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Sermon Illustrations: The Lies Preachers Tell

lying for jesus

From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was started in 1954 by Dr. Tom Malone, pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Dorm students were required to attend Emmanuel. One Sunday, Dr. Malone made a statement during his sermon that I have never forgotten. Meant to be a joke, Malone said, “I am not preaching now. I’m telling the truth.”

I was twenty-years-old when Malone made this statement. In June, I will turn sixty-four. In the intervening years, I preached thousands of sermons and heard hundreds of other sermons, either in person or on cassette tape. Preaching is an art form meant to convey some sort of spiritual message to hearers. While Evangelicals love to make much of the Bible, preaching is far more than just reading the Scriptures. Following Jesus’ example, many preachers use stories to illustrate their sermons. Story-less sermons are, in my estimation, boring as Heaven. I suspect most churchgoers would agree with me. Imagine going to church on Sunday and hearing a sermon that consists of a droning-fan-on-a-summer-day preacher reading the Bible word for word. B-o-r-i-n-g.

Illustrations help keep parishioners engaged. There’s nothing better than a couple of stories interjected at just the right time. In fact, many parishioners won’t remember anything about their preachers’ sermons except for the fantastical stories they told. Marge, wasn’t that a wonderful story Pastor Billy told today? Yes, it was, Moe. Why, that one story was almost unbelievable. Pastor Billy wouldn’t lie, so I know he is telling us the truth.

Dr. Malone got it right when he said, “I am not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.” Malone knew that preachers love to tell stories, and sometimes their stories are not as factual as they should be. Younger preachers often buy illustration books. These books provide preachers with a ready source of catchy, provocative illustrations sure to get parishioners’ attention. Older preachers often develop a cache of illustrations that can be pulled out of their mental file cabinets and used when needed. These illustrations often come from past experiences, especially for preachers who did a lot of “sinning” before Jesus rescued them. I have heard countless preachers regale parishioners with stories about their lives as drug addicts, drunkards, Satanists, atheists, or hitmen for the mob. These stories often seem larger than life. And they are, because these kinds of stories are often embellished or outright lies.

Several years ago, I posted a video of anti-porn crusader Dawn Hawkins telling a story about seeing a man watching child pornography on an airplane.  Several commenters said that, based on their flying experiences, Hawkins was lying. I believe they are correct. I think the same could be said for many of the stories preachers use in their sermons. Simply put, these men are liars for Jesus.

The late Jack Hyles, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, was a masterful storyteller. I heard Hyles preach in person and on tape. His stories were mesmerizing, especially to a wide-eyed young Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher from Ohio. However, over time, I came to the conclusion that Hyles was a narcissistic, pathological liar.

For many years, Hyles pastored the largest church in the United States. Those raised in the IFB church movement know that for men such as Hyles, it was all about the numbers: church attendance, souls saved, baptisms, and offerings. The ministry was like a bunch of third-grade boys in the restroom playing the who has a bigger penis game. Preachers who had John Holmes- or Ron Jeremy-sized churches were considered men whom God was mightily using. Young preachers and men who pastored smaller churches were expected to sit at the feet of these preachers, learning how they too could have large penises, uh I mean churches.

Due to his church’s number one place on the charts, Hyles was viewed as a demigod by many IFB preachers. Hyles told stories about how many people he counseled, souls he had won to Jesus, and the thousands of miles he traveled to preach at Sword of the Lord conferences and other weeknight meetings. Wow, what a great man of God, I thought at the time. I want to be used by God just like Brother Hyles.

