Does warning people of punishment keep them from doing wrong? Let us hear the wisdom of God on this matter. Paul tells a man who rebels against the government to “be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4). Solomon said, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc. 8:11). Neither Paul nor Solomon meant that punishing wrongdoing would prevent every criminal from breaking the law, but they did teach that the fear of swift retribution curbs the rate of crime.
The same question is raised about future punishment in hell. Does preaching on hell do any good? Does it bring people to repentance? Let us go to the Bible again. Jesus preached on eternal punishment more than anybody in the Bible. If preaching on hell is useless, why did Jesus mention it so often? Here is one of the things He said about it: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Warning people about hell doesn’t change everybody, but it changes some. Some claim they are not afraid of hell, but all men should be.
Many argue that the threat of punishment is not effective and should be replaced by other incentives to do right. For instance, our country is full of groups opposed to the death penalty. They say murderers and rapists should be rehabilitated rather than executed. Many religious people say the same thing about hell. Years ago one preacher suggested that Jonah would have gotten better results if he had shown more love to the people of Nineveh instead of threatening them with doom. Now some preachers ignore the wisdom of God and say that the doctrine of everlasting punishment doesn’t motivate people.
Universal salvation was commonly preached in the 1800s. One of its claims was that the belief that all men will be saved will help people live better. C. B. Tharp of Paris, Kentucky believed this and preached universalism for years. In a letter to Alexander Campbell in 1849 he wrote of his conviction that “Universalism, when embraced by a community, would cause them to love God more sincerely, and to yield a more willing and acceptable obedience than they could be induced to yield from any other consideration, or the belief of any other sentiment.” He taught “the doctrine of present retribution, and that there is no future punishment.” What were the results? Did his preaching change people for the better? After teaching this doctrine for five years, Tharp gave up universalism. Here is what he said about its fruits: “Many of its votaries and I may say the larger portion, by far—use profane language and that habitually. Not one has been reformed by it in the least degree” (Millennial Harbinger, January, 1850). Tharp went on to say that Campbell’s writings had helped to keep him from going into atheism. This is what can easily happen when men begin to put their own wisdom above God’s.