Why Hell Doesn’t Work

(Note: While I didn’t intend on this being a very long post, it has proven to be longer than I had originally thought. Still, I would appreciate the read!)

There are many theories on why people commit crime. Given all of the theories, there are many responses – incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence and prevention – that supposedly serve to reduce crime.

Now, some of the above responses are harsher than others, relatively speaking. Rehabilitation is going to look at what is causing the deviance and try to correct it through various resources and programming while retribution is going to respond using a tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye type of punishment – like how many view the death penalty. What is important when considering the responses, especially the harsher punishments like incapacitation and retribution, is three things: swiftness, certainty and severity.

Swiftness considers how quickly a punishment will take place once the offender is caught and sentenced, certainty looks at how certain it is that the sentence/punishment will actually take place and severity looks at how severe the punishment will be. In a perfect criminal justice world, all three of these variables would work together equally to prevent people from committing crime. But, when one of the three breaks down, the effectiveness of the punishment breaks down as well. For example, if John commits burglary but knows that the court system in his state is slow to hand out punishment, then the swiftness factor will not play a part in his decision making. Likewise, if John knows that this type of burglary is only punishable by a fine and community service and maybe some jail time, certainty and severity are brought into question and the punishment is unlikely to deter him from committing.

A real world example of the break down of the three variables is the death penalty. One reason why many believe the death penalty is ineffective and a poor deterrent is that both swiftness and certainty are very lacking. It is not uncommon to hear about death row inmates dying from natural causes before they ever reach their execution date. One USA Today article reports that the average wait time for death row inmates in the United States is 12 years and in California, wait times “average nearly 20 years.” Obviously, this system has proved to not be very swift but very sluggish.

As with the break down in swiftness in regards to the death penalty, certainty doesn’t seem to be a big factor in offender’s minds when committing crimes that could lead to a death sentence. Legal proceedings are often biased, capital punishment sentences are often inconsistently given and these factors, among many others, lead to a question-mark when it comes to certainty.

So, why all the crime talk on a blog about faith and Christianity?!


More and more and more I am beginning to believe that many Christians use Hell just as law enforcement and law makers use jail time and tough punishments/sentences. I have seen Hell used as a response to behavior and sin. Just like the criminal justice system, Sunday after Sunday, around the world, punishment is preached. I would argue that Hell is used as incapacitation, deterrence and retribution for many preachers. I also have read several perspectives from different theologians and thinkers where they considered Hell could be a place of rehabilitation, but we won’t get into that here.

We have all heard of the guy (maybe even experienced him!) with the bullhorn and sandwich board, shouting of judgement day and the burning fires of Hell where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”! He speaks of justice – sinners who refuse to repent shall be cast into the “lake of fire.” Or maybe it’s not this guy, but the guy behind the pulpit on Sunday morning. The congregation sings, reads scripture and then hears a “Word from the Lord” which speaks of how it’s “not so cool in Hell.” Some even tell stories of those who failed to repent and are now suffering. But this kind of talk isn’t just reserved for the preacher – it comes from the lips of the congregation, too. And not just the fire-and-brimstone congregations either.

The threat of Hell is used as retribution in many circles against other people. How many times have you heard of someone being wronged and the victim’s response is, “I hope they burn in hell!” Just the other day, my friend texted that to me in response to the death of a criminal in jail. This kind of response and feeling is not based in wanting the person to do better or to deter someone else from doing it, rather it stems from a longing for the offender to “pay” for their actions. We, Christians, do this all of the time.

What I am really trying to get at is this (the thesis of this post/essay): Using the threat of  Hell as punishment for means of lasting behavior modification of congregants and evangelism/conversion of unbelievers is ineffective.

Hell is commonly taught to be a place for punishment. The reason I believe many preachers, pastors, missionaries and congregants threaten Hell is to attempt to convert unbelievers and if already a believer, modify their behavior to fit the mold of their idea of how a “Christian” behaves. Now, I am not indicting all preachers, pastors, ministers, missionaries, etc. There are some unbelievable teachers and missionaries throughout the world that refuse to use Hell as a cheap conversion and control tool and I commend them for this. And there are many people who stand behind the pulpit out of sheer concern for the future of their congregants and I commend them as well. But all too often, Hell is used for something less-than eternal. Hell is used as a means to control and manipulate a group of people to conform to an ideology and morality – much like the criminal justice system uses the threat of punishment to keep citizens within the law.

I want to argue this point on the grounds of the three variables discussed earlier: swiftness, certainty and severity.

Severity: Hell seems like a pretty harsh and severe place and I believe most every one would agree on that. Severity would likely hold up its end of the tri-variable analysis. In regards to conversion and behavior modification, naturally one would think that a severe punishment would illicit an appropriate response to “turn” or cease committing the offense but some research shows the opposite. In classroom settings, less-severe but swifter responses to disruption will actually lead to lasting modification rather than a more-severe but not-as-swift threat like a suspension.