I now know that Hyles’ stories were lies. He simply did not have enough hours in the week to sleep, eat, shit, have an affair, pastor a church, win souls, and fly around the country to preach at conferences. As with all lies, Hyles’ stories had elements of truth. However, when carefully analyzed, Hyles’ sermon illustrations sound too good to be true.  Let me illustrate this with several stories found in Hyles’ book Let’s Go Soulwinning:

So I walked in and said, “Hey! Anybody home?” And there was—thirteen people at home—company all dressed up in suits and fine clothes. There I was. Imagine, Rev. Hyles, a cup in his hand, fishing hat on, split tee shirt, patch in his breeches, and a pair of tennis shoes on his feet! And I said, “Hello.” The lady looked at me, she looked at her company, then announced, “This is my pastor.” I was horrified! I was humiliated! I wanted to evaporate but couldn’t.  Finally I said, “Excuse me; I’m sorry.” Then I got to thinking. Shoot! Just take over the conversation. Just act like you have good sense. So in I walked. “How do you do! How are you? Are you a Christian?” I went around the entire room asking the same question. Then THEY got embarrassed.  (I found out long ago that when a preacher goes to a hospital or gets some place where he feels like a fifth wheel, he should just bluff them and take over the conversation. That will help you, too. It really will. You go to the hospital.  Here is the doctor, the nurse, the family. And everybody says, “That’s the preacher.” You know how you feel, pastors. It’s a terrible feeling. So I walk in, “Hello Doc. How are you?” Make HIM feel bad. Make HIM feel like he’s a fifth wheel.)

So I walked in and asked each person if he or she were a Christian. The last man, a young man, said, “No, I’m not, but I’ve been thinking about it.” Well, I said, “I can help you think about it right here.” We knelt there in that home and opened the Bible. He got converted. He lived at Irving, Texas, forty miles from Garland. I said, “Now, J.D., you need to walk the aisle in the church in Irving tomorrow.” He said, “If you don’t mind, Preacher, I’ll just stay over tonight and come to your church and walk the aisle.” He did, and that night he got baptized in my church. Later he joined the First Baptist Church of Irving, Texas.

You don’t realize how many places you will bump into people. I saw a lady while on vacation just recently. She said, “Hello, Brother Jack. Remember when you won me to the Lord?” I said, “I certainly do.” It happened while I was looking for a Mrs. Marsh. I knocked on Mrs. Marsh’s door—I thought. She came to the door. I said, “Mrs. Marsh?”

“No, I’m Mrs. Tillet.”

I said, “Mrs. Tillet, I thought Mrs. Marsh lived here.”

“No, she lives five houses down the street.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Tillet.” I walked off. Then I said, “Wait a minute, Mrs. Tillet. Are you a Christian?” She began to cry. I led her to Christ right there.

I have won shoeshine boys and fellows on airplanes. I was going to Phoenix to a conference last year. I sat down beside a man seventy-two years old, a wealthy rancher. “Where do you live?” I asked.

He said, “On a ranch between Phoenix and Tucson.”

I said, “Do you and your wife live alone?”

“My wife died a few months ago.”

I asked, “Do you ever think about having anybody else come and live with you?” “Oh,” he said, “If I could find somebody who would come and live with me, a friend to keep me company, I’d give anything in the world.” He had chauffeurs, servants. He owned a big ranch with hundreds of acres, but was as lonely as he could be.

I said, “I know Somebody who would come and live with you.”

“You do? Does He live in Phoenix?”

I said, “He sure does. He lives everywhere.”

He said, “Who is it?”

“Jesus will come.” In fifteen minutes that man had Somebody to go home with him to live.

Oh, if we will just take time to witness. The trouble is, we are ashamed of Jesus. We don’t mind saying, “Isn’t it hot today?” or, “I wonder how the Berlin situation is.” We don’t mind talking about Khrushchev. We’re more eager to talk about him than about Jesus. Isn’t that a shame! Here we are redeemed. He died for us on the cross. We have been made heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. He is building a home in Heaven for us. We’re God’s children and we won’t even tell a stranger that we belong to the Lord Jesus. Be soul-conscious.

Storytelling preachers love to tell stories about people suddenly dying and going to Hell. What better way to drive a point home than to tell hearers about this or that man rejecting God’s plan of salvation and then dropping dead and awaking in Hell. This story can be told in numerous ways with different characters and circumstances. Jesus himself told a similar story in Luke 16. The point is always the same: now is accepted time, now is the day of salvation.

