“The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation.” C.S. Lewis
If you are really observant – really, really, observant – you have noticed subtle differences in the recent blog titles in this ‘hell series’. I intentionally altered the wording and punctuation of each, making them sometimes descriptive, other times offensive. I didn’t vary them each week (only) because I’m incompetent but because I wanted to highlight the complicated relationship we have with a word.
Many Christians are taught that hell can be spoken of as an object but not used as a descriptor. In other words we can talk about hell as a place but otherwise it becomes a kind of swear word so that even a comic book character exclaiming “What the __ ?” is distasteful to us. This tension confirms that hell is hated and feared by Christians, which is probably understandable considering what we have been taught about it.
After the advent of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, another word came into prominence – ‘saved’. Saved from hell, that is. When evangelicalism happened along much later, saved had evolved from something you hope for to something you become. In other words, praying for God’s forgiveness makes you a saved person. That is quite different from the repeated New Testament belief that faith in Jesus is something more than just a state of being – we become children of God (Eph. 1:5).
Notice the the difference: one is a transaction, saving an object from hell, the other is an adoption into a healthy family.
As a result many people live a life of religious compliance, hoping to stave off eternal judgement and fearful for the fate of their family and friends. But while it is true that some Christians move along this way because of hell, it is also true that others discover freedom in spite of hell. The first is rooted in a conditional faith, the second is rooted in a relational faith.
We’re not patient enough to probe that deep discussion here but I’ll remind you that there have been three primary Christian theories from the beginning of our faith. They each seem to stem from our understanding of who God is.
Eternal Conscious Torment: God is an impartial judge and the unrepentant are punished in a place of permanent pain and separation.
Annihilationism: Life and existence flow from God so the unrepentant simply cease to exist.
Universal Reconciliation: God is a reconciler and healer and ultimately draws each person to himself.
So who is punished in hell (whatever that is)? Well, most of us would come up with a list that includes Hitler and Stalin obviously. The New England Patriots. The guy in the Dodge Ram who tailgated me this afternoon is a likely suspect. And if you believe all those right-wing bots on Facebook, Justin Trudeau for sure.
But it’s complicated.
First of all, there is no agreement on what hell is. It may be an actual place prepared for evil; it may be the earthly consequences of our actions; it may be a temporary state after death. An argument is also made that biblical references to it could simply have been predictions about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem.
Also consider this hypothetical story which unfortunately is all too likely:
Imagine that a baby girl was born to a young couple. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father disappeared shortly after she was born. Her mother had a minimum wage job and struggled to provide for the girl and her siblings. Over time her mother had a string of boyfriends who came into her life: two of them abused the girl physically, one sexually. When she was twelve she had one more fight with her mom and left home to begin living on the streets. She sold herself to men in order to make money and began using alcohol and drugs by the time she was fourteen. On her sixteenth birthday she overdosed and died. To her, God was a distant idea; she never darkened the door of a church and never prayed a prayer of faith.
Question: What happens to that girl after her death? I, like most of you, trust in the mercy of our loving God and believe she will find a home in his strong arms.
Follow up question: who of us is not like that little girl? You see, the danger and depth of sin is not just about our choices, as most religious people would have you think. Sorry, but we are all victims of sin too. We have each been infected by sin in the world: visibly and invisibly, genetically and socially. The entire world is broken in ways we are blind to which makes the grace of God all the more important.
As I’ve said before, Jesus’ apostles never preached an evangelical style sermon threatening people with hell. Jesus himself didn’t teach new disciples to pray a prayer to be saved, and in fact we can’t find that kind of prayer in the Bible.
I’m not trying to belittle hell, I wouldn’t do that. Hell is a consequence of sin and that makes it dangerous beyond our imagining. Rather, I want us to understand it better, to stop weaponizing it, and to reference it wisely. We need to hold it loosely in our hands because it is a marginal idea in Christianity.
And it’s not the good news. Jesus is.
This concludes our mini series on the happy subject of hell. Obviously I have only scratched the surface of this subject and I know it raises more questions. Nevertheless I hope you’ve found it up-lifting. Seriously.
Christmas is fast approaching and the Christian calendar is on the verge of the annual season of Advent. Advent of course is the traditional time of anticipating the coming of Jesus who entered this world as an infant born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Immanuel – God with us. Jesus was God walking on the ground with real people, experiencing life’s physical and emotional heights and depths just like we do.
As we decorate, shop, eat, drink, light candles and worship, let’s not forget that it is such a beautiful season because we are participating in the joy of giving and receiving. It is a joy that flows through us from the very nature of our Creator.
This is the Christian God: a god unlike the other gods; a god beyond our ability to imagine. A god who finds a way to live with his beloved creation. God, whose purpose was to rescue and heal, not kill. God, who is life giving and life-sustaining.
A God who is kind.
I remember well one of the first times our daughter sang in church as a young girl. She accompanied herself with the guitar and sang a simple song that continues to clutch my heart to this day. It is an expansion of the thought from Romans 2:4. I leave it with you to consider:
Waiting for angry words to sear my soul
Knowing I don’t deserve another chance
Suddenly the kindest words I’ve ever heard
Come flooding from God’s heart
It’s your kindness that leads us
To repentance Oh Lord
Knowing that You love us
No matter what we do
Makes us want to love You too
No excuse no one to blame
Nowhere to hide
The eyes of God have found my failures
Found my pain
He understands my weaknesses
And knows my shame
But His heart never leaves me
If You are for us
Who can be against us
You gave us everything
Even Your only Son
(Leslie Phillips, 1985)