This post is part 1 in a 7 part series of reflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.
There’s a scene in Bridge to Teribithia (the movie) where May Belle informs Leslie, “If you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.” May Belle’s stance is a blunt but rather accurate summation of most of the sermons and calls to repentance I’ve heard.
If you were to ask 12 year old me why I said a prayer to become a Christian, the answer would’ve largely resembled, well I’d very much like to not get damned to hell for eternity. I’m not here to deny hell outright or tell you I’m not a Christian or something, but this is worth reflecting on. It’s been a year since I wrote my statement of faith in which I discussed hell briefly. When I last looked at the topic, this is where I came out if you’re interested.
Hell is the Ultimate Gotcha!
If someone holds a gun to your head and says they will definitely shoot you unless you do what they say, you just do what they say. Many presentations of “the gospel” are essentially this. Except that instead of a quick and painless death, they’re talking about being horrifically tortured by demons while your skin melts off in a place of darkness and fire. Not only that, you also never get out – so it’s horrific for a hundred million years, and even then you’re not even a hundredth of the way through. With a threat like that at your head, who wouldn’t pray the prayer? Just take listen to Bill Wiese’s incrediby manipulative sales pitch and tell me you aren’t ready to get on your knees and pray whatever prayer it takes! It’s not about the way of Jesus or even heaven – it’s just about not going to hell! The comment section on YouTube is just people typing out pleas for mercy because they don’t want to go to hell either. Can you get saved in a YouTube comment section?
If we didn’t have the hell card, we’d be forced to work a lot harder at articulating the gospel at summer camp, VBS, on the street, in church, and such. What does it mean to be a Christian? What is the meaning of the kingdom heaven? How do I take part in it? On a recent episode of the Voxology podcast, Mike Erre asks, what Jesus meant when he told his diciples to share the gospel. “What did he mean by ‘go’? Did he mean engage in lots of awkward conversations to have people pray a prayer about what happens when they die?” I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind. Yet, we’ve put so much energy into the spiel.
Under the conviction that everyone who hasn’t said a prayer asking Jesus into their heart to be their personal saviour will burn in hell for eternity, we are left with the task of getting as many people to pray the prayer as possible before it’s too late! Some even say if believers can’t point to the very day they prayed the prayer, then they can’t be sure they’re “saved.” But that isn’t how Paul talks about salvation. It’s not a box to check off to get salvation in your pocket. It’s described as a process.
Paul says we have been saved (past tense): But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3)
Paul says we are being saved (present tense): For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing (II Corinthians 2)
Paul says we will be saved (future tense): Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5)
The question becomes, what is the gospel message? I’m convinced it’s something we can bear witness to, however it isn’t something we can easily pin down and say this right here is what it is and what it always will be. I think just as much as “repent and be baptized” is a gospel proclamation, so is the prophetic word is Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Lazarus being raised from the dead and the widow recieving justice and the proud being brought low and the rich being sent away empty. These are all pieces of the gospel.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
When someone gets up to share the gospel from the pulpit, or when youth group kids are told to be bold and share the gospel message, it’s pretty rare to hear talk about the rich getting shorted or the poor getting filled or rulers being brought down. But that’s because you can’t distill the gospel in its fullness into a sentence or one conversation.
So our answer to that, since we believe eternal damnation is what’s at stake, is just to make it as simple as possible – we try to master the spiel. The gospel is a sales pitch. And with every head bowed, every eye closed, we thank God for each hand raised who has bought into “the gospel message.” As an admissions counselor who is trained to cover all the high points about a university in a short time period, I’m often struck by how the gospel spiel resembles a pitch for kids to come choose a university.
We love to cite the numbers: we had 17 salvations at VBS last week and 28 baptisms the week before. If the gospel is a salespitch which can be accepted to make sure you don’t go to hell, then a spiel makes sense. I don’t think any of those things are particularly true or very helpful. If the gospel is more than just an abstract understanding about the afterlife, if it’s actually what Mary is talking about in her song, then I think this opens up a lot of avenues for “sharing the gospel.” This requires greater faith. Mike Erre notes in the podcast mentioed above that the church’s job is to be transformed into the image of Christ – it is not for us to transform the world.
Josh Garrels puts it so beautifully in this short clip reflecting on John 6 – the work for God’s people is to believe in the one he has sent. I think this means there is real work required, work to believe in the presence of God in the everyday. If the gospel means the hungry get fed, then could we share the gospel by going to the park and handing out sandwhiches to our neighbors? If the gospel means freedom for the prisoners, could we help inmates with their court cases in confidence it is gospel work? Could we do our jobs as mechanics fixing cars with assurance we are participating in sharing the gospel? I truly think and hope so. Otherwise, we’re left going about our daily lives trying to convince ourselves our work matters, but really we’re looking for any opportunity to “share the gospel,” to interject regular conversations with a spiel about someone not going to hell. And that is just tiring for believers and really annoying to everyone else.
Those Unfortunate Souls
The unfortunate souls – this is where the wrestling really happens for me. I do not reject the concept of hell outright. But I have a lot of discomfort and doubt about how we talk about it and who gets sent there. There are just too many unfortunate souls.