Let me conclude this post with several stories I have heard preachers tell over the years. One preacher told a story about a man God had called to preach. The man ignored God’s call and went on to have a large family and made lots of money. One day, this man’s wife and children were driving down the road when a truck hit them head-on. This man’s entire family was instantly killed. In a quiet moment before the funeral, the man wept over the caskets of his loved ones. And at that moment, God audibly spoke to him, telling him that it was God who had killed his entire family to get his attention. Are you ready to serve me now? God asked the man. The man collapsed on the floor and told God that he would indeed forsake all and follow him.

Another preacher told a story about the people in Hell. One day, a crew that was drilling an oil well began hearing what sounded like people crying and screaming. Where was this noise coming from, they wondered? They soon ascertained that the noise was coming from the oil well casing. One of the workers decided to drop a microphone down the well casing, and sure enough, they heard people screaming about being in the unrelenting, fiery flames of Hell!

Of course, neither of these stories is true. The first story was a legend of sorts – I heard variations of it numerous times. Preacher Bob heard Big Name Preacher John tell the story at a Sword of the Lord Conference. Bob thought, why not use this story in my sermon, impressing on people the importance of immediately obeying the voice of God?

The second story is pure fabrication. But hey, if souls get saved . . . right? The end justifies the means, even if it means telling stories that are more farcical than the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

Have you ever heard too-good-to-be-true sermon illustrations?  Please share them in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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27 Comments

  1. Pingback:Quote for the day | Civil Commotion

  2. Avatar
    JR

    There was a guy at uni who was a self proclaimed evangelist. He would go out soul winning at night like a christian batman. He sent my friend a text once saying ‘hey just saved one’. Maybe he did maybe he didn’t. My suspicion was he got some drunk to parot the sinners prayer back to him or a homeless guy just said what he wanted to hear for some change.
    The same guy spoke at a evangelistic bbq where people had invited friends to hear the gospel. He spoke for about 3 minutes :God made the world, we sinned, jesus died you can be forgiven. Everyone politely clapped and had another burger. These miraculous soul winning stories never happen when others are around to see.

  3. Avatar
    Brian

    Hyles was a classic bully. Study the modus operandi of a bully and compare it to loud-mouth assholes for Jesus and I guarantee you you will not find a gentle one among the fundagelicals. If you treat them as bullies, someone lacking respect for others, then I think a good deed is done.

  4. Avatar
    Ian

    Carl Hatch could tell some whoppers, too. I think he rivaled Hyles for stories.

    One I remember is Who’ll Give A Dollar:

    A missionary came through and asked for donations from a church. Deacon Smith was there and listened to the missionary ask for money. The missionary held up one finger and asked, “Who’ll give a dollar?”. Deacon Smith was rich, but his heart wasn’t right with God, so he didn’t give any money. In fact, Deacon Smith went home and mocked the missionary by holding up one finger and and chanting, “Who’ll give a dollar?”, over and over.

    About a year later, Deacon Smith’s first daughter was born. She had a birth defect……her right hand was permanently formed into holding up one finger.

    Moral of the story- God is NOT mocked. And, give money when asked.

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    Steve

    Do you remember David Gibbs, Bruce? Who founded the CLA? He had some that I’ve never forgotten; one of them was influential in my going into the ministry

  6. Avatar
    Melody

    I was so disappointed when I first realized preachers lied to get ideas across. Lying was a sin, wasn’t it? You shouldn’t lie to make your argument stronger; that wasn’t what God wanted. It made me more distrustful of Christian sources and information. Suddenly I had become aware they had an agenda of their own. Mostly to do with increasing fear of the outside world so people would continue to listen to their rules and ideas.

  7. Avatar
    Dennis George Coates

    I use to hear the old canard against Calvinism: Charles Spurgeon repented of his belief in Calvinism on his death bed..total lie .. or this beauty: Calvinism has damned more souls to hell than any other false doctrine…how, exactly would those IBF pastors who STILL say this KNOW? Or the Midwestern student who was stuck in a traffic jam due to a traffic accident and the State Police came around asking drivers if they were religious and would they come and pray for the souls of the drivers who were critically injured and laid dying begging for a pastor?

