April 23, 2014
A church in my hometown reserves the same spot every year at my local county fair. Strategically located right on the edge of the area filled with games and carnival rides, any kid who wants to win an oversized stuffed animal has to walk past their booth. Displayed in large, bright lettering is a challenge to anyone passing through the area: “Can you answer the Million- Dollar Question?” An ever-changing group of adults politely stops anyone who happens to be walking by, and asks them the question, waiting to correct a person’s answer or help them find the right one if they are unsure.
I was probably ten years old the first time it happened to me. I was on my way to one the rides when I was stopped by a man wearing a welcoming, if not overlyenthusiastic smile on his face. He wanted to know if he could ask me a question. Of course he could. But when he asked it, his demeanor changed – his eyes narrowed, and the smiling face was replaced by one of harsh intensity. “If you died right now,” he began, pausing to let me weigh the pretext of the question. After the drama of the moment had manifested itself, he continued, “would you go to Heaven or Hell?”
Almost immediately, I answered that I would go to Heaven. More a reaction than an answer, I responded without thought or contemplation, saying what I thought any normal person would say. I walked past him as quickly as I could, before he had the chance to dissect my answer and point out just how unfit for Heaven I really was. I had better things to do than consider where my soul would go when I died. There were carnival rides to ride.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this socalled “Million-Dollar Question” since my childhood. An increase in age and maturity hasn’t changed how I feel about the booth. It still makes me very uncomfortable. I am quite certain that the people of this church truly believe that they are doing good Christian acts by posing this question. Their intentions are as simple as they are pure – to bring more people to Christ. I understand what they are trying to do, but I have some serious problems with their way of doing it.
The question of spending eternity in paradise versus spending it in unimaginable suffering and damnation certainly makes people listen, but it is not an effective way of communicating about faith. The Million-Dollar Question has nothing to do with loving God and everything to do with fearing Him. Is being terrified of the fires of Hell really the best motivation for becoming a Christian? A faith derived from fear is really not a faith at all. It is an escape plan. If a person is scared into becoming a Christian, the integrity of their relationship with God is questionable at best.
The Million-Dollar Christians fail to see how important it is that a Christian’s love of God is primary to her fear of Him. The horrors of Hell are certainly terrifying, but God is not loved in order to avoid those horrors. Instead, Christians avoid Hell as a result of genuinely loving God. It is definitionally impossible for human beings to live up to the standard which God has set for us. Every human being who has ever lived, short of Christ himself, has sinned against God. Despite this, God is still willing to forgive human beings for these transgressions. We are consistently disappointing, yet God gives His love to human beings regardless. As Christians, we should return this love with more love – not fear.
I was fortunate to learn that the Christians at the booth did not represent the entirety of Christ’s followers. I had two close friends who helped me become a Christian in a much better way. They knew me personally, and truly cared about me as a friend long before they ever asked about my faith. They did not hand me a brochure filled with rules that would help me avoid Hell, then simply send me on my way. They first formed a genuine relationship with me, and wanted to help me in my walk of faith because they cared about me. I am a Christian today. Without these people, that would probably not be the case.
Compared to the Million-Dollar Question Christians, my friends are experts on bringing someone to Christ. Admittedly, their process takes more work and time, but is much more effective. The goal of that booth is to get as many people as possible to follow Christ. Any Christian would be glad to hear that thousands of people were convinced to follow Christ in the one day, the same way that a trader would cheer if his stock rose exponentially overnight. But evangelism is not economics, and souls are not statistics. Helping people come to follow Christ cannot simply be a numbers game. Reminding children about the constant threat of Hell does not make one a good Christian, even if thousands of them hear the warning.
Maybe instead of spending their money on that prime spot at the county fair, the church in question would be better served using that money elsewhere. Maybe they could go to a family that is living in poverty, provide them with a warm meal, pay for school supplies for the children, and buy the groceries the family needs. And maybe this small family will experience the compassion and love that Christians are supposed to show, the same compassion and love that allows God to forgive every Christian of her sins. And maybe they’ll want to follow Christ in the same way. And at the end of the day, maybe only four people will have come to follow Christ. But these people will have come to Christ because one of His followers showed them His love in an intensely personal way – not because a strange adult told them they would burn in Hell if they didn’t. To me, this seems like a far better alternative to their efforts every year at the county fair. I would like to ask the church if they agree with me. I think it’s a question worth asking – worth more than a million dollars.