Today I was listening to the latest “Unbelievable” program on the topic of hell. At one point the observation was made that Christians do not mention the doctrine of hell in evangelism. And the comment was made that if Christians really believed in hell then they surely should be doing this. While I am sympathetic with this point, I think there are also very good reasons why a Christian keen on evangelism might not mention the doctrine of hell.
Let me give you an illustration. Imagine that you come to believe that aliens from the planet Zargon have invaded earth and are currently in the process of taking over the bodies of human beings by inserting a microscopic implant at the base of the neck when people sleep. (The Zargonites do this by sending out millions of probes every week by remote direction from their ship which is hiding on the dark side of the moon.)
You believe that there is one way to protect human beings from the probes: beta-Carotene. And the best way to get the immunizing effect is to get people to eat lots of carrots. For some reason if you do this the microscopic implants will fail to insert themselves and the people will be spared from alien control.
Now you face a dilemma. How best to get the word out? How best to get people to consume lots of carrots so that they will be protected against the Zargonite remote implants? One way would be to focus on the threat and warning your audience against it. The obvious problem is that you know if you focus on the threat of the Zargonites most people will think you’re crazy and they will dismiss what you say out of hand. It would seem that a much more effective method would set aside any explicit mention of your beliefs about the existence of the Zargonites and the immediate threat they pose. Instead, you’d be far better off focusing on finding novel ways to get people to eat lots of carrots. Perhaps, for example, you could promote your best-selling book called The Carrot Diet: Thirty days to a better you! on The Dr.Oz Show.
Now this illustration is intended to be just a bit wacky, so please don’t get too hung up on the eccentricities. And don’t think I’m intending this illustration as a point by point comparison, as if the advisability of total silence on the existence of the Zargonites should lead Christians to be totally silent on the existence of hell. I’m not intending to apply the analogy in that way.
The point is simply this: many if not most people today are massively incredulous to the idea of the doctrine of hell (particularly hell as eternal conscious torment) in a way that parallels the massive incredulity most people would have toward the existence of the Zargonite aliens. Consequently, just as the most effective way to protect people from the Zargonites would be to focus on the cure (carrots) rather than the threat, so in evangelistic sharing of the Christian gospel you will probably be more successful if your focus is on the cure (Christ) rather than the threat (eternal conscious torment in hell).
To sum up, if my analysis is correct then we cannot assume that an evangelist who rarely mentions hell when sharing the gospel has capitulated to cultural fashion. Indeed, he (or she) may in fact be demonstrating sound, culturally contextualized evangelistic wisdom.