The belief of many Christians is that to go to heaven, you need to accept Jesus and pray the prayer. Or, if you were born before Jesus came to earth, you need to…be an Isrealite. Both in my view are really problematic. Firstly, folks of antiquity didn’t have air travel. So if you weren’t born in Europe or some parts of Asia, there is no way you’re hearing about Jesus unless someone happens just along. There are entire continents of people who just unfortunately will all be damned to hell due to their lack of proximity to Bethlehem and Paul’s missionary journies. That is a serious bummer for them.
And perhaps an even greater bummer is everyone who wasn’t an Israelite before Jesus was on earth. I remember being in a philosophy class and feeling a bit sorry for Socrates – brilliant guy who benefited millions and gave his life to seeking the truth, but he missed Jesus by a few hundred years, and he was Greek, not Jewish. Similarly, I’m reading a book by Thomas Merton (a Christian monk) about the life and teachings of a Chinese philospher in named Chuang Tzu who lived around 300 B.C. This guy was remarkable. He spends his life in search of Tao, which is something like the source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists. But God also put him on earth before Jesus came, and he lived in China. So even though he spent his life in pursuit of truth and virtue, and even though his teachings are deeply influential (even to a Christian guy like Merton), he never got a chance to raise his hand at the end of a service with every head bowed and every eye closed. Bummer.
It really seems like your chances of hearing the gospel speil are increased if 2,000 years ago you were born in Europe. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says something which gives me a lot of hope for guys like Chuang Tzu and a lot of suspicion for the speil verision of the gospel which we place so much importance on.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8)
Sharing the Gospel
Maybe this is the question we should consider. If you couldn’t use fear tactics about hell, how would you share the gospel? I think sharing the gospel means inviting people into a truer, more beautiful story than what we’re handed in the world, and it’s about being transformed. There is no formula per se. It will look differently in different places. It is always about relationship, but here we must say more. It’s not about building relationships just so we earn the right to tell people we’re right and they’re wrong, and that they need to believe what we believe. This is manipulative and just an outworking of the spiel.
We also need to share the gospel with each other, with believers. I think we get pigeonholed into just trying to share the gospel with unbelievers. Yet those among us need to hear continually as well. And if you believe in the spiel, this gets pretty weird. Imagine you walk up to an elder in your church and start laying out for him a five point plan of salvation, telling him the way to be saved, and asking him if he would like to repeat the sinner’s prayer. That would be weird, and he’d be like uh, I’m already saved, but thanks. But if the gospel is more than a spiel, then it might look like walking up to your church elder and telling her, I’d love to have you over for a meal to celebrate your birthday. Or walking up to a person on a street corner and giving to them a sandwhich, because the good news of the gospel is that the hungry get fed. And the gospel is that others care for me, that my mother loved me and my father taught me to play baseball and that my friend flew out to visit me. We must not neglect to share the good news with one another.
I think sharing the gospel is great. But I am wrestling with what that means. I don’t think it can be formulated or done in one sentance. I kind of hate the spiel. The spiel makes me very uncomfortable. It’s also very uncomfortable to think about folks getting sent to hell to be eternally tormented or annihilated (but especially tormented) because they never heard the spiel or said yes to it. In my reading for my statement of faith, I came across one author who said something like: If God indeed desires all to be saved, might there be a possibility that in the end his will is accomplished? (Romans 5:18). And while I find that a very interesting idea, I am not convinced everyone is saved in the end.
The Ugliness of Hell
It is difficult for me to imagine the same God who in this life desires reconciliation and restoration will desire eternal torment in the next. I’m reminded of those who are sent to prison punitively, where there is no thought of their restoration to society, only paying for crimes in some abstract way. The way we speak of hell reminds me, as a therapist in training, as a place of unending, inescapable trauma. It’s a place where you can never heal or find any respite for your misery – you are left to languish there forever like prisoners sentenced to rot in prison until they die. I’ve been in prisons and watched old men playing cards next to their walkers, waiting to die. There’s no hope of reintegration or restoration.
If God so desires reconcilation, healing, rest, the broken being restored in this life, how is it those things are thrown out in the life to come? Forgive me for being blunt – prescribing hell (physical pain, social isolation, and no hope of any recovery) seems sadistic. Many people who commit crimes in this life do so because of crimes done to them or traumas they experienced. A fate of unedning trauma and torture of the worst kind in hell seems an odd way to resolve the arc of a broken life on earth.
This has been a rather long reflection, but I’d like to offer one more thought here. This was an idea that struck me a few months ago. Much is made of the question, What is the fate of those who never heard the gospel (or the name of Jesus)?
What if our answer to this question is the answer to our own personal fate? If you honestly think that every person who doesn’t get a chance to hear the name of Jesus will be damned to hell, perhaps there isn’t much hope for you either. Who’s to say you have heard the authentic gospel? Who’s to say your church preacher told you everything you needed, or your Bible reading produced all the correct conclusions, or your profession of faith came from a sincere heart of repentance? Perhaps you are the one who has not properly heard and believed the gospel message. Or if our answer to the question is that God is merciful and desires to save, and that anyone who seeks for him will find him, then perhaps you too in all your bumbling will find grace as well and be saved.
Last night, Aleisha and I went to the AMC down town and watched Where the Crawdads Sing. There’s a scene towards the end where the girl being accused of murder, an outsider, tells her lawyer she will not take the stand to defend herself. She says that when the jury of townspeople judges her, they judge themselves, because they know nothing about her. I wonder if we, in our judegements of others and proclamation of their fate, condemn ourselves.