  8. Avatar
    LARRY CONDRA

    In my years in evangelicalism, there was a constant problem of people making up stuff and/or “borrowing” a good story they had heard and then re-telling the story but this time they are at the center of it. Plus, lots of “urban legend” kind of stuff, such as (late 60s early 70s) a Christian man picked up a hippie who was hitch-hiking and the hippie said, “Jesus is coming” and then vanished from the car!

    I too heard Hyles speak and listened to some of his tapes. He was a hell of a story-teller and religious entertainer. I remember he was promoted at Tennessee Temple in the early 70s as “Mr. Soul Winner” with hundreds of people each year would come to Jesus in Hyles individual encounters with the random lost of the world. The stories of converting people were smooth and quick. Hyles made “soul-winning” to be so easy and effortless. The listeners were be awed at his gift and how God was using him. But above all else, Hyles had incredible comedic timing with his dead-pan, folksy presentations of a day in his life. But as all good Con-Men, he verbally groomed his audience to buy his product that God was using him and to believe what he said and don’t believe what other people are saying because he is a man of absolute integrity and devotion to God. He was selling his products: myths about himself, his church, his school, his books, his tapes, his utter integrity, etc. He should have skipped the whole church business and just gone to Hollywood and auditioned for movie roles. I have no doubt that if he had done that, he would have won a shelf full of Oscars.

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    Matilda

    I always felt guilty that I didn’t have the same success in personal evangelism as these Hyles-type evangelists claimed that they did. They only had to sit on a bus, go to the dentist or stand in line at a checkout, to find wonderful opportunities to share the gospel and always got converts. Folk fell over themselves to kneel in a cafe, or in the street or at a bus stop and receive salvation. Why did that never happen to me? I really suspected deep down that they were making a lot of it up, I never actually saw any of these encounters the super-evangelist claimed he’d had, our church never received any of these new converts arriving and saying they’d just got saved in the street by a random passing evangelist and wanted to join us and get disciple-d. It doesn’t ring true at all to me.

  10. Avatar
    Dave

    How I hated sitting through sermons as a teenager. I only paid attention when the preacher would give an illustration and some were very good at this. So if the Bible is the word of god he must be really boring.

  11. Avatar
    Ozymandias

    Time to finally join the community. I’ve spent my life in the non-instrumental Church of Christ, mostly in Texas, never as a preacher but as song-leader and adult Bible teacher and elder.

    During the eighties, when our church still had Gospel meetings, we brought in a preacher who told a story about a work project where church members were cleaning up trash and generally helping with yard work for a home-bound member. He told us that as he picked up paper trash blowing around he happened to look at the piece he picked up and it was from an “adult magazine” and he was staring at a picture of a naked woman. His point was that he was sinning at that moment but if he had fallen over dead he would still be forgiven by the grace of God.

    Fast-forward one or two years later and the same preacher came to the same church. He told a story about being in an airplane and picking up a magazine from the rack and inside the airline magazine was an “adult magazine” and he was staring at a picture of a naked woman (repeat from above paragraph).

    This was the most stark example of a “Preacher’s Story” I’ve ever actually witnessed.

  12. Avatar
    velovixen

    Growing up Roman Catholic, I didn’t hear the stories, mainly because most people in our parish were–as I was at the time–“cradle Catholics.” When I got involved with an Evangelical Church, however, I heard things during sermons and testimonies that, had they been written into novels or film scripts, would have been rejected as too far-fetched. One visiting preacher was working on a research team at a prestigious institution when he “gave it all up for Jesus.” His research partner, he claimed, won the Nobel Prize in Biophysics.

    Of course, there’s no such prize. Nobel Prizes in Physics, yes. And a prize is awarded for Physiology or Medicine. But there is no Biology prize, much less one for Biophysics.

    One thing I couldn’t help but to notice, even then, was that there was a “bigger penis” aspect to the stories of :”Life Before Jesus Called Me.” It seemed that people had to have greater accomplishments–or commit bigger crimes–before “coming to the Lord.” So if you won a Nobel Prize (or gave one up) or were hired by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro but backed out–or actually killed a beloved member of a community–before “turning my life over to God,” (Yes, I heard those stories, too,) it was somehow better than, say, being someone who worked as an insurance adjuster and wondered whether there was more to life.

