Monday, 20 February 2017

Hell: Paved with the Red Letters?

“I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.” (T.S. Eliot)


Are people too optimistic in their belief that one day, they will be going to Heaven? I wonder sometimes. As a Christian, it may be easy for me to think that about a non-Christian, but what about people who might call themselves Christians? Are some of them equally optimistic about their eternal destiny, and specifically, a one-way trip to Heaven? Could it be that some may hear instead on that fateful day, "I never knew you" (Luke 13: 24-28; paraphrased)?

In “Next Stop, the Pearly Gates ... or Hell? (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003), K. Connie Kang reported that out of every one American who believes that he or she is bound for Hell, there are 120 Americans who believe they’re Heaven-bound.

On the surface that sounds great, doesn’t it? But when I read the Gospels, and specifically Matthew 7:13-14, I cannot help but come away with the feeling that there will be more people not making it into Heaven than those who actually do make it there. I know, I know; Ouch!

Furthermore, contrary to what seems to have become a common mantra in today’s world, even among Christians, there are many who either outright deny the existence of Hell, or who at the very least, question its existence. I wonder why. They argue that, if God is a God of love, how could He ever send anyone to Hell? Many, it seems to me, even in the church, have embraced a form of Universalism, believing that all mankind will eventually be saved. But will they really? Personally I can’t go there. In fact, as I already alluded to, I think that when we look at Jesus’ own words (for example, the narrow and the wide gates), the reverse of Universalism may actually be more closely aligned with the truth.

Does Jesus speak about Hell? Yes he does. In fact, he speaks about it more than any other biblical writer. If Heaven is paved with streets of gold, as it's sometimes euphemized, then perhaps Hell is paved with the "Red Letters," and to some of those letters we now turn.

JESUS ON HELL

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7: 13-14)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8: 12)

“Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

“Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn. ... As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. … This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13: 30, 40-43, 49-50)

“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22: 13-14)

“The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:50-51)

“And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. … Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25: 30, 41-43, 45)

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8: 36-37)

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9: 43-48)

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13: 24-28)

“In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” (Luke 16: 23-24)

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5: 28-29)

DO NOT BE DECEIVED

What is Jesus talking about in the preceding verses, if not Hell? Some might suggest that it is somehow unloving to speak of Hell. Is Jesus unloving? Of course not! As hard a subject as it is, however, I’d rather think that it would be more unloving of Christians not to speak of it. Why would you not warn someone you love or care for about the awful consequences they face if they do not accept Jesus? Not doing so would actually be quite cruel, if you asked me. Jesus also once said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). So long as our friends and loved ones choose another way, other than Jesus, well, you fill in the blanks. Yes, to not speak of Hell is actually quite unloving.

Is Hell a real place, and will real people one day be sent there? As much as many would perhaps like to say “No,” and contrary to many Christian books out there that present arguments against Hell, it seems pretty obvious to me that if we believe in a Heaven, then by default we must also believe in a Hell. Conversely, if we were to disbelieve in the one, then by default we must disbelieve in the other. That’s not to say that Heaven and Hell are equal opposites; they are not equal opposites any more than Satan is God’s opposite. Yet the one is just as real and eternal as the other and are both created by God.

But more important than just my humble opinion, there are the very words of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels; the "Red Letters." I’ve only highlighted the twelve texts above in which Jesus alludes to an eternity apart from God, an eternity filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth, an eternity of fire that just won’t quit. It will be an eternity in which people sent there, still will be able to see the good enjoyed by those in Heaven, but they themselves unable to join in the festivities, which no doubt only intensifies their misery of solitude and apartness from God.

The point is, the same Jesus who loves you and me intensely enough to die for us, wanting and yearning to spend eternity with us, also throughout the gospels describes a very unpleasant eternity for those who reject him and choose their own self-righteous path through this life. But God, as much as He’s about grace and love, is also Holy, and cannot and will not be in the presence of evil and sin. Still, he won’t force himself on anyone. As such, whether we end up in Heaven or Hell, is ultimately our own choosing. Yes, it is a hard word, but I didn’t say it; Jesus did. I’m just the messenger.

THERE IS STILL HOPE

But we cannot just end this discussion on Hell here; there is still hope. Thank God there is hope! The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2)

As my dear friend and brother in the Lord, Bruce Hubbard, says in his excellent book The Way of Grace, “It is only when we are in subjection and yielded to God’s grace that we are enamoured by the Almighty drawing near to us. Recognition of our need for grace is the only way for us to realize the benefit and working of grace. To declare that you do not need God’s grace is to declare Jesus a loser – that his grace is in vain” (p.163).

