Is a fear of hell a good reason to believe in God — or become a Christian? It is accused that simply fearing hell is not a good enough reason to convert. I get it. But I also see a few reasons to be critical of this objection. First, I don’t think it’s true that very many Christians believe in the God they do for fear of the consequences in the first place. But even if that is true, it doesn’t render belief irrational. It might not even be a poor reason to believe.
I think this objection makes some critical mistakes. For one, the objection does not address whether believing in God and hell are true beliefs, it simply takes as granted that both God and hell are not real. You first must demonstrate that an idea is false before you can invalidate it as a viable option. This complaint puts the cart before the horse. It assumes God and hell are not real, therefore belief in God and fear of hell are not valid reasons to believe in God and hell.
Secondly, there’s an underlying assumption that fear is an illegitimate motivation to believe in God. I am not convinced this is true either. If hell is a real place, and this is where you will end up without a means for escape, why is trying to obtain the means of escape invalid? Think of other scenarios where this objection would be offered, would fear of a consequence render the solution irrational? Is fear of lung cancer and death an invalid reason to not take up smoking? After all, not everyone who smokes develops lung cancer and dies. In fact George Burns notoriously smoked cigars nearly his entire life and lived to be 100. Are doctors are just trying to scare you? Maybe. What about the fear of prison or getting into a fatal crash as a reason to not drive while drunk? As we all know, there are people who can drive drunk without getting into accidents or killing anyone. Are the police just trying to scare you? Perhaps doctors and the police are trying to scare you into behaving or believing in a certain way. But that is not what is important.
If we only deal with the apparent extremeness of the consequence, and not the veracity of it, the objection is meaningless. Motivation for belief is not what is important. The motive for belief does not tell you whether the belief is true. If lung cancer and death is a real consequence of smoking, then fear of death and cancer are correct fears, and abstaining from smoking is a proper response. If prison and/or crashing are real consequences of driving drunk, then fear of prison and accidents are correct fears, and refraining from driving drunk is a proper response. If hell is a real place, then fear of hell is a correct fear, and faith in a Savior is a proper response.