Swiftness: While the nature Hell itself seems awful, the punishment doesn’t seem swift or quick to happen. Even if we could agree on the certainty of its existence, that still doesn’t make up for the questions regarding when it will happen. We have all heard, at some point, the where-would-you-go-if-you-walked-out-of-these-doors-and-died-in-a-car-crash sermon. This type of sermon not only plays on fear but also the assumption that people are preoccupied with their own death. I question this assumption. Some might walk out of the building and be more anxious, but a long term change in behavior is questionable. The punishment of Hell would come at the end of someone’s life and for many people, especially youth, death doesn’t seem a reality. I could walk out of my house right now and get hit by a car, but honestly, for now, I am more worried about what I am going to eat for lunch and how I am going to make money next year. Basically, all of the above to say, the end of our lives (for most) doesn’t seem very imminent, therefore, not swift.

Certainty: Lastly, we come to certainty. In a missionary or evangelism context, where Christians are in the “field” to reach unbelievers, using Hell as a punishment for not repenting concerns me. Someone evangelizing could convince someone that Hell is severe and they could die at any second and face judgement but if the existence and certainty of it is in question, then the whole argument breaks down. As for believers, most of us affirm the existence of Hell. But, some would argue that the certainty of its purpose and nature. Some say it’s a conscious eternal punishment while others say it could be a place of refining (think rehabilitation for entry into Heaven). I affirm the existence of Hell but that doesn’t mean I am certain about all of the details. Certainty, in the case of Hell, is elusive and doesn’t appear to be very sturdy in the tri-variable analysis.

The reason I don’t commit crime is not because I am afraid of being caught, getting arrested and serving a jail sentence. And exactly likewise, I didn’t turn away from my “old ways” and turn to Jesus because I was afraid of Hell. Certainly, I have been fearful of Hell before but that is not what has kept me following Jesus and trying my best to live the way he taught and the way he lived. I’m beyond the fear of the punishment of Hell just like most Americans are free from the fear of being arrested!

On the grounds of sociological and criminological research, theory and method, using the threat of Hell as a means to creating lasting change in one’s behavior and/or convert an unbeliever is ineffective.

So, what do you think? Does the threat of Hell bring about lasting behavior change and/or repentance?


About miles

Follower of the King.
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4 Responses to Why Hell Doesn’t Work

  1. Michael Burchett says:

    First of all, I liked this post.

    I will begin by just saying that I have seen a whole lot of people walk away from the faith because they stop going to Church…could be after high school, after college, after moving, whatever. That may not seem relevant right now, but I’ll come back to it. Essentially, a professor of mine put it well when he mentioned that the reason for this is that pastors focus on creating a series of experiences, and a lot of times students see their Christianity as THE Christian experience, so when they transition to something else and “can’t find a good church” what they mean is that they can’t find a Church that gives then the EXPERIENCE they are used to.

    How this plays into your point:

    I dont think hell is alone here. By making Christianity all about a series of weekly experiences, where people show up once or twice a week to get their “fix,” we have made it so that any topic is only as powerfull as the amount of times it gets repeated. I know several people would leave a sermon on hell cringing, but as you pointed out, by Tuesday nothing changes. The same goes for grace. How many people do you know that go to Church but still go on sinning? It’s because for them, God is “at Church” and it doesn’t stick…I don’t think they would say that, but by making Christianity all about a set of experiences we make a culture in which that is the case.

    I should say this: I love the Bible. I am positive that if we read more books about the Bible, and of course the Bible itself, and less books by Mike Breen, etc. then our Churches would be unstoppable. All of this to say that hell has it’s place in our theology. I can’t imagine grace without it. It shapes my understanding of what grace has saved me from…and how it is ultimately what I deserve. In a way, hell is the other side of grace…the two go hand in hand. It wouldn’t be a problem to teach about hell because it only serves as the platter on which to preach Christ crucified.

    I hope I didn’t ramble too much…just my two cents.

  2. miles says:

    Wow! Great response. Thanks for taking time to read it. I agree with you. Discussing grace without an understanding of what we missed is incomplete just as discussing hell without grace! Thanks again!

  3. Will says:

    Michael – Love Jesus. Also love Mike Breen – not so much his books as the man who has invested so much in me. 🙂

    Miles – Good synopsis of thousands of years of thought, my friend. Would love to chat further soon! I’ve had to roll all these things over in my mind over the years, too. My conclusion: Although I won’t completely understand the whole thing until this life is over, hellish living sure sucks. Hell is here and now way too often. I want to act less, react less, think less , and be less hellish in my own living. People who love Jesus tend to bring a different way to the here and now. I want to do that more.

    Hope to talk soon man.

    • Michael Burchett says:

      Hey Will,

      I wasn’t picking on Mike Breen per se, I just used him as an example because I know of several churches using him right now. It was more of a “for instance” than anything else. The most successful Churches and ministries that I have seen are not the ones that say, “what is Willow Creek doing? What about Andy Stanley’s Church? Yeah, let’s do that” as much as the ones that say, “let’s look at what the scriptures say about what a Church should be and then apply it to our world.” I’m thinking about Flatirons in Colorado, which really thrives on being a place of authentic community (as far as I have heard). And I will also say that my experience is limited, so maybe it’s not as simple as “EVERY great church and ministry follows these rules…while neglecting these things” I’m just saying that this is the trend that I have noticed.

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