The following is a brief (and decently accurate) reconstruction of the conversation between my minister and my friend:

Minister: Don’t you want to go to heaven?
Friend: Not particularly.
Minister: How could you not want to go to heaven?
Friend: I could care less about heaven, so long as I love God.

This conversation could have gone another way; my minister could have asked, don’t you want to avoid hell? Some Christians honestly answer no, but many are motivated to follow God’s commandments simply out of a fear of hellfire. My friend’s point was that he shouldn’t care about the reward (or punishment) associated with following God, but rather that he should care about loving God above all else. The natural consequence of loving God (and obeying him, in the spirit of John 14:15) will be heaven, and in that sense, my minister was correct that we should want to be with God by going to heaven.

Hell: A Powerful, but Inadvisable Motivation

Yet their different positions indicate the different focus that each of them possessed, one focused on God and the other focused oneself. It is far too easy to become wrapped up in our own personal salvation, with whether we shall end up in heaven or hell. By doing so, we may end up following Christ’s teachings out of fear of punishment or selfish desire for reward instead of out of true love and virtue. Many atheists rightly complain about Christians who believe that good behavior will be rewarded even if it is motivated out of pure self-interest. This idea is one that most Christians will reject in principle but will accidentally perpetuate through the threats of judgment.

Yet the threats of judgment and the emphasis on avoiding hell can cause us to lose sight of earnestly striving to please God. After all, God won’t condemn you to hellfire for that one time you stole a street sign or that single time you slept with your girlfriend. God won’t abandon you because you decided to sleep in and skip church a couple of times. So we begin to take advantage of His mercy because we grasp how bountiful it is. We appreciate His grace, but we fail to think about the sort of service that such grace should demand. When we get so focused on our own punishment or reward, we quickly lose sight of the grander goal of loving and serving God.

N.T. Wright got it right (poor pun, my apologies) when he wrote the following in Justification:

“We are not the centre of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’… are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly, many people – many devout Christians! – have preached that way and lived that way… God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that *through* them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world… God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world. We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around.”

When we threaten hellfire instead of preaching repentance and service to God, we forget where the focus is truly supposed to be.