A recent Bible study veered into the intersection of Evangelism Avenue and Hell Street. One fellow said that hell is a most important topic to discuss, since it is one of the biggest roadblocks to new converts. On one hand, how can genuinely good people go to hell, just because they don't believe in Jesus and, on the other hand, how can a just God allow genuinely bad people to go to heaven via a "deathbed" conversion?
My short answer was, that we should not let a discussion with new believers get bogged down in a discussion of hell. I spent way too many years in college researching William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," peering into Dante's "Inferno" and C.S. Lewis' "Great Divorce," and now laboring under a media thrilled (under a romantic spell--see vampire meaning attributable to "thrill," especially in the novel "Monster Hunter International") with all things hellish. Allowing a serious discussion of one's immortal soul to fall into the hands of modern day gnostic entertainers makes me reach for the Tums.
Another fellow chimed in that hell, among other topics, can be a "smokescreen" to distract from the underlying issue: whether that person is angry, hurt, or what-have-you. Others, however, felt hell is a very important topic to be fluent about, to be able to answer those questions, and so on. Now I agree that hell is a very important topic, and that we should be prepared to answer questions about hell. Here's an excerpt from an article one fellow forwarded to me:
A close look at hell can make us more godly and compassionate.
That Hideous Doctrine
by John Thomas, free lance writer
...Hell is a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12). Imagine the person who has just entered hell--a neighbor, relative, co-worker, friend. After a roar of physical pain blasts him, he spends his first moments wailing and gnashing his teeth. But after a season, he grows accustomed to the pain, not that it's become tolerable, but that his capacity for it has enlarged to comprehend it, yet not be consumed by it. Though he hurts, he is now able to think, and he instinctively looks about him. But as he looks, he sees only blackness.
In his past life he learned that if he looked long enough, a glow of light somewhere would yield definition to his surroundings So he blinks and strains to focus his eyes, but his efforts yield only blackness. He turns and strains his eyes in another direction. He waits. He sees nothing but unyielding black ink. It clings to him, smothering and oppressing him.
Realizing that the darkness is not going to give way, he nervousiy begins to feel for something solid to get his bearings. He reaches for walls or rocks or trees or chairs; he stretches his legs to feel the ground and touches nothing.
Hell is a "bottomless pit" (Rev. 20:1, 2 KJV); however, the new occupant is slow to learn. In growing panic, he kicks his feet and waves his arms. He stretches and he lunges. But he finds nothing. After more feverish tries, he pauses from exhaustion, suspended in black. Suddenly, with a scream he kicks, twists, and lunges until he is again too exhausted to move.
He hangs there, alone with his pain. Unable to touch a solid object or see a solitary thing, he begins to weep...
A hard look at this doctrine should first change our view of sin. Most believers do not take sin as seriously as God does. We need to realize that in God's eyes, and in His actual plan, sin deserves eternal punishment in hell.
We can actually learn, by comparison, to hate sin as God hates it. As the reality of hell violates and offends us, for example, so sin violates and offends God. As we cannot bear to look upon the horrors of hell, so God cannot bear to look upon the horrors of sin. As hell revolts us to the point of hatred for it, so also God finds sin revolting. The comparison is not perfect, but it offers a start.
...Reprinted from MOODY MAGAZINE, Sept. 1985
Yes, it is important not to allow modern discussions to vascillate from "this is what churches use to scare you into converting" to "hell's not a real place." On the other hand, it is important NOT to let discussions with prospective believers circle round and round about whether hell is real or not. Likewise with any other smokescreen topic. Our discussions must rise to the level of, and remain focused upon, the love of Christ.
If someone raise the objection of whether a genuinely good person could go to hell, or if Hitler could have had a deathbed conversion, I offer the pithy response: "Let God sort 'em out." What's more pertinent to the current discussion is, what side are YOU on?