How is the gospel invitation different from “Trust me or I will hurt you”?
If you don’t believe that hell is real, then this is not a serious question for you. If you believe hell is real, but don’t believe God ever sends anyone there (but only that they go there against his will), then it is still not a serious question for you. But if you believe that hell is real, and God actually sends people there, then this question needs a thoughtful answer.
Real, Terrible, Punitive
I do believe hell is real and that God sends people there. Of course, we have no way to know if hell is real, or if God sends people there, unless God reveals that to us. He has done this, especially through Jesus. No one in Scripture spoke of hell more than Jesus did. And no one spoke of it in more terrible terms. And no one made it more clear that it was a divine punishment, not just a self-inflicted consequence.
Jesus calls it “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17), “place of torment” (Luke 16:28), “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13), “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42, 50; 22:13; 25:30), being “in anguish” (Luke 16:24), “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).
“No one in Scripture spoke of hell more than Jesus did. And no one spoke of it in more terrible terms.”
And he teaches that people do not go there voluntarily; they are “cast into hell” by God (Luke 12:5; Matthew 5:29; 18:9; Mark 9:45), “thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). God is the Judge who makes these reckonings. Hell is a sentence on evil, not merely a sequel to evil. It is “judgment.” “How are you to escape from the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33, my translation). Therefore, God is to be feared: “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Why Will Anyone Be in Hell?
Sometimes we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of various sins: “Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness. . . . On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:6; Ephesians 5:5–6; Hebrews 13:4). Or due to shedding “the blood of his [God’s] servants” (Revelation 19:2), or because of “unrighteousness” in general (Romans 2:8).
But beneath these specific acts of sinning is the deeper offense against God and his Son. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness” (Romans 1:18). “Whoever does not obey the Son . . . the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Christ comes “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Wrath comes on those who “do not obey the truth” (Romans 2:8), “refuse to love the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:10), and thus “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).
Ultimately, therefore, people are in hell because an offense against an infinitely worthy person is an infinite offense. God is infinitely worthy, and all sin is ultimately against him. Discrediting and demeaning and dishonoring God is the root and essence of all sin. Paul calls it “falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), exchanging God for his creation (Romans 1:23) — that is, preferring anything more than we prefer God (Jeremiah 2:13), and trusting ourselves more than him (Romans 14:23). The root of all law-breaking is Godward — hostility toward God (Romans 8:7).
Is God Like an Abusive Husband?
So the question we are asking is not frivolous. If there is a hell, and if God is the one who sends people there, and if the reason they go there is a failure to trust, and love, and enjoy, and honor God, how is this different from an abusive husband who says, “Kiss me or I will hurt you”? Or a peevish potentate who says, “Bow to me or I will take off your head”? And lest anyone think that the question is far-fetched, remember Psalm 2:12: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way.”
It seems to me that an answer to this question takes shape in two steps.
Step One: Already in Trouble
The God of the gospel, who requires faith in Christ (Acts 16:31), and warns of judgment (Romans 2:16), is different from the abusive husband and the peevish potentate in that God comes to a humanity that is already under wrath and on death row awaiting execution (John 3:36; Romans 5:9; Ephesians 2:3). In the gospel, he does not say, “Trust me or you will get in trouble.” He says, “Trust me, because you are in trouble, and I have a way to get you out.”
In effect, he says, “I am sending my Son to die in the place of those who are already condemned to die. I will ‘not spare’ him (Romans 8:32). I will give him up to the worst suffering, so that you may have a Savior and live. And if you cannot see what this means, let me make it explicit. It means I love you.” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
“Discrediting and demeaning and dishonoring God is the root and essence of all sin.”
No abusive husband or peevish potentate can say this. They have an opposite mindset. They are out to get, not to give. They are acting out of need, not fullness. They are a sucking siphon, not a satisfying spring. Their demands are not like the gospel. They are only threatening pain, not offering to rescue from pain. They are ready to hurt you, not planning to be hurt to spare you. But in the gospel — even in the demand of the gospel — God is giving himself to save you from being hurt.
That is the first difference between the gospel and “Trust me or I will hurt you.”
But this first step of the answer is not the last word. It leaves unanswered the question: How did humanity get in trouble in the first place? The answer is that God sentenced humanity to hell because of its sin. And sin is against God. And therefore, the question remains. When human beings first come under the wrath of God, how is it different from “Trust me or I will hurt you”?
Step Two: Wooing Before Warning
While God definitely warns people that the judicial sentence of suffering awaits them if they spurn him as their treasure, he does not lead with warning but with wooing. And this is more than a matter of sequence. It has to do with the very essence of what he demands.
