How many of you fear hell? If you are not born again I would say that to a degree such fear is good because it is realistic. It shows you are not in denial about your eternal destination without the regenerating and justifying work of Christ in your heart. There is nothing healthy or wise about a man turning over and sleeping through multiple warnings that his house is on fire and he needs to get out. Wait too long and it will be too late–you will be like Bin Laden when the choppers landed and the Seal team stormed the compound.
But what about you professing Christians? If you are genuinely born again does the fear of hell have any practical benefit? I would say for the most part such fear is worthless in terms of sanctification, and it says nothing definitive about your spiritual condition, except that you do not love God. More on that later; for now suffice it to say this: light a field on fire and every disease carrying rat and venomous snake will flee the flames. But once they make it to safety they will still be vile vermin by nature. When the time comes for the devil himself to be thrown into the lake of fire, you can bet he won’t go willingly.
On the other hand the devil would hate heaven because God will be there and he hates God. Same with the unregenerate. You see salvation is not just an eternal fire insurance policy. It involves a real internal change of our desires and affections. Such a change does not result in a denial of the reality of hell and/or a belief in universalism, as in the case of Rob Bell and others. But the transforming work of the Spirit in the life of a born again Christian creates a love for God that crowds out fear of punishment like rocks displace a bucket-full of water.
This is what I believe John meant in his first epistle when he spoke of being perfected in the love of God and how perfect love casts out fear. The believer loves because he knows he is loved–but he does in fact love the true and living God. Cultivating this love of the God of Scripture is the key to overcoming the fear of hell. If you are not saved (and sometimes even if you are) you will mistakenly think you must somehow make yourself more righteous through a system of goodness or works. Then you can feel good about you and at least for a season the fear of hell will vanish, only to return when you mess up (which you will).
You cultivate the love of God by absorbing His word through reading, study and meditation; or by reflecting on His self-disclosure in the creation; or by praying in the name of Jesus by the power of the Spirit; or by fellowshipping with others who love Christ and by sharing the good news with those who don’t know and love him. You grow in your love for Him by trusting Him enough to obey His commands–not out of a negative motive of fear, but from the positive place of heartfelt love.
David loved the Lord, and he messed up at least as much as Arnold Shwarzeneggar, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Charlie Sheen–maybe even combined. No excuse for sinning, but yes, you will not love the Lord perfectly, even as you will never love your wife and kids flawlessly. But you will pick yourself up because you know God does not lie when His word promises that nothing will separate you from His love. As you respond to this by growing daily in your love for Him the fear of hell will not be an issue.