Hell. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot… most notably in the past week or so, but, all in all its something that’s been at the back of my mind for much longer.
I’ve never been a fan of “Judgement House,” a conservative southern baptist “evangelism” program put on around halloween. I’ve only been to a few, but most of them revolve around some stereotypical teenagers at a party, drinking, covorting, you know, the whole deal. Typically someone mentions something about Jesus in the beginning, but then puts him off, saying they’ll be good later, or something to that degree. LAter in the show, some dramatic accident happens, maybe drunk driver, or something like that, and several people die. After death, the are sent before God. Some are forgiven, and sent to heaven, and then Jesus says “I do not know this person” to God and they are sent to torment. There’s screaming, red lights, terrible sounding things. Then, cut to people celebrating in heaven. Jubilant. Good for them since they said a prayer and got dunked under the water. The lights come up, and a heavy set baptist preacher with perma-grin walks out and asks people to come foward. Many do and are prayed over and/or say the sinner’s prayer.
I’ve never understood why I couldn’t stand these things. I guess it was the whole scaring people to become christians deal. That’s not something I would imagine is very effective for genuine life transformation. Something was still nagging, though I didn’t know quite what it was.
Enter this week. I read “The Last Word, And The Word After That” by Brian McLaren. This book is the third in his trilogy that began with “A New Kind Of Christian” followed by “The Story We Find Ourselves In”. These books introduce, in ficitional narrative, the ideas that our society has moved into a new historical period, one that has been labeled “postmodern” since its after the “modern” period of history. The arguments are that modernity and christianity have become so intwined that they are indistinguishable, and that unless we re adjust the church to new culture, generations may never realize the life that comes from the Kingdom of God.
The final book deals with a touchy subject for recovering fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, hell. For hundreds of years, hell has been used to scare people toward christianity. Imagery, mostly borrowed from Dante’s Inferno, among other sources, were used in sermons, most notably “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God” by Johnathan Edwards. This presents a conflict for many christians, myself included. How does a God who is so loving and forgiving, have a big room full of folks up in heaven, and just let others be tortured in fire below. Does not that seem a little out of character?
I know what many of you are thinking. Justin, God punished people all the time. He asked some pretty hard things of the Jews. But all of his punishments were temporary, they were just. He killed Sodom and Gomorrah, and that was it. But didn’t they go to hell you ask? Not according to the Ancient Jews.
In the old testament, there is no mention of hell. None. The Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife. The place you go when you die was “Sheol” otherwise known as “the grave”. Somewhere along the way, some jews started believing in a resurrection, when the messiah came, all the good jews would rise from the grave in order to enjoy the greatness of a new israel that ruled over the Romans, Assyrians, Greeks, everybody. The Sadducees on the other hand, didn’t believe in the resurection.
So where does hell come into all of this you ask? The pharisees believed that the messiah wouldn’t come to israel until they were good enough, until they were keeping the law to a T. They adopted the idea of Hell from the cultures around them and used it to their benefit. they used it to scare people into following the law. Wasn’t working very well for them, but thats just an aside.
When Jesus shows up, people that believe he is the Messiah. Their understanding of the Messiah is that he will bring back Glory to Israel, lead the armies against the Romans and other Pagan Gentiles, and show who God’s people really are. What he does, however, is quite the opposite. He talks about a Kingdom, which gets everybody really excited, but the catch is, this Kingdom is nothing like what they had imagine. the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, isn’t some sort of place we go after we die, its a way of living that is totally contrary to the flesh. Jesus’ new Kingdom was about salvation all right, but not salvation from eternal torment. Jesus used hell as a metaphor that the people would understand (since the Pharisees had been using this idea of hell, borrowed from other cultures, Greek, Zorastrian,Egyptian), and used it not against those who the Pharisees condemned, but he used it against the Pharisees themselves. They were trying to enforce a moral code that even they couldn’t live up to, and through their laws they were missing the point entirely. the Law was never meant to be a burden on the people. Jesus said it himself. The whole law is summed up with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” These are the laws of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven.
That being said, there will be a judgement. Just because Hell was used as a warning doesn’t mean we will not be judged. Jesus made it clear, through his metaphor of Hell, that living a Kingdom life is imperative. Its of dire importance. It was so important that he was willing to sacrifice himself, in order that the sins of all mankind be forgiven, so that we will know we should live a kingdom life.
What does al l this mean? I’m not sure exactly what I believe judgement will be like. What I do know, is that we are guilty of using hell the exact same way the pharisees did. Where do we go from here you ask?
I think we stop using hell as a threat. That creates, first, a sense of invincibility. I’m “saved” from hell, so what does it matter what I do. I can ignore the radical Kingdom lifestyle Jesus preached because its really all about going to heaven. Sound kinda selfish? Second, it makes it even easier to ignore the plight of those in need. It makes it easy to rationalize walking by that homeless person and not helping. I mean, he probably deserves it anyway cause he drank himself to death, right? Or how about ignoring the famine going on in Africa. I mean, God’s gonna come back really soon and take us to heaven, so why should we worry about those things. We’re living in the end times. Let’s go work on studying the bible more, and making sure we don’t ever say Damnit when we stub our toe. I mean, what if Jesus came back right when we stubbed our toe?
Anyway, that’s just what I’ve been thinking about. Maybe we’ve missed the whole point here.