There has been much discussion lately around this idea of hell. Readers have reached out to me on numerous occasions asking me the same question: do you think hell is a real place? I can almost hear the fear resounding in their words as they painfully type the question…
It’s the question from congregants that even causes pastors to squirm: what about my loved ones or family members who don’t attend church or who don’t believe like we do – will they go to hell??
These are the moments I think all of us wish Jesus were here to clarify – to set the record straight so we could be on the same page once and for all. But, the truth is, on this side of eternity no one really knows for sure.
Of course, many say they do and I suppose that is good and well.
But, until they have lived (or died) and seen both heaven and hell and can testify to their truths, I suppose many of us are left with our humanity and the glimpses we have of the Divine speaking to us in the midst of our fear, religion and overall human ideology.
Hell was the primary selling point in my youth.
During church, youth meetings and of course printed on tracks that we handed out to unsuspecting people on the street during outreaches. And, those tracks got the message across – loud and clear – hell was real. And you were certainly going to end up there unless you said a certain prayer and committed your life to Jesus.
Black and white.
No in between.
You’re a sinner deserving to go to hell.
But, God is loving so he punished Jesus instead of you.
ACCEPT THIS ETERNAL GIFT OR BURN FOREVER
Let there be no mistake, I (like everyone else who heard that message) was determined to do the right thing and NOT go to hell. I embraced this and clung to it for dear life, because honestly it scared the living tar out of me to do (or think) differently.
But, then I grew older…I lived some life and I started asking some hard questions:
What about my family who doesn’t believe like me? Family who is good and kind and more loving than some of my fellow “Christians”? What about my extended family who were raised Buddhist? What about them? Are they all damned to suffer eternally?
I’ll be honest with you, this was a major road block for me. And it hit especially hard on two occasions: when I got married and when I became a parent.
Let me explain:
I am going to be very candid. I love Jesus. And if you’ve followed my work, you know there is a survivalistic life-line of connection to him that I have clung to my entire life.
Before I married, I was told to view God as my husband…which I sincerely did and continued to even after I married. But, one day it dawned on me – if I’m to view God as my husband, and accept the hell clause – then that means he’s the type of groom who would say, “choose to marry me or I’ll set you on fire forever”.
I will never forget that striking image – and as a woman who has faced abusive men square in the eye, I can tell you that picture upset me deeply.
(I told you I was going to be candid)
And then I became a parent.
I have especially loved the connection I have with God as my Father – one that scripture says is even BETTER than any good earthly father. Once becoming a parent myself, I began to identify a bit with the parent nature of God – a nature I strive to be like. And, yet, to accept the hell clause I would have to imagine God as the kind of parent who would allow his child to “choose” to walk into a burning furnace for eternity.
As a mom, this shook me.
Never. In. A. Million. Years. Could I do that.
It goes against all good, Godly parental instinct.
My parent heart completely comes undone just at the thought of it. And, yet, here we are – God’s offspring – sharing this planet, pointing the finger at one another and saying that our good daddy in heaven is ready and waiting to separate us and send some of us to burn.
It was and continues to be a very difficult concept for me to embrace.
However, I recognize not everyone looks at it that way.
I’ve known people who quickly wrote off their unbelieving family members, children, parents, etc because they believed that those people had “chosen” to reject God and go to hell. They removed any relationship with them outside of trying to convert them. Families were divided, people were hurt – it was brutal to witness.
This has been something I have wrestled with at length – as the person sitting in the pew and as the person teaching behind the pulpit.
I HAVE STRUGGLED.
I have struggled to believe that the God I know would reject anyone – even if they rejected him first. I have struggled to see that idea in how God interacts with me personally or in the picture displayed during Jesus’ life on earth.
But I said before, there are two sides of this conversation.
Honestly, both have convincing points:
On one side you have those who point to the 12 times the New Testament references “hell”. That alone seems like a compelling argument.
On the other side, you have those who look into the text and point out that Jesus chose to use the word Gehenna when he referenced hell (11 of those times in the New Testament). But why is that important? Well, some argue that it’s important because Gehenna was a literal place. It is known as the “valley of Hinnom” which is a deep narrow valley just outside of Jerusalem.
Many horrid events happened at Gehenna: child sacrifice just for starters. The valley became a dump for the city sewage and refuse. It burned continually to destroy the garbage and was full of worms and maggots. It is no wonder why those in Biblical times often referred to this as a symbol (or place) of punishment.
This is the primary argument as to why many have come to believe hell is not an eternal destination, but instead was a literal place during Jesus’ time that he merely referenced to make a point. Still, many cling to the belief that it is an eternal destination.
So be it.
It is not my intent to argue either of these points. I merely wanted to be honest about my journey with this topic and my wrestling with it. However, I want to get back to the original question I started with: what did Jesus really save us from?
I ask this because, ironically, Jesus didn’t really talk about hell all that much when he interacted with people. He seemed more interested in their present lives then he did on where they were going next.
We see a large focus on eternity inside the minds of the humans around him (ie: his disciples, the Pharisees and even the man hanging on the cross next to him) But, Jesus himself, did not seem to center his ministry around surrender-your-life-to-me-or-else speeches.
Jesus seemed more interested in how they loved each other, treated their neighbors and continually fought to help them not judge each other.
Well, if this was his standard….we, in the church, have a long way to go.
Having that said, I will leave you with my answer to one of my readers when they asked me this question: what do you believe Jesus saved us from?
I believe Jesus saved us from a wretched misunderstood view of God. Whether that means actual saving from a literal hell or a figurative hell, many will probably continue to debate. For me personally, I hold onto Jesus’ words that said: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand – meaning it’s all here and now. So, I try to stay present in what he has (and is) saving me from right here and now. Typically, that saving looks like:
Realizing that I’m enough.
That I matter.
That I’m worth being loved.
That God is actually kind.
That God is really, really good and he loves and accepts me endlessly.
This is how Jesus has (and continues to) save me.
PS: if you’re interested in hearing myself and pastor Jim Lee (therapist and counselor) discuss church/religious hurt and overall how trauma unknowingly affects our daily behavior, listen in on this podcast episode here.