People give me great theological questions quite regularly, I suppose because I am a pastor and they assume I have some kind of answer. Which I do, quite often… but I’d prefer to call them responses rather than answers. Answers put an issue to rest and finish the inquiry. Most of the really good and deep questions don’t work that way. And I don’t know “The Answer” in that sense. Hopefully some of my knowledge, experience and reflection can point towards something illuminating, but as I like to say, it is probably towards ‘a better question,’ not ‘the answer.’
The question this time was ‘Who goes to hell, and what could be so horrible that God would do that to someone?’
First, I’ve noticed that whenever I get into these big quandaries about God and faith that just don’t seem to be so un-understandable I usually find I’m asking the wrong question. It’s no surprise that we get no answer or the wrong answer when we ask the wrong question. The problem here is that we are so trained to ask this question. “Who’s in and who’s out?” Undoubtedly the Bible encourages this type of thinking in places. Jesus’ story of the separation of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25.31ff) is an example of this. But there are other messages.
One of those is the Gospel Message of unconditional love and acceptance, of a God giving his life in Jesus as a sacrifice paying for our sinfulness precisely so we wouldn’t have to.
Another is the redefinition of obedience that God points to already in the Old Testament (Hebrew scripture), Jeremiah 31.31-34 for instance, and that Jesus seals. That is the notion that putting ourselves right (translate as ‘righteousness’) doesn’t come from following rules or doing the ritual right, but from an authentic relationship with God. That is the theme of our worship service the week after Easter (March 30) when we kick off our UnLearn series with “UnLearn Religion.”
My studied and experienced sense of God is that while God is all about discerning what is better from what isn’t as good, it is for the purpose of calling out what if best, not to catch us at the worst. What I mean is that God isn’t out to get us. Find our flaws and trip us up. It doesn’t take God to do that; we can do it for ourselves and each other easily enough. We are imperfect, unworthy and undeserving at a pretty obvious level. Stalin’s secret police leader is famous for saying, “Show me the man, and I will show you the crime.” God, the creator of all things who declared them good is about finding, uncovering, redeeming and reclaiming that which is good and noble and usable within us and our world for the building of the kingdom. God is about saving, not condemning.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3.17)
The real question, the better question… I think it is something like this…
What is it worth to me to seek to know and follow God and live the way I am taught?
What is the cost to live trusting things that shall pass away, allowing the separation between God’s will and my reality to grow wider and wider?
The affirmation that I would add is this…
The more I learn and experience about God the more amazed I am. And what amazes me is how good God is; graciously, unselfishly, extravagantly loving. And if I could add to those superlatives, it would be that God does it with mind-boggling variety. It is not one size fits all. It is so creative that we often miss it.
So, who goes to hell and what could be so terrible as to deserve eternal punishment? There are those who will give you the lists. I’d rather not argue with them, but ask, “What will God’s love accomplish next, and how can I open myself to that love and show it to others?” The former, to me, is a human question. The latter, a Jesus question. Let’s surround our lives with Jesus questions!
“This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.” 1 John 4.10 (The Message)