The Threat of Punishment as a Deterrent

Parents use it constantly. So do teachers, as well as police officers. The threat of punishment is used everyday all over the world to try to deter people from taking the wrong course of action. It is no wonder almost everyone uses it. After all, our Creator made us in His image and He uses it all the time Himself. When we open the Bible, we see that God used it heavily in the Old Testament and that our Lord continued to promote it strongly in the New Testament. God doesn’t make empty threats. Why would He need to do that? He warns people of real danger and everlasting punishment.

As I was teaching a Bible study this week at the county jail near our church, I presented this question to the men: “If God gave you these two options, which one would you choose: You can spend the rest of your earthly life in prison living for Christ and then go to heaven when you die; or you can get out of jail right now and live the rest of your earthly life pursuing sinful pleasures and evil desires, and then go to hell when you die. Which option would you choose?”

The two men sitting on each side of me were obviously struggling with the question. After a moment of consideration, they both honestly stated that they would probably take the second option and enjoy sin for years to come. Then I adjusted the question. I asked, “What if the second option only gave you one year to sin with abandon and then be sent straight to hell?” Both men immediately responded that they would not give up heaven and choose hell if it only gave them one year of sinning. One of the men said it would have to be at least 7 or 8 years of enjoying sin for it to be worth it. By the way, that particular guy is a 17-year-old who has accepted a plea deal after killing another teenager.

How many years of sinful pleasure would you need to be offered to willingly accept a “plea deal” that eventually lands you in hell? Do you really believe there is anyone in hell today who is glad that he followed sin rather than Christ? In this life, we get so caught up in the moment. Our culture is saturated with the philosophy of instant gratification, regardless of whether or not that gratification pleases God as much as it pleases us. We become our own god when we choose to worship at the altar of wicked pleasures. We forget about God. We forget about hell. We push those realities out of our mind so that they won’t interfere with our corrupt desires.

In the Bible, the “county jail” of hell is identified by the Greek name “Hades,” which is translated as “hell.” Hades is the “holding cell” of hell where the departed souls of unbelievers go until they are brought before the Judge in God’s courtroom. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” (2 Cor. 5:10) The county jail of hell is where the rich man in Luke 16 remains to this day as he too awaits his day in court. Isn’t it interesting how this man suddenly became an evangelist after he landed in Hades? He desperately wanted to warn his five brothers “so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” (Luke 16:28) No one in Hades wants their loved ones to join them there. Once a person dies and arrives in Hades, his eternal fate in hell is sealed. One hour in Hades is enough to convince anyone that his pursuit of sinful pleasures on earth was tragically misguided.

Just think what would happen if unbelievers on earth today could spend one day in Hades and get “scared straight.” God didn’t design things that way because He wants people to believe that everything He says is true even though they have not yet seen it with their own eyes. God has designed it so that His Word is the only vision of hell that people on earth are given. They can see it today through the eyes of faith. They can accept it or reject it. They can believe what God says or refuse to believe it. They can acquire a holy fear of hell and a healthy “fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom,” (Psalm 111:10) or they can chase after sin as they “hope for the best” on Judgment Day.

When God says something, He means it. Just look at what happened to Adam and Eve when they stopped taking God at His Word and instead pursued forbidden desires. There are people dying every minute that have chosen hell over heaven by deciding not to take God at His Word. Those same people would give anything to go back in time and do it differently.

After their sentencing on Judgment Day, all the souls who have been in Hades will be thrown into “Gehenna.” This is the region of hell where the fire never goes out throughout eternity. Gehenna is referred to several times in Mark 9:43-49 among other places in the Bible. Gehenna is like the “federal prison” of hell. No one ever gets paroled from that horrible prison. Jesus went through terrible pain on the cross to save people from being sentenced to Gehenna forever. His work on the cross rather than your work on earth is the only path you have to escape hell and make it into heaven. “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” (Galatians 2:21)

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Some pastors today discourage this type of “fear evangelism” which Jesus freely used. They think it won’t produce spiritual results that last after the fear is gone. Hello! The fear is gone and the life of discipleship advances once you know that the blood of Jesus covers your sin through faith in Christ and that your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. (Revelation 21:27) That locks in your reservation for your room in the “big house.” (John 14:1-6)

Jesus didn’t shy away from telling people why they should be afraid of going to hell. If you don’t know Christ as your Savior, you should absolutely be afraid of going to Hades and then on to Gehenna. Without that godly fear, you might not even think about these issues again until you find yourself in the county jail of Hades. I hope that does not end up being your experience my friend. Don’t allow your shameful desires to rob your soul of eternal paradise. Who would ever want to intentionally treat himself so badly? Have mercy on your soul by immediately saying “no” to sin and “yes” to Jesus. Then remain in God's grace and stay on that narrow road everyday. If you do that, you’ve got nothing to fear!

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Wellspring Lutheran Church in Papillion, Neb. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.