Last summer my wife and I went to the Nebraska State Fair so I could eat my first deep-fried Twinkie. It was worth the price of admission, price of Twinkie, and all future heart problems. While we were there we made our way to the exhibitors hall, where all the cool gadgets are peddled. These are the sorts of products that are cool enough that people will buy them at first glance, but not reliable enough that Wal-Mart or Target would stand behind them. I believe the strategy is make a good sell then flee town before your product falls apart.
While we were there, we were drawn in by an air purifier/humidifier that was free if we agreed to let a vacuum salesman come to our house and give us a 45 minute demonstration of his product. So after he came and gave us his 90 minute demonstration, I was still unconvinced. He tried every angle: need ("look at all these germs and allergens your breathing and living in"), benefit ("this will save you money in the long run over carpet and upholstery cleanings, allergy medicines, etc."), and guilt ("I've got a family, I'm just trying to provide for them. Don't waste my time"). He almost parted me with $4,000 when he showed my wife a thin, black cloth with a pile of what he vacuumed out of our couch. He should have been ashamed for playing on the fears of an already-neurotic, pregnant woman.
I was reminded of our vacuum salesman incident (as we now call it) today while reading Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Don't worry, this is not a post on the emergent church. However, this did jog my memory: "On the emergent end I think people are afraid that Christians are using hell as a sales tool to get people to buy into Christianity, and I think that should be avoided". It got me thinking of the salesman. While I agreed with his premise that we needed to be free of all the dust mites, dead skin cells, allergens, and germs in our life, I just couldn't get over the cost. When he asked for references of others he could pitch to, I certainly did not want to be the one responsible for afflicting anyone else with what I just went through. Not only that, but his approach colored my opinion of other salesmen.
Hell is a reality just like dust mites, dead skin cells, allergens, and germs (my wife would probably suggest they are synonymous). Certainly not equal in magnitude and severity, but roll with my analogy. Even if people agree with our premise that hell exists and should be avoided, many of them just can't get over the cost. When this happens, our approach and conduct up to this point will determine largely how they think of Christianity afterwards. Will they feel that we had a genuine concern for them or that we just wanted to "seal the deal"? Will they want to spend more time around Christians or less? Will they come and seek you out when their life gets too messy dirty or will they go to someone else?
I am not suggesting that our Gospel presentation should just be "hell avoidance". Indeed, the Gospel, in its essentials, need not include hell at all. But when we do talk about hell, how is it handled? Are we presenting the Gospel like our vacuum salesman, just using the idea of hell to scare, coerce and intimidate? Are people being scared away from Christianity for fear that they will have to adopt similar tactics in being Gospel salesmen if they buy in? Is my impersonal and calloused approach coloring their opinion of not only me but other Christians and even Christ? The Gospel is offensive enough without us adding offense to it.