I love listening in on the conversation my son has with some of his friends and acquaintances on Facebook. The only time I get to do this is when he reads various posts out loud to me or when his friends comment on his status updates and it turns into a debate. Recently I caught a discussion on the idea of what would make it so a person “deserved” hell.
Now, we are often quick to say we do not deserve heaven (but thanks be to God He sent Jesus so we can get there). I completely understand and embrace that particular train of thought. Nothing I have done, including birthing five of the best children on the planet, earns me a place in heaven. But, why then do we seem to think what we do (or do not do) deserves hell?
When I actually stop to think about it I have to admit, I have a bit of a “works” mentality. “I just did three loads of laundry–I deserve a doughnut, or flavored creamer in my coffee, or…” I was raised on works. Growing up I heard phrases like: “You get what you pay for” or “You made your bed, now you have to lay in it” or “If you work hard enough you’ll get a good grade on that project” all the time. If a teacher was not spouting this wisdom then my parents were. And, even though I knew better (by grace not works you are saved and God loved us even while we were sinners and His love is unconditional), I still transfered a works relationship over to God. What makes my heavenly Father different from my earthly father, anyway?
Now there’s a question to ponder. And if you think about it long enough it’s not so different from the “what makes us think we deserve hell” question. The truth is, we have fashioned our God after our fathers (both spiritual and physical). If our earthly dads are legalistic so is God. If they are works and rewards oriented so is God. If they’d just as soon slap you down as look at you well… It can start to look pretty ugly up there in heaven. Our tit for tat, earning and deserving, “I’m just waiting for you to mess up” kind of thinking messes with the doctrine of unconditional love. And, we start thinking in terms of “some one has got to pay”.
So many people who believe in the doctrine of hell tell me they do so because God is just. Well, I say if God is just and therefore we have hell then no way in hell would any of us end up in heaven. Seriously, how crazy is it to think that a just God would say, “Okay, if you believe I sent my Son to die in your place then you get into heaven but if you don’t well burn in hell forever.” Have you ever been burned? It hurts. A lot. Can you imagine leaving your child’s finger in the flame for one minute let alone eternity? How is that justice? When I ask my friends who believe in hell this question they usually say something a long the lines of, “Uhh, I don’t know. But, He’s just and…the Bible says and well,…His ways are higher than our ways.” I do not mind telling you, that kind of thinking makes my brain hurt.
Rather than trying to scare the hell out of people with talk of eternal damnation why do we not try naming the good within them? In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus told his listeners that whatever they did for the least of these they did for Him. To me this parable tells us that even if we do not know we are working for God when we do good we serve God. In Acts 17 Paul told the men of Athens that what they worshipped as unknown he knew and he went on to tell them about Jesus. Why make witnessing about the love and presence of God so complicated? He is good. He is grace. He is love. His fruit in our lives is peace and patience and joy and self-control, kindness and gentleness and love, even if we do not yet know His name.