Sunday, November 11, 2012

If there is no hell

I've been contemplating this for the past few weeks, ever since an item appeared in The Province about a documentary by a professing Christian who claims there's no hell. Filmmaker Kevin Miller, whose doc is called "Hellbound?", is quoted as saying that the word "hell" isn't even in the Bible.

Well, on the principle that the way to disprove the statement that "all crows are black" is to find a white crow, the "white crow" in this case is in Matt. 5:22: "... whosoever shall say 'thou fool' shall be in danger of hell fire."

Now, in the Bible, some words that are rendered in English as "hell" do not actually refer to the place of eternal punishment -- "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell", for example, actually refers to "Sheol", which Strong's Concordance defines as "the abode of the dead" rather than a place of eternal punishment (although that's listed as a definition, as well) -- but the "hell" Jesus refers to is, in fact, the fire-and-brimstone, abandon-all-hope, you're-not-getting-out "hell" that we've come to accept.

The Greek word is "Gehenna", which is basically a transliteration of the Hebrew "Hinnom". Strong's Concordance notes, "Hell is the place of the future punishment call "Gehenna" or "Gehenna of fire". This was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction."

(Remember, too, that when Jesus tells the parable of the beggar Lazarus, the rich man who rejected him in this world calls to Abraham from his vantage point in hell.)

So, the concept of hell as a place where the souls of people who are caught up in evil are sent to burn eternally is very much a part of Jesus' teaching, and since He is God in the flesh, we can be pretty sure this is the Word of God. With one deft stroke, we can see that this you is full of navel lint. Why bother any further?

There are a couple of reasons. One is that his idea seems to get some traction -- after all, it'd be oh-so-nice if the Bible was all about love thy neighbor and do under others as you would have them do unto you and everything is beautiful and don't worry about sin because God loves you so much He'll overlook it in the end. That's dangerous, because that's a lie.

Another reason is that this particular premise leads to the time-honored question, "How could a loving God ...?"

In this case, How could a loving God send sinners to hell? If He loves us (the thinking goes), why would He send some of us to hell? Ah, one can think, then the whole teaching of Christianity must be off-base. Miller says some Christian teaching is more about hell-avoidance than coming to Christ.

I couldn't agree more: I certainly didn't come to Christ because I wanted to avoid going to hell: I did so because I saw that was a better way than anything else I'd tried or heard of. But the concept of hell is very real to me, and avoiding it (or so I hope) is an added attraction, and particularly powerful when temptation starts prowling around, looking for an opening. After all, a truly loving human father still keeps the thought of punishment for disobedience in the background: just as there are rewards for doing good, the reminder of a punishment for doing bad is necessary.

Besides, the reason why hell is one of the foundations of Christianity is because, since God is a loving Father to us all, He needed to send Jesus to re-connect us with Him. If there were no hell, why would we need Jesus?

But let's get back to that idea that God sends people to hell. Here's an idea to put on the SkyTrain and see if it gets off at Metrotown: God does not send people to hell; He sends sin to hell. But if someone is clinging to that sin, they wind up going there, too. Jesus says, "every plant that My heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up." (Matt. 15:13) And what happens to anything that is still hanging onto that plant? God has given us choice (because He loves us and wants His people to love Him not by coercion but by choice) and if we choose to hang onto that plant, we'll get cast out of His garden and tossed into that fire along with it.

Paul's list of people who go to hell -- 1 Cor. 6:9-10 -- is a list of people who choose to cling to sin rather that to Jesus. (Paul doesn't actually say they go to hell: he says they do not inherit the Kingdom of God; but since there is no "door number 3", that leaves only one other option.) But the Apostle also adds a note of encouragement after listing all of that: "And such were some of you: but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God."

In other words, we all have gone through periods of clinging to sin but we found our way out through Jesus Christ; and we need to remember that when we deal with others.

That leads to another point about the concept of hell. It keeps those of us who have come to Christ from getting smug and self-righteous. Note that I said, above, that I "hoped" I had avoided hell by coming to Christ. What I mean by that is that I hope I'm not missing something in my walk: I'm grateful for the Grace God has extended to me, and I don't ever want to take it for granted. I'm ever aware that I don't deserve the blessing God has poured onto my life, especially since I came to Him.

One of the sad things about all this is the way that people tend to embrace the "Grace without sin" doctrine. People want to feel better about themselves without actually tackling the stuff that's put them in that space. Maybe it's because they believe that their issues will be too big and complex for them to deal with. And they're right. But that's why we have Jesus. Just as there is no grace without sin and no healing without sickness, there can be no heaven without hell.