    If you have to show that you were bigger or badder than everyone else in order to show how powerful God is, what does that say about how powerful God actually is, much less about why God would “call” someone?

  13. Avatar
    apostatedaughter

    Hard to find a worse system of ethics, a more depraved system of morality than fundamentalist evangelicalism. “You can do anything–shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it,” fit like a hand into a glove for minds raised on bending truth and behavior to fit the depravity of the charlatan (and, often sociopath) at the center of it all.

    Raised in a Pentecostal pastor’s home and loyal to my dad’s ministry for decades I was lucky to be seated at the piano for twenty-five years where I could separate myself from the need to respond to the sick emotional appeals of visiting evangelists. I knew their manipulation well, seated as I was ‘behind the curtain’ and later at the parsonage kitchen table after the service, quietly taking in their rough language and characterizations of the flock as they “let their hair down”. The third and fourth times they made the rounds to the church, preaching the same sermons, repeating the same stories (only slighter longer and more embellished), hissing the same threats–“don’t leeaaave this place without Christ”–it became abundantly obvious that we had a peculiar and insidious relationship with dysfunction. But, as my quiet dad (an odd fit in Pentecostalism) would say, protectively, “God uses the weaker vessel.”

    It took years to get over the emotional straight jacket of it. My husband still recalls the fear, his five-year-old self absorbing the story of the man who drowned fishing on a Sunday, to the strange obsession to never miss church, ever, for years. Indoctrination from birth is a clamp on the brain fueled by stories imbedded in a place it is hard to get at. The wonderful thing is that we have at last slayed all of those shadowy demons (though I often realize I have to get up and do it again every day).

    We know now these thought leaders were nothing but masters of manipulation and control of the worst kind–the kind they claimed would send you straight to hell–and them, of course, to their heaven.

  14. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I realized as a teenager that there was some sort of collection of preachers’ stories when I heard the same story from 2 different preachers not from the same church…..

  15. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    A common ploy I remember is the constant threat of ” God will kill/ you will die in three days, unless you come to the front of this altar and…………..”. You see it happening in revival meetings, or John Hagee on TV,etc, yelling this at times.

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    Adam Thiry

    I’ve heard varying versions of the man whose family was killed then decided to serve God. Sometimes his wife survived, at times only one kid died. I always write off the preachers who tell illustrations from books they read as their own experiences as liars and never listen to them again. It’s like, the Bible says not to lie, and you the preacher are gonna lie to me? I truly don’t know why my fellow Christians have the need to be deceptive. Just tell the truth and don’t be afraid of it. So weird to me.

  17. Avatar
    Reverend Greg

    I filled in at a church for a month before I was assigned there as pastor. One of the men who attended skipped my installation and stayed home to do some work around his farm. The family went home and found he’d been in an accident and was life flighted to Columbus. He did survive the accident. But it never occurred to me to use this as something to scare or guilt someone into going to church.

  18. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Adam said: I truly don’t know why my fellow Christians have the need to be deceptive.

    I can speak for me at least in answer to this perhaps rhetorical question. I learned to be deceptive at a very young age to survive in a fundamental belief family. I knew I was bad because God and the Devil etc. I could see bad-words in my mind and suffered pink elephantitis, you know… Think the ‘F’ word and you have sinned. The punishment is terrifying to a child and so even if I did something deemed wrong, I would have to lie about it because FEAR! I learned to lie from Jesus dying on the Cross, you might say. I learned to lie because the tortures promised for sinners was unbearable in my imagination. Christians need to be deceptive to survive. When they see a yoga pant that makes them pant, they have already sinned perhaps and then well, what can you do but lie…
    They get saved and tell themselves that they do no need to lie and then they do. You know the drill, don’t you? Wait for a second before you answer, please.
    When God decided to kill his own child it was necessary to make it palatable perhapd by saying his sacrifice was for Adam Thiry. Adam would exist later and God knew all about it. Also about Adam’s lies and his dedication to bums in yoga pants. (Fiction of course but you know the drill, right?) Did members of your family die so that you could be redeemed too? I’m not kidding here, Adam. How is that you believe this stuff that is used to torture children, to manipulate people and dehumanize them, demean women and children?