Is Jesus a “loser?” No, of course not! God forbid! But we sure will be losers if we continue to refuse to accept God’s grace and mercy! The price for our redemption has been paid. Forgiveness for our many sins has been offered. Grace and mercy have been laid out before us like the blessed gift that it is. But like anything else in life that may be offered us, we don’t possess it until we receive it. We still need to make a choice, a very important choice; a choice with eternal consequences. The choice will be either incredibly wonderful or incredibly awful.

Choose wisely. Be reconciled to God.

First Photo Credit: Marco Verch, Flickr Creative Commons
Second Photo Credit: Bruce Hubbard, used by permission
All Scripture Quotations: New International Version (NIV), 1984 Edition
Why Red Letters? See here for Wikipedia link

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Losing the Stones: Trump, Adultery, and Me

Recently the citizens of the United States of America elected a new President: Donald Trump. While I doubt that anyone can prove it, the negativity concerning Trump on the social media sites seems to outweigh those singing his praises. It’s interesting, in a sad sort of way, how before his presidency even really has taken off in earnest, some already think him worthy of a good old fashioned impeachment, whereas others seem ready to place a golden crown on his head (All hail, King Trump - Hmm). I’ve caught myself a time or two about to add my two-cents worth to the milieu of rhetoric spewed forth from both camps, but thankfully, for the most part, I’ve held my tongue. However, what really strikes me is the similarity of the nay-sayer’s camp with that of those who dragged a woman caught in the act of adultery before Jesus for his verdict of the situation, and more specifically, the punishment.

Is there is a correlation between Trump’s “coronation,” that poor unsuspecting woman, and you and me? “But what do You say [to do with her – what is Your sentence]?” I wonder.

Maybe a refresher of the biblical account is first in order:

“Teacher, they said, This woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such [women – offenders] shall be stoned to death. But what do You say [to do with her – what is Your sentence]? This they said to try (test) Him, hoping they might find a charge on which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger. However, when they persisted with their question, He raised himself up and said, Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. Then He bent down and went on writing on the ground with His finger. They listened to Him, and then they began going out, conscience-stricken, one by one, from the oldest down to the last one of them, till Jesus was left alone, with the woman standing there before Him in the center of the court. When Jesus raised Himself up, He said to her, Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She answered, No one, Lord! And Jesus said, I do not condemn you either. Go on your way and from now on sin no more.” (John 8: 4-11; Amplified)

I’ve often mused, what ever became of the man she was caught with? I mean, was he not just as guilty of committing adultery as she was? Did he not also deserve to be stoned to death? Perhaps in that male-dominated society he was strangely exempted. But that wasn’t really the point, was it? Ultimately, I doubt the accusers even really cared about the woman’s act of adultery; they were really only there in hopes of trapping Jesus. Sometimes I think political rhetoric is much the same; people don’t really care what the politician is or isn’t about, as much as they’d rather crucify those who think differently than they do on the matter in question.

Moses and Adultery.

There is an interesting parallel between this passage in John’s gospel and another passage in Numbers chapter 5 that I read recently, in which God gives Moses a “test for adultery.” I would suggest you re-read that chapter before reading on in this post. In both the Old and New Testament accounts, we see some striking similarities:

Both deal with a wife who has committed adultery, either by being physically caught in the act, or as suspected by her husband of being guilty of infidelity.

Both deal with a consequence; either being stoned to death, or cursed to the point of her body swelling up and her thigh falling away, in the case of being proven guilty.

Both deal with dust and dirt, in both the tabernacle and temple court floors, as part of the condemnation.

Both deal with holy, or living, water; in the Old Testament account, the Amplified translation suggests that it may have come from the sacred laver in the tabernacle, whereas in the New Testament, it is Jesus himself who is the giver of “living water” (John 7:38).

Both deal with a woman’s hair hanging loose, although I confess it doesn’t specifically say that in John’s account, but given that she was “caught in the very act of adultery,” it is safe to assume that her hair wasn’t neatly done up in a bun at the time, or tucked away in a hijab, during the sexual act in question.

Both offer hope, either by her body not swelling up and her thigh falling away (and by default, her being innocent of adultery), or by an encounter with Jesus. By the way, just what was this “thigh falling away?” Some commentators suggest it was little more than a polite way of suggesting that the woman would no longer be able to bear children, which in itself in that society, would not only be shameful, but essentially seen as being cursed.

Both offer hope in that neither the priest nor Jesus condemns; the priest leaves the judgment to the drinking of the dirt and holy water potion, and the accusers in the New Testament account look for a judgment from Jesus, the Living Water, who also stirs his finger through perhaps the very same dirt. What was he writing? Hmm, I wonder. Some have speculated that he literally wrote in the dirt the sins of her accusers. Maybe he did.

