Abraham was a curious character.
Though he was the father of the world’s three major faiths, he was a deeply flawed man.
Even after he was called by God to be the father of many nations he was constantly screwing up. God told him to leave his family and go to the land God was promising him. Abraham brought the family along. Upon entering Egypt, he lied to pharaoh and tried to pass his wife Sarah off as his sister so that he wouldn’t be thrown in jail or worse, killed. In an attempt to take God’s promises into his own hands he slept with one of his slaves. When she got pregnant he kicked her and her son to the curb.
Those actions, particularly the one’s involving Ishmael, continue to have ripple effects to this day.
However, what I find particularly curious about Abraham is not what we read in his story, but what’s missing.
There is no mention of hell anywhere in the story of Abraham.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “there are plenty of stories in the Bible that don’t mention hell.” That is true. But as evangelical Christians this should be a bit of a problem.
We lean on the fear of hell every bit as much or more than we do the everlasting arms of Jesus.
You see, the gospel pitch that we give and have been giving for generations is that sinners should “come to Jesus” or “believe in God” so that they don’t burn in hell. It’s that fear of eternal torment, then, that pushes people into what the Bible would call a new covenant relationship with God.
Yet, hell plays no role whatsoever in the story of Abraham “believing in God” and then entering into relationship with that God. It is because God first chose him, blessed him, and took care of him that Abraham chose to follow God, not because he feared that God would torment him in hell for all eternity if he didn’t.
In fact, such fear of eternity in hell has no role whatsoever in any of the Old Testament characters and their relationship with God.
Instead, it is their love for God, never their fear of hell, that drives them to worship, devotion, and faithfulness.
Such timing, though, is out of sequence for the evangelical gospel. According to the evangelical gospel the foremost reason to “come to Jesus” is not because that Jesus first loved us, but so that God won’t send us to hell. Love for that God, then, should only come after our fear of hell has been quenched. We can “love” God only because we have “faith” that God won’t be sending us to hell.
It’s this gospel that gives rise to the fiery church services and turn or burn preaching that so many of us are so used to. It’s this gospel that leads us down to the altar, over and over again, to “give our hearts to Jesus” in order to ensure our eternal destination.
But is this gospel of fear really “good news”?
Or perhaps, in light of the story of Abraham, the real question is “Is this gospel of fear even necessary?”
I’m not sure that it is.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s not.
Fear of hell is certainly a powerful weapon to wield in the crusade to “win” converts. It’s brutally efficient in its ability to slash down deep into our innermost fear. But if that is what spurs us to “faith” then our faith isn’t really faith at all. It’s fear.
Abraham didn’t come to faith in God because God showed up one day and told Abraham he was going to hell if he didn’t enter into a covenant with God. Abraham came to faith in God because God first loved Abraham. It wasn’t fear of hell that drove Abraham to the sacrificial altar. It was love for a God who didn’t have any reason to love and bless Abraham but chose to do so anyway.
Now this is a God worth worshiping. This is a God to enter into covenant with because this God stands ready to bless, not to damn. This is the God who “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
There is no need for turn or burn preaching when this is the sort of God who calls us into relationship. For as we see in the story of Abraham, he didn’t need to be afraid of hell in order to come to faith in God and it wasn’t fear of hell that kept Abraham going back to God whenever he screwed things up. It was God’s love that drew Abraham to his Creator and it was God’s love that kept him coming back every time he failed to live up to the covenant he made with his Creator.
If Abraham didn’t need hell, then I’m not sure we do either.
Now, as for what Christ died and saved us from, well, that will just have to wait for tomorrow…
Grace and peace,