The clearest finding I come to from this study was something I had already suspected, but I was still surprised by the preponderance of evidence that came through. This is that the concept of hell and condemnation is used in the New Testament primarily as a warning to those who claim to believe, or who claim God’s privilege. It is not used as a warning or threat to the unbeliever. Time and again, both Jesus and the writers of the epistles speak of hell in the context of calling out the oppressors, the self-righteous religious leaders (particularly as those leaders are misleading those who might otherwise follow God), and those who try to justify themselves while ignoring the core of Jesus’ teaching. Even the term “unbeliever” in context refers far more frequently to those who have consciously rejected Jesus, than to people who just don’t know or haven’t received the Gospel.
A corollary to this point is that hell is also not used by any Biblical writer as a reason for us to evangelize. In the Great Commission, and in other places where Jesus commands us to spread his word, the reason is Jesus’ authority itself (“all power is given to me, therefore go…”), not the eventual state of the unbeliever. Jesus’ message to the unbeliever was an affirmative one—come, believe, repent, follow—not a negative one of fleeing punishment. Scripture is clear that God wants people to be saved, and we may infer that their eternal state is part of the reason, but Scripture itself does not link the two. That link, while reasonable, is a creation of human logic, not a Biblical one.
I freely acknowledge that there are many dedicated believers who first came to Christ out of a fear of condemnation. This is yet more evidence that God, in his grace, uses our flawed efforts to his glory. However, to argue as some have, that we need to use the “fear factor” to reach people who might not respond to a more affirmative presentation of the gospel, is to forget what we so readily claim at other times—that it is the Spirit of Christ who draws people to him, not the effectiveness of our words. If we believe in the Spirit’s moving in our evangelistic efforts, we do not need to go beyond what is written to be effective messengers of the gospel.
So my first and most important conclusion is this: a doctrine of hell/punishment is not necessary to obedience, and it is not central to the message of the New Testament. I submit it does not rise to the level of doctrine at all.