Joining Jesus on one hell of a mission to bring heaven to earth?


Today The Times (UK) reports that the Pope is abolishing the concept of limbo - a theological hypothesis is how the Pope is quoted to have referred to it. Vatican sources are reporting that the commission of theologians set up to review the doctrine has "concluded that all children who die do so in the expectation of “the universal salvation of God” and the “mediation of Christ”, whether baptised or not." In other words the Catholic church is moving to a more inclusive perspective on who gets into heaven (at least for children).

It reminded me that back in July there was a great conversation on who gets saved there was even a poll and the results reflect the variety of comments expressed. As a quick reminder the four different view points are:

EXCLUSIVISM: Those who live and die without receiving Christ will go to hell, whether or not they heard the Gospel.

INCLUSIVISM: This asserts that anyone saved will only be so through Jesus, and in no other way. But it allows God’s grace and salvation to extend to others who have had an imperfect knowledge of him, i.e have not had the chance to know who he is and chose or reject him.

PLURALISM: The idea here is that all relgions point and lead to God. It does not assert that everyone will be saved though, and allows for some people to not be saved.

UNIVERSALISM: This goes further than pluralism, in that you don’t need any religion to be saved. Everyone regardless of what they believe, or have done, is saved.

(Clearly there are other view points which reject the whole notion of God/saving).

I don't intend to repeat that conversation here but what struck me then and continues to impact on me now is that the emergent conversation is very on message about agreeing that missional is about us doing God's will on earth as it is in heaven (bringing heaven to earth rather than us waiting to depart to heaven) but we are more silent on the flip side of the question - does that mean it's hell like on earth already and not only that but what is our stance on the whole question of hell fullstop. continued

Interesting stats on belief on heaven/hell are higher than stats for regular chuch attendance in bother contries. Stats for the UK (in 2000) reveal that 28% believe in Hell (cf 52% believe in heaven) and for the USA (2003) Barna survey shows 71% believe in hell (cf 78% believe in heaven).

The stats show (unsurprisingly) that heaven is more popular than hell but why else is it a topic so little talked about in our conversations? In part, I would suggest because:

- the emerging conversation tends to focus on practice to inform theology and I doubt many people are asking us, 'so heh we really want some real good teaching on hell; - it is a doctrine that has been abused a lot by the church on those both in and outside the church (fear/guilt/manipulation/terror/and getting God's revenge in first for him); and - it is just a difficult subject to talk about, even without all its emotional and theological baggage (we all have friends/family who we know don't follow Christ and therefore what is there fate?)...

Baring in mind the sensitivities of the above and recognising that this is only one small part of the emergent conversation I do have some questions/thoughts I'd like to explore with you about hell:

- if we want to be missional people (like Jesus) do we not need a balanced doctrine of heaven and hell? - Does a doctrine of hell inform, impact and influence and shape our life and our life's choices in a postive, healthy Christ like way (does what we do in this world echo in eternity)? - Or can we scrap the doctrine of hell and instead just focus on/draw inspiration from heaven in being missional - we already know about how crap the world is now why worry about anything else?

First can I suggest that we unpack the doctrine of hell a bit more together, so we have some common reference points to talk about...

That's a hell of a baggage train

Medieval/Renaissance church sermons embellished descriptions of hell found in the bible:

1) For example - the part of you that sins will be tortured for eternity – so a blasphemer hung from their tongue etc reflected, for example, in the painting of Bosch.

2) Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and later Milton's paradise lost – cedmented the image in popular consciousness that hell is an eternal torture chamber of the damned. For example Dante wrote that within the seventh circle of hell runs "the river of blood, within which boiling is/Whoe'er by violence doth injure others."

Into the modern period and slogans like 'turn or burn' echo this hell of fiery torture e.g. Spurgeon preached:

"We assert, then, that there is a NECESSITY that God should whet his sword and punish men, if they will not turn. Earnest Baxter used to say, "Sinner! turn or burn; it is thine only alternative: TURN OR BURN!" And it is so. We think we can show you why men must turn, or else they must burn..."

This slogan is still one that is still heard today from anti-gay protests (note the link refers to somone's experience of these slogans, it does not advocate using them) to baby clothes (it makes me shudder that babies who are such a reflection of creation/new life/hope can be so dressed in and made party to a hate they don't even understand).

It is not surprising with such repugnant embellishments that christians have shied away from hell and preferred to focus on God's love. Indeed I can onlysay how sorry I am for anyone subjected to such abuse/hate.

