Monday, January 27, 2020

What Did Jesus Mean about Hell?

I had an interesting conversation… actually, “conversation” is probably too strong a word. It was really more of a brief exchange. I was in a meeting sitting next to a woman who described herself as an energist, which going by her description sounds like a variety of New Age-ism. In response to my being a minister (which is how I introduced myself to the group), she explained that she does not believe in God. She believes in what may be called “god,” a force in the universe that is in and around us. This force works providently for our good, and the highest good is to seek happiness for ourselves. However, it is not possible for us to specifically know or identify this “god.”

Relational Evangelism

The brain runs at a mile a minute in situations like these. One objection after another came to mind as I listened to my new acquaintance. If you believe in the supernatural, what are the grounds for denying the existence of God? If your god, or energy, is in and through everything without being personal, then how can it be recognizable as having a will to do either good or bad? If the highest good is to seek happiness, what happens when that happiness is sorrow to others? And if “god” cannot be identified, then how can you identify it as this energy or force? It is really a claim to a superiority of knowledge over all the other religions of the world, which is an exclusivist claim rather than the inclusive one I think she meant it to be. She was certainly very passionate about it, but emotionalism is shaky ground for investigating the truth.

I thought all of these things in the moment, but I did not say any of them. My approach, generally speaking, is “relational evangelism,” or what I might also call “time-and-place evangelism.” In my opinion, there would not have been very much good in my holding up the meeting in order to go point by point and tear down this stranger’s belief system. Perhaps I could have convinced her that she had missed the mark. More likely, she would have just been offended and more deeply entrenched in her conclusions.

Maybe it comes as a surprise to hear me say this, seeing as I am generally pretty straightforward (if not brusque) in my articles and videos. But there’s a key distinction. Whether in writing, on YouTube, or behind the pulpit, I am generally not talking with anyone in particular. I am discussing concepts. There is a remove, a space in which it is my hope that nonbelievers will be challenged without feeling attacked. It’s different in a direct conversation, at least for me. There, the goal is to make a connection with the person before trying to point out any type of error. You have to save up some social capital before you spend it.

Of course, It is possible to go too far. I could have kept my own faith entirely to myself, or offered uncritical acceptance of everything she said. I didn’t do that, either. I spoke as a Christian, and though I was kind without betraying any type of agitation, I made a point to only agree with her when she said something that was actually in accordance with the truth (for example, when she at one point said that if you cannot do something, accept your limitations and seek help from someone who can).

The most direct thing that I did, and even this was pretty subtle, was in response to something she said directly to me rather than to the whole group. She mentioned, with evident pride, that she had read the New Testament once and that her chief takeaway was that Jesus wanted people to feel happiness rather than fear. Now, there is truth in that, but it is not the truth she thought she grasped. Given her worldview, her point was that Jesus wanted us to be comfortable with ourselves and not to worry about judgment. So I responded, with a laugh, “It’s interesting, though, that Jesus mentioned hell more than heaven!”

That seemed to catch her off guard a bit. She began to respond with something about how hell is here and what we make for ourselves, and I began to explain the ways in which the Lord clearly meant more than that. But we both became aware that we were becoming a distraction and decided to leave it at that.

More of Hell than Heaven?

Perhaps it undercuts my case a bit, but I knew that what I told her was disputed. As a matter of simply searching for the terms, Jesus certainly uses the word “heaven” more than “hell.” Meanwhile, the concepts of judgment and paradise are much more evenly split and generally occur together. And then, of course, is the way that many secularist theologians have attempted to weaken Jesus’ descriptions of hell to make them apply to this life rather than the afterlife. I have to admit, then, that it is debatable whether Jesus talked about hell “more than” heaven. But He certainly talked about it, and He was very descriptive about it.

A few examples help to drive that point home. In Matt. 10:28, Jesus warned against fearing earthly powers more than God, who is “able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Clearly, that is talking about more than life on this earth since it refers to being concerned about more than mere death. Matt. 13:24–30 and 37–43 record the parable of the wheat and the tares, in which the Lord explains that the judgment at the end of time will result in the evil being sent into “the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This, meanwhile, is contrasted with the eternal blessedness of the saved.

Maybe the most famous one is the description of the final judgment in which Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, telling the latter to “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!” and that “they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:41–46). That’s at least a little bit more than “hell on earth,” wouldn’t you say? Then you have Mark 9:42–48 with its descriptions of unending decay and unquenchable fire, Luke 13:22–30 in which Jesus will deny ever having even known the wicked and will not permit them to enter paradise, and John 5:24–30 in which only those who accept His words will avoid death and judgment and instead receive eternal life.

The implication of all these passages and many more is quite clear to the unbiased mind. Jesus taught that there was more to life than this earthly existence, and it is possible to wind up in a place where you will not want to be. He said that it was a place of pain, darkness, and isolation. And He said that people choose it by denying Him.

Why Speak of Hell?

That’s really the key point. Someone like my passing acquaintance might allude to a verse like John 12:47, where Jesus says,

If anyone hears my words and doesn’t keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.

Taken on its own, you might say that Jesus offers no condemnation. But you also have to include John 12:48–50, where He continues,

The one who rejects me and doesn’t receive my sayings has this as his judge: the word I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father Himself who sent me has given me a command to say everything I have said. I know that His command is eternal life. So the things that I speak, I speak just as the Father has told me.

The point is that there is only one way to eternal life. Refuse the way, and you refuse the life. And understood properly, even John 12:47 does say that after all. Jesus said He came to “save the world.” Save it from what? Certainly not from suffering in this world. He promises that to His followers as a guarantee (John 15:18–25). No, He is speaking of salvation from something far worse, and to something unimaginably better than mere earthly happiness.

Many Christians balk at the idea of a “gospel of fear.” They say that there is no value in the message of judgment. I get that. It certainly is not the point on which we should lean. The real gospel is that God loves us and wants us to be with Him (John 3:16; 14:18–23). But there is an alternative to being with Him. It would be dishonest to leave that totally unmentioned. If people do not know it, if they are not warned that they are wandering far from God, then there is less motivation to seek Him. Jesus was not silent on the reality. Neither should we be.

All of this was inherent in my brief comment about hell receiving more attention from Christ than heaven. It was all I felt I could say under the circumstances, but I am satisfied that it was enough. Perhaps I will have more opportunities to speak with that woman and expand on it. Perhaps not. But I do believe it planted the smallest seed of doubt in her mistaken understanding of Jesus. Hopefully it will sprout, leading her to seek out the truth. And hopefully, she will find it. That’s certainly my prayer for her. It will lead her to the only lasting happiness that there is to be found.

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