Downplaying Hell and our cultural problem of awkwardness

I’ll be brutally honest (because, as you know, I know no other way), there is one troubling and horrific thought that has driven a lot of my Christian life. I know other things matter, my theology is solid enough to know the Bible says other things that impact this, but there is a thought that regularly enter my mind. It pops in every time I am scared about doing something Jesus says I should. It pops into my mind any time I have to do a difficult thing. It pops up whenever I know a difficult conversation is hanging over me. These are all things – given any choice over the matter – I would rather not do. Only sociopaths enjoy these sorts of things. Whatever I might be, I don’t think I am a sociopath. I certainly don’t enjoy these things. But I do reckon them to be vitally important and I am usually, despite everything in me not wanting to do them, driven to do them anyway by this thought.

Imagine with me, if you will, you are in glory. Jesus is there and he is welcoming you in Heaven because of your faith in him. Out of the corner of your eye, you see your neighbours – who were always very nice and you always felt a bit awkward talking about church with them – being ushered away from glory. They look over at you. You look at them. Why did you not say anything? Why did you not tell them? Was it really so awkward you were willing to witness them being thrown into Hell?

I imagine that sort of scenario all the time (maybe that does make me a sociopath?!) I think of people I am sat in church with. People who are clearly tanking their faith in the Lord Jesus to pursue some worldly pleasure. People who I know will be angry at me for daring to say to them, ‘Jesus really does not want you to be doing that’. I am sad to say, I am a pastor and I am painfully used to people being upset and angry with me. Sometimes, I just wish I could leave them to it, not say anything, not do anything about them trashing their spiritual life because their kids want to play football or whatever. But then I think, as awkward and difficult as that is, won’t it be worse to see them ushered to Hell one day, as I watch on, and they point and say, ‘you were a pastor and you didn’t ever say anything!’

Now, look, I’m not saying I am driven on by fear of guilt. I believe in Jesus, I trust in God’s promise that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. I sincerely believe he has taken my sin and shame and I know I’m not looking into the abyss when I die but am guaranteed an eternity with him. But because I love Jesus, and he calls us to watch out for the sheep and he calls us to point the world to him, because he tells us if we don’t have everlasting life we will face eternal torment, I feel obligated to push through the awkwardness. Even though I would much rather have a quiet life, I know how I would feel as the Lord said ‘depart from me, I never knew you’ and my Christian mates watching on had never bothered saying anything because they felt it was a bit awkward and I might get a bit annoyed at them.

My wife finds my attitude to most things funny. I am driven, quite strongly, by a sense of moral duty. I am often driven by a very definite sense of what is right. She has often noticed that a typical response from me is something to this effect, ‘this is going to be awful, but it’s the right thing to do so we just have to get on with it.’ Which, if I’m honest, does sound a lot like something I’d say. Here is the thing: evangelism, pastoral conversations, warning people about sin and judgement, pressing people to choose Jesus over their sin, is almost never fun. But it is right and we are making a pretty unpleasant choice if we weigh the awkwardness against the reality of Hell and decide, actually, we can probably sit it out and just keep mum.

One of the problems we suffer in Britain, one of our cultural foibles, centres on our deep aversion to awkwardness. Obviously, nobody likes awkwardness. But for Brits – particularly middle class Brits – the worst thing in the world, by a country mile, is that you make life awkward. The reason we have the world’s most atrocious customer service is because we cannot bring ourselves to raise anything as a problem because that would be awkward. The reason our comedy centres around people getting into the most awkward situations is because it is most people’s number 1 fear. The average Brit would genuinely rather die than be made to feel awkward or cause an awkward situation. It is the unforgiveable British sin. The the average UK church – full of white, middle-class Brits – is steeped in this culture.

The problem, of course, is that lots of church life is awkward. It is awkward to challenge people’s sin. Nobody likes being told what to do, even if it is Jesus technically doing the telling. It is difficult to tell people if they carry on down certain paths they may find they are actually outside the kingdom, put out of the church and heading for a lost eternity. It is awkward to go out of your church and tell people they are sinners, their sin separates them from a God they never really think about and there is a place called Hell that they don’t believe in to which they are going if they don’t get to know Jesus and sort it out. Of course, nobody is going to phrase things exactly like that, but there aren’t many ways you can dress that up. You can couch it as nicely as is humanly possible, but in the end, you’re a sinner heading for Hell is not going to be heard well. But it is, albeit a hard truth, nevertheless the truth.

The problem with many of our churches is that we simply are not willing to say these things. I – along with everybody else – do not relish saying them. I don’t get a kick of these sorts of conversations. I wish, like everyone else, I could just tell people they’re sound, they’re great, Jesus loves them and then get on with my day without taking any account of them whatsoever. I, like most people, just want a quiet life. But that quiet life, on those terms, comes at a cost. It comes at an eternal cost for the people you refuse to tell and it comes at a personal cost of the nagging sense you should be saying something but don’t have the bottle.

Before it looks like I am somehow saying how great I am for willing myself to do these things, I don’t pretend I am driven by more godly desires than anyone else. I think I am largely driven by a self-interested desire for a quiet life if I’m honest. It’s just my character and personality is such that I find a nagging conscience that I am not doing what I know is right – and the terrifying prospect that people cast into outer darkness might look me in the eye as its happening and wonder why I never said anything – is far more uncomfortable to me than dealing with the awkwardness of the conversations I’d rather not be having. What worries me though is that many Christians simply don’t seem to make even that calculation. Many churches don’t seem to make that calculation. Many really do think the awkwardness of telling people these things today really is worse than the awkwardness of seeing them thrown into Hell later.

Indeed, I think many of us play down Hell on purpose. The thought of it is unpleasant. People don’t want to hear about. We soften it in our evangelism and we don’t mention it in our churches. We may believe it is there, but we prefer not to think about it too much. It’s all a bit awkward. But I can’t shake the feeling that our decision to play down Hell means we can ignore the realities awaiting people which has the knock-on effect of contenting ourselves that we neither have to warn anyone too strenuously or say anything too awkward to anybody. If the consequences don’t seem so bad, the awkwardness of saying these things today really will seem to be the worst possible outcome.

I wouldn’t like to say which is driving which. I don’t know if our aversion to speaking about Hell has meant we avoid saying anything awkward because the consequences are no longer so bad or because we don’t want to say awkward things we also avoid speaking about Hell. I suspect there is probably a symbiotic thing going on where both these things feed the other. But I fear a refusal to focus on Hell and a cultural desire to avoid anything awkward leads us to another uncomfortable and unpleasant position: we are happy to let people go there because it is just too awkward to do anything about it.

If awkwardness really is the worst possible outcome, perhaps it would help to frame matters this way. What will be more awkward? A conversation with someone today about their sin and the path they are pursuing away from the Lord or your friends and family looking at you on the last day, as you are ushered into glory and they are cast into Hell, and they ask you: why did you not say anything? Who is going to feel most awkward then? The bloke who tried to warn them, albeit a bit awkwardly or you, who in trying to be nice, ultimately didn’t say anything at all?