Evangelicalism, Hell, and Fishing for People

The biggest mistake that Evangelicalism has made, and sadly what has come to define Evangelicalism, is that it has placed damnation and eternal judgement at the center of its theological proclamation. As such, the evangelism of Evangelicalism has no choice but to be conquest oriented. With Hell at the center, the primary motivation for proclaiming the good news of Jesus is to see to it that by the end of the conversation there is a conversion. Individuals and Churches alike follow this practice. It's all about getting people to say the "sinner's prayer." And how can you blame them? After all, they're convinced that eternal punishment is inevitable without it. Whatever the costs, any means are justified if we can save someone from burning in hell forever, even if it calls for manipulation and even lying.

I've dealt with the theological problem of Hell before on this blog and I don't want to do it now. Regardless of what you think about the concept of eternal damnation, it's tragic that such a concept has become so very central, so extremely definitive of the Christian faith. Christianity, after all, is about good news. It's about Christ's saving work on the cross, the relentless grace of God and the boundless love of God for ALL humanity. Christianity should speak of hope and mercy, not of "last chances" and the appeasement of an angry deity seeking whom he may punish in order to slate his wrath. That's a different story altogether.

The theological framework of Hell has ruined the way we read some passages. For example, when Jesus says "make disciples of all nations" our sense of urgency is misplaced. We think his emphasis was, "hurry up! They're all going to Hell!" But without such a framework, and with an historical framework, we can see the radical beauty of God's saving grace being expanded from one nation (Israel) to ALL nations. The emphasis is on God's universal election of everyone on the planet and the subsequent invitation of all of them into discipleship, not on God's plan to save whom He may while casting everyone else to the pit of despair.

How about "fishers of men?" Jesus called his first disciples saying that he'd make them fishers of people. Now, somehow we've turned that into an evangelism verse, as though Jesus was saying "go catch people and make them think like you"--once again, a conquest oriented perspective fueled by the sense that we need to go get 'em before the Devil does. The fact is, Jesus is not inviting his disciples to a battle of ideas as much as he's calling them to a political and social revolution. The only other biblical references where people are "fished" are political references--pronouncements against corrupt nations and kings. For example, in Ezekiel, God judges the Pharaoh of Egypt saying, "I'm against you Pharaoh!... I will set hooks in your jaws; I will make the fish from the Nile’s canals cling to your scales. I will drag you out of the Nile" (see Ezekiel 29:1-6). God makes a similar pronouncement against another king in Ezekiel 38. God's judgement of Pharaoh continues in Ezekiel 32 when God says,
“‘With a great throng of people I will cast my net over you, and they will haul you up in my net. I will throw you on the land and hurl you on the open field. I will let all the birds of the sky settle on you and all the animals of the wild gorge themselves on you." (Ezekiel 32:3-4) 
The Prophets, of whose legacy Jesus was a part, used fishing imagery to speak of kings being taken out of power and systems being replaced. Jesus' invitation to become "fishers of men" was an invitation to take the corrupt social and political systems of the time and to replace them with a new way of being in the world--The Kingdom of God--where the first are last and the last are first. It wasn't so superficial as an invitation to make sure people say the "sinner's prayer."

Evangelism is not the primary Christian endeavor. The primary endeavor is to follow Christ. evangelism comes second. To be a Christian is to live under the reign of God in the world here and now even in the midst of corrupt and sinful systems of power. Evangelism, in such a framework, is more like a sort of activism. Spoken words have a way of transforming an environment and Christians should speak boldly about the truth and particularity of Christ, not so that we might get everyone to think like us but so that our world might be transformed (subtle difference). It's not to save people from hell but to bring heaven here. Evangelism does not have to be about changing everyone's mind and winning debates, but it does have to be, we do have to do it. It has to be about being a beacon of hope in a hopeless world. If they don't want to believe it, it's not our job to convince, the the world needs to hear the spoken words of the redeemed world as a way of transforming environment. We need to speak of God's love because the world has been so forsaken. It's not about Hell, it's about here.