  19. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Well, Rev. Greg, you missed the boat! God whacked that guy down for you and you wasted his gift. Shame! You miserable, useless mouthpiece for what! The guy had to be air-lifted and you ignored the chance to save souls. What a low-life you are, sir. Yer muther be ashamed to know ya! 😉

  20. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I was never more dishonest than I was when I led a prayer and Bible study group and edited (actually, wrote most of) the newsletter for an Evangelical Christian group—and when I gave testimonies at the Evangelical church I attended.

    What I was really trying to do was not deal with my substance abuse and mental health issues, which were related to ingrained trauma from sexual abuse I experienced (from a Catholic priest) and my inability to come to terms with my gender identity and sexuality. Once I believed (to be fair, because I didn’t know any better) that my breakdown was the way “the Lord was
    calling me” after a suicide attempt, I had to tell all sorts of untruths—to others and, worse, to myself—to justify “God’s ways” to myself.

    (By the way, I am “velovixen”: I inadvertently signed into another account I use for other
    purposes.)

  21. Avatar
    Ami

    I heard a few stories from various clergy over the years and found it interesting that the story I heard from a pastor in Arizona was the same story I heard from a pastor in Oregon. Even more amazing, heard the story from a pastor in Colorado, too.
    Guess God doesn’t have much of an imagination and keeps doing the same bullshit to different people?

    When I was a teenager, we had a band come visit our church for 5 performances. Friday night, two on Saturday, two on Sunday, one during our regular service.

    One of the member of the group was a small lady, wife of one of the front men, who played keyboards. She was self-effacing and quiet. Said nothing through three of the performances, did nothing solo.

    But during the break on Sunday between Sunday school and the regular service, she was overheard saying to her husband, “I feel so comfortable with these people! I know that God is here with us! I will sing today, I think!”

    And he made a point of repeating what she’d said to the congregation. Coincidentally just before the ‘love offering’ that took place while she was singing.

    Several members of the congregation were observed wiping away surreptitious tears. Many sniffles were heard.

    I’d have found it more convincing if I hadn’t heard a completely different group at a completely different church IN ANOTHER STATE do the exact same thing four or five years prior.

    Guess there is a ‘big book ‘o bullshit’ they all share.

    Is it a wonder I’m cynical?

  22. Avatar
    davey crockett

    Situation ethics. The very thing these preachers condemned is the thing they practice. After surviving a semester at midwestern in pontiac – and getting the hell out – I tried one more christian college called faithway, home in ypsilanti mi, running a satellite like christian college version near my home town in a catholic college facility. A chapel sermon memory that stuck was about being the real deal and being a soul winner centered around a homely skinny unpopular shy believer who had bad acne. He had it so bad that if you were to brush your hand across his face there would almost be acne/pimple juice on your hand. But he did not let things like his looks or personality or acne stop him from winning people to jesus. He loved his saviour and lived his salvation. Yah right. It was around this time that I finally started to figure out how they played us and how their bs knew no bounds. Faithway eventually lost the facility for non payment or maybe the catholics had to oust them. Don’t remember. I do remember how hard they played us students to keep going in the hole with tuition fees and the rules and such, no regard where these bad decisions they wanted us to make in their favor would be taking us. Always playing the guilt and faith game. Often wondered how the catholics dealt with their own con games being played on themselves by the faithway crowd. lol!!

  23. Avatar
    Carol

    When you’re saving souls from eternal damnation, sometimes you have take liberties with the truth… Like all superstition, religion can be molded to justify anything.

  24. Avatar
    Adam Thiry

    In response to Bryan Vanderlips comment to me
    I’m not sure how deep I can get into what you are asking me. I want to be respectful of Bruce’s commenting guidelines and not get preachy, so let me ask a clarifying question. Are you asking how I can believe Christianity In general, or the specifics of using hell as a fear tactic over sinners like you mentioned? I wanna make sure I correctly answer you

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Bruce Gerencser