So what does Moses’ test for adultery, Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery, and political rhetoric concerning Trump (or any other politician) have in common? Maybe nothing, maybe everything; at the very least, I had a “Hmm” moment.

Law or Grace?

It’s not about whether Trump should or should not have won the presidency. It’s not about whether he’s honest or not. It’s not even about whether he is or isn’t a genuine Christian or whether he’s a “sinner” or not. It has nothing to do about whether or not a wall should be erected or admission to the USA be denied or granted to people of certain geographical areas, and by default, religions.

The way I see it all has to do with our attitudes towards others. We’re so quick to apply a legalistic test for adultery, or better yet, test for __________ (insert sin here), perhaps citing some Old Testament law-like penalty to Trump (or towards whomever we’re venting on this week).

Maybe we all need to spend a little time looking over Jesus’ shoulder as he writes in the dirt. What is he writing there? Do you see your own shortcomings listed in the dirt? Do I see mine? Yes, I see mine, and that is why I’ve started dropping my stones more and more regularly lately rather than hurl them at some poor unsuspecting adulteress (or politician), no matter how much I think they may deserve it.

In his excellent book, The Way of Grace, personal friend and author Bruce Hubbard writes:
when truth crashes into our little world, we just blame something or someone else, and insist that our own life is under control. We believe that if others would just change, then everything would be all right. In such a state, we walk in darkness and we neither see nor understand our actual condition; we are blind to our own poverty and wretchedness. We are sightless to our nakedness, and hence have no feeling of shame; our eyes of self righteousness are blinded to the fact that we are contemptible and pathetic, as we self define our world around us” (p.218; in reference to John 8: 3-11, and Revelation 3: 14, 16-20).

Ouch, and yet, he really hits the nail right on the head. Do you see yourself in there? I sure see me as being here a time or two … or ten.

Maybe it is time to understand our actual condition and practice a little more grace in the way we deal with others, and our perceived flaws in them, remembering that if we want to throw stones at others, there is ultimately no good reason that stones shouldn’t be thrown back our way too. As someone once said, when we point a (accusatory) finger at someone else, there are always four fingers pointing back at us.

How often has God been gracious to you and me? Ought we not to strive and treat our fellow man likewise, regardless of the “sin,” or pseudo-sin, we perceive them as being guilty of? But when our self-righteousness gets in the way, the truth of the matter is often very different, isn’t it?

That was the ultimate problem of the Scribes and Pharisees when they brought the woman to Jesus, but often it’s the ultimate problem with you and me as well. Thankfully at this point, I recognize that I have four fingers pointed back at me, and as such, I speak now primarily to myself: What about you, Will, are you really sinless enough to cast that first stone? Really? Hmm, I wonder.

Truth be known, I think I have some apologizing to do.

Finally, Consider This:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1; NIV)

“The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.” (1 Timothy 2: 1-2; The Message)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Jesus; Matthew 5: 43-48; ESV)

I didn’t put that in the Bible; God did. Maybe it’s important.

Maybe, just maybe, no matter what we think of Trump (or any other political leader for that matter), he (or she) has been placed there by God in order to carry out God’s purposes, be they good, or be they evil; be they to bless the nation, or be they to curse the nation. Remember the Assyrians of old? As evil as a nation that they were, they were sent by God to the walls of Jerusalem to carry out God’s judgment on a sinful and evil and obstinate nation of Israel. What if God were once again raising a leader to punish a nation? What if this time it was America, or Canada, or __________ (insert your native country here).

Am I suggesting that I am a Donald Trump supporter? Not for a second! How about Canadian politics; am I a Justin Trudeau supporter? Not for even a fraction of a second! How about in my home province of Alberta? Do I support Premier Notley? Nope; as far as political leaders go, in my humble opinion, she’s probably the worst yet! Still, the bottom line is, we are called to pray for our leaders as opposed to cursing them. And the funny thing is, if I genuinely and earnestly pray for someone that I have a hard time appreciating, be it a political leader or some other “enemy,” my attitude toward them inevitably begins to soften. When was the last time you prayed for a political leader that you don’t agree with? Let’s be honest! I thought so! But I’m no better.

Got an enemy? Got a president or political leader you despise? Go ahead and throw those stones, if you must, or pray for them and take Jesus’ approach of raising yourself up from the dirt and saying, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She answered, No one, Lord! And Jesus said, I do not condemn you either. Go on your way and from now on sin no more.” You’ll be the bigger man or woman for it.

Anyways, I’ve rambled on enough; something to think about. Peace.

Photo Credit: Alisdare Hickson; Flickr Creative Commons