But in the modern day another force also seems to influence a decline in references to hell – in a fascinating article the San Francisco Chronicle highlights that in todays market driven/consumeristic approach to church/faith that hell is just not "sexy." The article goes on to say:

"Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell..."

Indeed the doctrine of hell has come under much welcome review as a result of the above, so that there is a growing school of thought that the church has missed the point and hell does not exist at all (at least not as the church has comprehened it for a long time). Such a view is worth exploring, if only to provide a sane calming counter balancing perspective to the traditional of hell as a fiery eternal torture chamber , even if ultimately you draw your own different conclusions.

Reflecting on the doctrine of hell is something that has its own baggage, which we will feel to a greater or lesser extent. Not least me the questios/difficulty of reconciling a loving God with the existence of a place called hell...

Hell of a way to love someone...

If God is a God of love then how can I as a Christian believe in somewhere like hell? Even if it is a sanitised version that stays within the bible descriptions it still does not sound like a loving place.

This has been a stumbling point for many, e.g. Bertrand Russell in his lecture entitled 'why I am not a Christian' said:

"There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching -- an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence..."

I think it is worth asking why I believe that God is a God of love in the first place? if I look at the world then I see that everything is out of synch, it’s not what it was meant to be – AIDS, war, orphans. Creation it would seem does not testify to a God of love. Neither would it appear does history which reveals a history of war, famine, genocide, ethnic cleansing. Even my conscious self speak scondemnation, reminding me where I failed, went wrong, made mistakes… It is clear to me that the world and the people in it are hurting, grieving, broken somehow/somewhere.

There is for me only one reason why I think God is a God of love – which is becaus Jesus Christ tells us/reveals it, e.g. the parable prodigal son God runs seek out, runs towards and embraces people who turn to him. Christ dying on the cross reveals God's love by embracing all the pain, hurt and brokeness of the world and makes a way for us to follow him through the cross. As John reveals to us:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

It is this love that God has for the world that infuses the desire to be missional, to live in the way of Jesus and be co-missioned with Jesus in saving the world. But saving the world from what? Jesus was clear that he was on a mission from God, he was God's love in action, God made flesh, God living in the neighbourhood - there to save the world (including but not solely our souls) by asking people to believe in him, to live through him, to follow him in sacrifce and serventhood, to transform the world as he transforms us, and to extend that invitation... to offer a different way/possibility/future/hope of eternal life and heaven on earth rather then the alternative eternal death, seperation, continuation of the hell that we find already on earth...

In doing so I am making a choice to believe in/follow Jesus but what if I choose not too, what then are the consequences?

The hell I will...

If "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist" is his second greatest to convince us that hell does not exist either? In other words we choose what we know rather then what we can imagine as different - it is our choice. Love freely offers love it is not forced. Love to be love has to be freely received. C S Lewis in a Problem of Pain said:

“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: "What are you asking God to do?" To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does."

It is my own human sanity, my own free will and choice that is hard to reconcile with the doctrine of hell – what sane person is going to choose new heavens and earth over hell? Which door would you choose...?

Behind door 1: eternal bliss…satisfied…fulfilled…joy…happiness… deeply fulfilled

Behind door 2: miserable forever? Nothing? eternal regret?

But we’re not sane – the bible says that we deliberately self determine against ourselves, e.g. Paul says:

"And so I insist—and God backs me up on this—that there be no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd. They've refused for so long to deal with God that they've lost touch not only with God but with reality itself. They can't think straight anymore. Feeling no pain, they let themselves go...."

My sin makes me stupid as I deliberately choose against my own long term happiness. As I rub my life against the grain of the universe I get splinters – and maybe hell is the ultimate product of all those splinters. So that, as Lewis writes in the Great divorce, "hell … begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps even criticizing it…. You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine."

What if hell is the logical outcome of a loving God who refuses to compel me to follow him, believe in him? If I choose to ignore God, if I say no to God and keep on saying no to him. Would it really be right after choosing to live for me, follow my dreams and refuse to exchange them for God's whilst living that a loving God would then not freely give me what I dreamed for? As G K Chesterton observed: "hell is God's great compliment to the reality of human freedom and dignity of human choice."


What is hell like?

The photo might prove that hell does freeze over it and scientific legend may support this too, but what is hell really like as described in the bible rather than the bloody torture chamber of medieval myth? This is where we encounter the limitations of language, the bible writers struggle to describe the after life and high symbolism and metaphors used (true for new heavens and earth as well as hell). So for example John describes the new Jerusalem using amazing metaphors - does this mean it is literally like this - is it literally going to be like that? I think John is trying to say that the new Jerusalem goes beyond any wonderful valuable thing you can think of/imagine/experience.

