“Hell is real!” That’s what it said on the sides and back of the trailer being pulled by the van that proudly displayed its congregational logo. More precisely, from a distance you saw the large letter “HR.” Then, as you neared you saw under the large letters the words, “Hell is real!” Also on the back was “Matthew 28:18-19” with the words, “His last command our first priority.”
Within the same week the blog-o-sphere convulsed over news concerning the latest book soon to be published by a prominent mega-church pastor. Though the book has yet to appear, an insider’s advanced review of some of its content raised suspicions that the writer was soft on hell and is probably a Universalist. It’s a sure bet that the “HR Van” was not en route to that mega-church, though its drivers might wish it were.
Within that same week again, the world-wide community of Christ-followers began its Lenten observance—that season of sober reflection on the sin we cannot deny, the hell it causes now and later, and the call of Jesus to turn from all of it for his better way. The season when, out of love for us and for all, the Son of God stared down Evil and Hell, at incalculable cost, to salvage the cosmos and humanity.
I want very much to believe that the best intentions of people in the HR Van, the mega church pastor and his critical reviewers, and the world-wide community of Christ-followers would be to embrace, celebrate and share what Hebrews calls, “so great a salvation” that Jesus accomplished and makes available for all. And I am sure that they all would agree that Jesus himself is or should be at the center. If we begin there with Jesus at the center, can we not agree on a number of things about “going to hell?” For example:
Our scripture story guides us above all to the person of Jesus as the one who shows us God and gives perspective for understanding God’s saving and judging acts. Therefore, whatever we say about judgment and the eternal destiny of people must pass muster with the words, actions and spirit of Jesus.
Jesus affirms the reality of what we have come to understand as “hell”—that God will judge, that some will not be saved, and that hell will be tragically real for them.
Jesus refers to “hell’ using the images and understandings of the people who heard him speak, without explaining or elaborating much on the details. I can think of no time when we find Jesus giving a “teaching on hell” as we might wish.
Jesus almost always speaks of hell, eternal punishment, and even torment to “insiders.” That is, he speaks to the religious in this way, and especially to their leaders. He does not teach the irreligious about the prospects of hell. Pagans are not told they will go to hell unless …
Jesus addresses, sometimes severely, the people who self-identify as God’s people, who pride themselves as righteous, and he warns them of the harshest of consequences for rejecting the clear and urgent teachings of the law and prophets, summed up in the commands to love God and neighbor—all of which was on clear display in his—Jesus’—own ministry. He warns of hell to pay for his own people who have had all the benefits and all the light. He warns that their rejection of his kingdom message was the ultimate mistake.
Jesus responds differently to outsiders, however, many of them culturally Jewish but not considered religious. He responds differently to the broken, the aimless, the confused, even those who act out in profane and violent ways. To these Jesus responds with broken hearted compassion, gut wrenching longing to be their good shepherd, to call them to himself and his kingdom. He serves them, feeds and heals them, and invites them to follow. He does not condemn them. To be sure, there are consequences of not following, immediate and future and eternal, but Jesus does not make those consequences his message.
Jesus teaches a kingdom of love and a salvation of loving relationships. Jesus embodies love completely, fully, perfectly. Love does not compel or coerce. Love does not frighten those it would embrace. Therefore, salvation is all about the deep loving relationships believers have with God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and with one another. Eternal life is knowing God in this way. Heaven is more a Person than a place. Hell is more the absence of a Person than a place.
Jesus’ teachings about kingdom and salvation make it clear to me that, of course, there must be a hell and that of course some will go there. But those who go to hell will do so because they have chosen to do so by rejecting the love offered them. The last thing people in hell would want is to go to heaven because they couldn’t stand being there. They do not love the One who makes it heaven. They’ve become people whose habituated lives cannot tolerate a life of loving interaction, participation and cooperation with the One who is love.
Jesus does not answer the question, “What about those who have never heard or known about God’s love, expressed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?” He doesn’t answer this question except to declare his intent that the whole world should/must know and his plan to tell and show the world through his people.
Jesus himself—his words to the suffering, weak, and harassed, his welcome of children, his gentle but firm correction, his masterful ability to transform people and situations, and the Spirit in which he did and does all these things—all of this gives me confidence to say that in the end, or the new beginning, all persons will have been loved, invited into that love, and drawn towards its healing, restoring and recreating powers. I do not know how this will occur. I do not know by what means. But for all persons love will not have given up, love will have reached out. But because it is truly love some or many will refuse. It blows my mind to imagine it. But love can be refused, and love will honor the choice.
“Why,” my wife asked, “don’t they put on their van—HR: Heaven is real?” Why indeed? Better yet, why don’t they put, “Jesus is real?”!