Christian apologist Mark Mittelberg knows well that believers are often faced with tough questions about their faith. He is the author of the book, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask.
However, no question may be as challenging as the one that asks, "Is hell real – and does God really send people there?"
Mittelberg was one of four leading apologists speaking at a conference at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and simulcast to more than 75 churches throughout the U.S., Canada, and Australia, last Saturday. Of the six questions presented at the conference (same name as Mittleberg's book title), the topic of hell may also have been the most sobering.
"It's a topic no one likes to think about and that, frankly, isn't a lot of fun to teach about either," Mittelberg told The Christian Post on Monday. "But therein lies the problem: if we don't teach about it, if we don't warn people, if we don't emphasize the reality of hell the way Jesus did, then it soon fades to the back of people's minds.
"Over time they either stop believing in it altogether, or they reduce it to cartoon caricatures – and hell loses its ability to wake us up spiritually, or to motivate us to reach out to others who desperately need to hear the Gospel. It would be like taking the cancer warnings off of cigarette packages; it doesn't remove the danger, and just numbs people's awareness of that very real danger," he continued.
"Hell, according to Jesus and the consistent message of Scripture, is real – and real people go there. So we must be willing to keep telling the truth about it in sober and stern terms, warning people of their need to turn to Christ for forgiveness and salvation."
However, the challenge remains as to how to talk about hell. Are some preachers over the top? What about the "fire and brimstone" approach to evangelism?
Mittelberg answered, "Usually the term 'fire and brimstone' denotes preaching that only emphasizes the dangers of God's wrath and punishment – and this ends up giving people a distorted picture of God. They start thinking of Him as a vindictive deity whose primary purpose is to judge his enemies. But that's not a balanced, biblical view of God. Rather, the Bible presents Him as love personified.
"Yes, He is the holy and just God who must punish sin – but He's also the loving, patient Father who longs to see His wayward sons and daughters turn back to Him for redemption and a relationship with Him. He's the one who 'is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance' (2 Pet. 3:9)," he explained.
"So our preaching in churches – and our message to the world – must present the real God in all His attributes, including love, holiness, and justice. When people see who God really is – the one who says 'the wages of sin is death' (Rom. 3:23) as well as the one who 'sent His only begotten son' to die in our place, so that 'whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life' (John 3:16) – then many will be drawn to that loving, self-sacrificing God who paid the ultimate price for them and their salvation."
Mittelberg said the best way to talk about hell is the way Jesus did: "with a sober-minded sense of love and concern – a concern that compels you to warn people of a fate that no one needs to face."
He added, "When the road that people are traveling on leads to a cliff, the kindest thing you can do is wake them up to the dangers of that road, and help them turn in another direction. Or, as God lovingly warns in Ezekiel 33:11, 'I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live.'"
During the conference, Mittelberg read and talked about Bible verses that indicate Jesus taught that heaven and hell are real places.
"This is Jesus challenging all the naysayers, doubters, liberals, skeptics, including best-selling books today that want to soften our belief in hell and kind of make it sound like 'if it exists today, probably nobody is going,'" he said. "I think the words of Jesus fly right in the face of those popular and attractive writings … Jesus loved us enough to warn us."
Mittelberg, along with best-selling author Lee Strobel, are founders of The Institute at Cherry Hills, an apologetics and evangelism ministry aimed at innovating new approaches to defending and sharing the faith. They plan to lead another conference called "Unpacking Atheism" in October that will also be available to churches interested in hosting a simulcast.