The same thing then is true about the descriptions of hell in the bible. So for example hell is described as a lake of fire – where did jews get that idea from of hell being like fire and smelling of sulphur?

At the south end of Jerusalem there was a valley where child sacrifice was practised by the Amorites - the valley of Hinnon or in Hebrew form "ga ben Hinnom"– when the Jews took over ended child sacrifice but felt that valley had been desecrated so used to burn their rubbish and the remains of the animal sacrifices from the temple etc. To speed up the burning they put sulphur over it – so continual stench of death/sulphur arose from the south side of Jerusalem, in Greek the valley of Hinnom becomes "Gehenna."

Both Jesus and John transported this idea of Gehenna in describing hell, tapping into something that was well known to their audience. So are flames literal – I don’t know? May be the flames symbolise humanity burned away to ash – and all that remains is willed darkness? As Billy Graham said: "I think that hell essentially is separation from God forever. And that is the worst hell that I can think of. But I think people have a hard time believing God is going to allow people to burn in literal fire forever. I think the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched."

C S Lewis in the Great Divorce “the difficult thing about understanding hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly nothing...

One thing is that we can’t reconcile all metaphors, for example Hell is also called:

outer darkness - Perhaps Jesus conveying the idea of hell being an exclusion from God’s presence/goodness/light/life?

Weeping and gnashing of teeth – Perhaps Jesus talking about torment of regret – endless why? why? why? Hell then is eternal regret/frustration/ for a wasted life…

As Pope John Paul II reflected: "The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

Hell: an exclusive destination?

Although Jesus himself taught that no one could come to the Father except through him some parts of the Church have taughtfor 20 centuries that God in his loving sovereignty may receive people who haven’t explicitly placed their faith in Christ - children, disabled etc as we don’t how much conscious awareness of Jesus is needed. In other words a more inclusive then exclusive view. Is the warning of hell then, I wonder, a call to inform/inspire mission? Rather than being avbout speculation of who ends up where, who is in/out, but instead to participate in the desire of God to invite/reveal himself?

Hell is paid - a call to join/follow Jesus in misisonal living

Shirley Guthrie, the theologian asked “to whom did Jesus address his gracious words of invitation and promise? To people who were obviously guilty, to tax collectors, prostitutes, political and social outcasts rejected by respectable people. And to whom did he address his sternest of hellfire and eternal misery? He almost never mentioned hell except when he spoke to the scribes and the Pharisees, the very moral, very religious, very complacent church going people of his day…”

Most of the warnings pertaining to punishment/Gehenna were directed my Jesus to his own disciples as well as the Pharisees. The first great cluster of references to Gehenna, are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:22, 29, 30), Jesus' great sermon to His disciples in which He warned that one was in danger of Gehenna for the likes of calling someone a fool.

People have preached doctrine of hell to people outside the church – to the very people that Jesus invited in and never seemed to talk about hell with. Instead it would appear that the Jesus wanted both his disciples and those who were religiously right to be confronted by hell. With the former the warning seemed to reflect the seriousness/passion/dedication of kingdom living and with the latter to confront their own expectations as to who was in and who was out.

"I believe in...Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.." Apostles Creed

The doctrine of hell is a powerful motivating force for mission - not out of guilt - but from a desire for people to be know/experience/find Christ, for people to experience the opposite of hell. If hell is the skidrow of the universe, a grey dull, dreary monotone then it is in Christ that we find colour,passion, meaning/purpose, love, contentment, freedom, as Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians:

"It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

It's in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what's coming, a reminder that we'll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life..."

Mission then is taking part in God's cure of revelation, revolution, recreation/celebration...

revelation/reconciliation... of the joy, longing, love of God - no longer just fallen seperate creation but reconciled in/through incarnate Jesus...

revolution... the radical choice to choose God's dream rather than my own, to choose his will to be done on earth rather than my own and to allow Jesus to work his will through me/us... even if it costs us everything and sees us following Christ in the way of the Cross.

recreation/celebration... not just thank God I'm saved but an open invite for everyone we know to join the ultimate party, that death is no longer the end, that the eternal life of fullness is available now, that all of us who are thirsty, hungry, weary can find home, belonging, acceptance, love, healing...

Seems to me that it is indeed a hell of a mission to join/follow Jesus in bringing/being heaven to earth...but what do you think?

Paul Mayers Guest blogger (For an off ramp to explore Lewis and the subject of hell I recomend this lecture).