Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Vacuum Salesmen and Hell: A Parable

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.


Johnnie said...

"Indeed, the Gospel, in its essentials, need not include hell at all."

This is brilliantly on target. In all my years of close proximity to evangelical churches, I confess I've never known anyone at all who really bought the idea of a hell--that is, of a place of eternal torment by pitchfork-poking or skewered over fiery pits or whatever. Dante: various forms of torture, adjusted to your own personal level of wrong-doing.

Whenever I've had discussions with serious, Bible-believing, born-again Christians on the topic, the general consensus seems to be: 1) there is an afterlife, 2) not everyone gets to achieve it, 3) for those that don't....who knows? But probably, dead is dead.

The rational mind can accept a spirit (not all do, but many can) or soul that transcends the body. And that there would be a reward for those spirits who please the Maker, sure. But that the Maker, or the Maker's fallen Angel, would be bothered to set up a system of, you know, pitchforks or fire or whatever torture you like...that strains the rational mind.

I'm not saying that isn't the case, that the torments of Hell aren't real. But I'm saying that I agree that when we reach out with the Gospel we shouldn't focus on such things. What we are trying to do is reach new believers, and the "if you don't follow my words you'll end up in a torture chamber out of Bosch" isn't a winning argument. The Good News needs to be Good News!

Jared Totten said...


I can't speak for any of the other Christians you've been in close proximity with, but I certainly believe in a literal hell.

However, I wasn't presenting an argument for the reality of hell. My argument was for a certain presentation of hell when it is discussed.

I think of it like a doctor delivering the results of cancer to a patient, chemotherapy being his only hope. Now, while the cancer is a reality, the doctor has a choice. He can browbeat the patient with his imminent death unless he changes his way and follows the doctor's prescribed steps, or he can show a genuine concern for the patient and share the saving news that cleared the doctor himself of his own cancer (because the doctor once had cancer too, if we take this analogy to ridiculous ends).

It does the doctor no good to skirt around the reality of the cancer if the doctor wants to save the patient(or if the patient wants a true report of his condition), but it also does him no good if he's only pushing the chemo for the paycheck and the patient can read his motivation.

There is a right way (and a proper balance) of talking about the difficult things of Christianity: the fallenness of man, the reality of hell, the exclusivity of Christ, etc. Much of it has to do with the individual Christian's humility, grace, mercy, compassion, love, and winsomeness (is that a word?) in their conduct and presentation.

Bill Faris said...

Huh oh. I'm not touching this one with a ten foot pitchfork. Ask Andrew. He'll (sorry) fill you in.

Johnnie said...

Yeah, I think we agree on this, Jered. And probably whatever "most people" believe isn't all that important anyway. But in agreeing with your original post, and the comparison to the salesman, I'm suggesting that a way to win converts is to pay attention to how those outside our worldview--those that we want to bring inside--view the world. And for many of them the concept of a literal hell smacks of primitive superstition in ways that other tenets of our belief system--a soul that transcends the body after death, a God that lived among us and rose from the dead--do not. And while I'm not debating the existence of a literal hell myself, I can see the point. A god who loves us? Who rewards those who live according to his will--or who offers grace--and eternal life in a heaven? Sure. It makes sense that God would not reward those who don't accept his grace or live according to his edicts (I know that's an extremely truncated version!...)--but it's hard to make sense, if you are outside of our worldview and just barely able to accept the supernatural elements of our religion, of that god not only not rewarding, but punishing, in macabre fashion, those who aren't granted heaven.

So that's where I think the salesman analogy really works. Don't be that guy. Don't be that salesman pointing out all the dirt mites your own pitiful vacuum fails to suck up. Bring the folks into our worldview by other means...and once they are here, perhaps they will believe in a literal hell...but maybe it doesn't even matter if they do or not, if they've come the rest of the way.

That probably makes no sense, but anyway, I liked your post.

Alan said...

Strongly disagree. The Gospel is not the Gospel unless it talks about how we deserve God's wrath and how Jesus paid that price for us. If we don't include God's wrath, it may make people feel better but it isn't the gospel.
Now there isn't a need to spend 30 minutes talking about the horrors of hell (after all the Bible doesn't give us enough details to do that.), but we are not sharing the full gospel without it.

Jared Totten said...


Thanks for the reminder, and I agree but I want to make a distinction.

Our guilt is a necessary component of the Gospel. Our sin deserving wrath is a necessary component of the Gospel. Our position as objects of wrath needing the grace and forgiveness found only in Christ is a necessary component of the Gospel.

But the eternal consequence of said sin and depravity, if not remedied, does not seem to be a necessary component of the Gospel. I agree, being saved from eternal hell is a part of the full Gospel, but so is being saved from a life of slavery to sin in this life. Both are part of the full Gospel, but not necessary information for saving faith. It is certainly good news that we are saved from hell, I do not believe it is a vital component of our Gospel message in order for one to be saved.

So my distinction is this: necessary component of the saving Gospel VS. component of the full Gospel.

Andrew Faris said...


Posts like this are why we invited you along with us. Absolutely great stuff.

And Alan, I think Jared is right. You've taken a post about hell and called it a post about sin. Jared actually didn't even mention sin in this piece. That's not the point.

The point is about how we present sin and its consequences, and there is a real point there. Are we just trying to add little missiles to the side of our planes to show how many non-believers we've converted and points we've earned? Or are we loving them in good relationships, pleading for them in prayer, and sharing the gospel boldly all the while?

The question of hell's place in the gospel is a provocative one. Perhaps 1 Cor. 15's lack of mention might be a good indication that Jared is quite right.