evangelicals is the tendency to pick out the “big” sins and not address the “bigger” picture. What would happen if we approached holiness in a way that encompasses the Word of God fully, demonstrating the freedom of a life lived in holiness, which includes a lifestyle of purity. The voice of the church has been greatly absent in areas of sexual purity among heterosexuals. Perhaps if the conversation was broad enough to include all people, we might not be seen in such a narrow light.

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