The abusive husband and the peevish king demand actions: a kiss and a bow. Therefore, they can lead with threats, because a kiss and a bow can be given with no affection but only fear. Threats can constrain bodily actions, but cannot constrain beautiful affections.
But God demands affections first, not actions. Actions only have moral significance if they flow from a heart of affection for God. Judas-kisses do not honor Christ. Bowing before the potentate, while your heart is sworn to another, may suffice on earth. But it is far short of what God demands. It is not a commendation when Jesus says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).
Praise or Die?
Therefore, Jesus does not lead with the slogan, “Praise me or you die.” He does indeed say, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” and “will lose it [his life]” (Matthew 10:37, 39). But that warning is not the first or decisive motive for loving him.
In fact, the key point here is that threats and warnings cannot function as direct motives for what God demands. To be sure, he does demand certain behaviors. But beneath every behavior that God commands (whether “do not kill” or “practice hospitality”) is an implicit, and often explicit, command for dispositions of the heart that make hospitality and not killing morally beautiful in God’s sight. For example, Jesus said that the real issue behind murder is anger (Matthew 5:21–22), and Peter said that all hospitality should be “without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). The affections of the heart are always decisive in whether a bodily action is beautiful in God’s sight.
From the beginning, the most basic affections that God demanded from human beings were that he be trusted (Proverbs 3:5), loved (Deuteronomy 6:5), enjoyed (Psalm 37:4), honored (Romans 1:21), and, from these, obeyed in all things (Deuteronomy 4:40).
Threats Cannot Directly Awaken Trust
But this means that threatening with pain can never function as a direct motive for what God demands. First, because what he demands, beneath all other demands, is trust, love, joy, and honor. Second, because none of these can be awakened or sustained directly by threats of punishment.
Try it. If you do not feel trust for someone, and they put a gun to your head and say, “Unless you feel trust for me, I will kill you,” what happens? You cannot make the feeling of trust rise in your heart. You can force yourself to act certain ways that may look like trust. But the true affection of heartfelt trust cannot be coerced by threats. Neither can love, joy, or honor. That is simply not the way the human heart works.
What I mean by saying that these affections cannot be awakened or sustained directly by threats is that the threats and warnings do have an indirect role to play. Otherwise, God would not have given them to us, which he has. “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way” (Psalm 2:12). “I warn you . . . that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
“God demands affections first, not actions. Actions only have moral significance if they flow from a heart for God.”
But these warnings in Scripture do not function directly on our affections of trust and love and joy and honor. Instead, they wake us up to the fact that our hearts are so rebellious and so deserving of punishment that we desperately need the mercy of God to make us a new kind of person. In this way, the threats convict us that the problem lies not in God, but in us. We are defective and hard and blind and resistant. Therefore, we cannot see or feel the true beauties of God’s manifold perfections. Our affections are not alive to God as they should be. Therefore, God uses warnings and threats to wake us up from our deadness and hardness and blindness. He leads us to the cross and shows us “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). That is where the affections of trust and love and joy and honor are fed.
What about man before the fall? How did the warning function there? There was only one: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The function was not to wake Adam up from deadness, but to stand as a sentinel against trusting self more than God. Not the warning of one tree, but the wooing of thousands, was God’s plan to be loved.
Wooing of Bounty and Rescue
In pursuit of our trust and love and enjoyment and honor, God leads with wooing, not warning. With joy-awakening splendors, not fear-awakening dangers.
If we think of humanity before its condemnation, we see God leading with the free gift of bounty. “The Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” and he said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:9, 16). Only one was withheld.
And if we think of humanity after its condemnation, we see God leading with the free gift of rescue through the gift of his Son. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). He leads not with the menace of wrath, but the message of rescue. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).
“Trust Me or I Will Hurt You” Obscures
I conclude, therefore, that the gospel is not expressed, but obscured, by the words, “Trust me or I will hurt you.” 1) The words conjure up images of an abusive husband or a peevish potentate and thus obscure the truth that God acts out of fullness for our good, not out of need for our affirmation. 2) They obscure the fact that we are already hurt and already under the sentence of being hurt more, and God comes to us in that condition with words of rescue as a blood-bought gift. 3) These words obscure the fact that the essence of what God demands of us (trust, love, joy, and honor) cannot be awakened or sustained directly by threats. God has made us so that it is psychologically impossible for the most satisfying affections to be directly produced by threats.
He has made us to glorify him by enjoying him as the supreme treasure of the universe. That enjoyment is the overflow of our heart. It is a spontaneous response to the glory of his immeasurable perfections, or it is nothing. By its very nature, and by God’s design, it cannot be coerced.