Heaven and Hell, The Carrot and the Stick

carrot and stick

The two tools most often used by Evangelical preachers to keep people in the pews are:

  • The threat of God’s judgment
  • The threat of hell

As with Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Evangelical preachers warn parishioners of the judgment to come and the hell that awaits anyone who does not repent of their sins and become a follower of Jesus.

Here’s what Edwards had to say:

…The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment…

While few Evangelical preachers can turn a word and speak as eloquently as Edwards, their message is still the same: judgment and hell awaits those who do not repent of their sins and follow after Jesus.

Preachers often use what I call the carrot and stick approach. Every person has a choice to make about where they spend eternity. While Calvinists and Arminians argue endlessly over whether we really are free to choose, saving faith does require an act of volition. Every person must choose between heaven and hell. Become a follower of Jesus and heaven, the carrot awaits when you die. Reject Jesus, his salvific work on the cross and his death-defying resurrection from the dead, then hell, the stick, awaits you when you die.

Evangelical preachers impress on those under the sound of their voice that it is important to make a decision for Christ NOW! The Bible says in the last part of II Corinthians 6:2:

…behold now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation.

According to Evangelical preachers, none of us has the promise of tomorrow. Proverbs 27:1 states:

Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.

Evangelical preachers are like Larry the Cable Guy. Git ‘er Done! Today, right now, don’t delay.

Some preachers spice up their sermons with illustrations of people who died suddenly or who died after hearing and rejecting the preacher’s warning about God’s judgment and hell. These stories, true or not, are meant to elicit an immediate response. When I was a preacher, my goal was to press every person who heard my sermon to make a decision. I was of the opinion that there was no such thing as a neutral position. Once a person heard the gospel, heard my sermon, they had a choice to make. Heaven or hell, which will it be?

A regular reader of this blog sent me a Franklin Graham quote that I think will help illustrate what I am trying to say in this post:

“Death is serious, eternal business. Once our physical hearts beat for the last time, we will instantly find ourselves either in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in all His splendor, or in the pit of Hell away from His presence.”

There’s the carrot and the stick. Heaven or hell; choose now while your heart is still beating. The moment your heart stops beating, your eternal destiny is settled.

Think for a moment about what Graham said here about the heart stopping. So, if a person’s heart stops, his eternal destiny is settled? What if his heart is restarted using a defibrillator? Does this mean his eternal destiny is not really settled and he gets another chance to decide, heaven or hell? For those people who have heart transplants, does that mean that they need to decide again?

The bigger problem with Graham’s statement is that it is bad theology. According to orthodox Christian theology, when people die, they do not go to heaven or hell. Instead, they go to the grave and will remain there until the resurrection of the dead. Grandma is not up in Heaven running around, nor is she peering over the portals of Heaven watching her grandchildren play. Neither is Christopher Hitchens in hell, being tormented day and night for daring to mock the thrice holy God. They are dead, lying in the grave, awaiting the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.

After the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment will take place and every person will be sent to his or her eternal destiny. And even here, many Evangelical preachers, including Graham, get it wrong. Christians will not spend eternity in Heaven. Instead, they will spend it in the kingdom of God. Hitchens and the rest of us reprobates? We will not spend eternity in hell. Instead we will spend it in the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:11-15 makes this quite clear:

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

and Revelation 21:1-8:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

And here an even more interesting point. Isn’t our eternal destiny is settled by repenting of our sins and following after Jesus? These texts state that everyone is judged by their works, that it is works that determine whether Grandma, Hitchens, or anyone else goes to heaven or hell.

I wish Evangelical preachers would get together and figure out exactly where it is we are all going when we die. I wish they would  determine if it is really up to me to decide? With so much confusion and lack of theological precision, how is a poor, lost atheist such as I am, supposed to determine in what hotel to make my final reservation?

The purpose of this post is to show how confusing and contradictory Evangelical preachers and their theology can be. If they are not precise and clear, can mere untrained, unwashed Philistines such as we are have any hope of finding THE Way, Truth, and Life?

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6 Comments

  1. Byroniac

    You know, I never realized that my beliefs concerning heaven and hell when I called myself a Christian were not orthodox until reading your posts. In my mind, probably from the book of 2nd Byroniac, chapter 34, I believed that souls/spirits went directly to heaven or hell after death (I was a dichotomist for the majority of my time as a believer, though I went through a charismatic trichotomy phase until I realized I did not even understand that myself). I then thought at the Final Day of Judgment our souls in heaven or hell were reunited with our bodies (even if cremated, I suppose) and then we were judged and placed where we belong (not sure about the heaven versus the Kingdom of God thing, but here is where the naughty people got tossed into the Lake of Fire for me). For some reason, I never really studied this area or received much instruction on it. I guess I was preoccupied with making sure I was saved and trying to get others saved, and letting that part work itself out.

    I love reading your posts! You help me clarify my own thoughts concerning religion (often helping me arrive at the “that’s just bonkers!” conclusion faster than I’d normally do otherwise). And sometimes I wonder if there actually could be a God out there with a sense of humor, to have invented a country like ours that could produce both a Jonathan Edwards and a Joel Osteen within its relatively young existence.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Well the Bible does say in II 5:8, absent from the body present with the Lord but we aren’t told what it is that is absent from the body.

      A great read on this is NT Wright’s book on death and the resurrection, Surprised by Hope.

      I have been to a fair number of Christian funerals over the years. I have not heard one preacher accurately describe where the deceased was. In every case what I heard was some form of Grannie is in heaven right now running down the streets of gold.

      Reply
      1. Byroniac

        Well, that’s probably how I learned that, and to the extent that I learned it. I might eventually read that book by N.T. Wright. Thanks! (Just wish there was a “Surprised by Science” book in the Christian bookstores instead, LOL).

        Reply
  2. Brian

    Hey Bruce – It seems your still a pretty good preacher, glad you shed the IFB bias. Peace

    Reply
  3. Karen the rock whisperer

    Raised Catholic, I was taught that everyone paid for their sins. Confessed sins were forgiven, but there was still payment. So when ordinary people died, they went to Purgatory, a place I never got much description of, where they were properly punished in a way that was appropriate for their earthly sins. Then they got to go to heaven. People who did NOT confess their sins to God, however (and the church’s ritual wasn’t always necessary, but reliably helpful), were in grave danger of being sent to hell, especially if the sins were grave sins. And hell was a state of being so horrible that the metaphor of a lake of fire didn’t really begin to cover it.

    Biblical? I’m sure the learned priests can come up with some reading of the bible that supports this, the bible can be stretched to support nearly anything. But it was a heckuva lot kinder on children to learn this than live in perpetual fear of making one false step and be sent to eternal torture.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I was friends with a Catholic boy who lived down the street from me–eight grade. I remember one day going over to his house to see if he wanted to play baseball. He did. Well, the family was getting ready for church, and Billy wanted to play baseball instead of going to church. I still remember to this day his Mom yelling at him, Billy you are going to go to hell! Billy chose hell and off we went to play baseball. 🙂

      Reply

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