Rob Bell has given me months of material to chew on in his book 'Love Wins'. Yesterday Francis Chan's book, 'erasing hell', arrived at our house. My wife ordered it to read one of the many rebuttal's to Bell's book. I'm only a few pages in and already I'm taking issue with his direction. He insists that our understanding of hell and its existence is a life and death issue. He trembles at the thought of tackling this issue because if he gets it wrong that's terrible and if he gets it right it's terrible. The study of hell is not to be taken lightly.
Maybe I'm a simpleton, but the older I get the more convinced I am that nothing about our eternity is dependent on our understanding, intelligence or proper grasp of scripture. Our eternal disposition is wholly and completely in the hands of God. Our salvation has been accomplished by Jesus Christ through his death on the cross. And even though I've taught through the Bible many times over, read it cover to cover and continue to marvel at the things within its pages I have yet to discover, I still don't fully grasp what Jesus did. But I believe he did it. I believe I'm a broken, sinful, fallen human being incapable of achieving perfection by my own effort. I can't by my own will or strength overcome the sin in my life. And if that sin; separates me from God, destroys my ability to be in human relationships, bankrupts me emotionally, ravages me physically and devastates me spiritually then why wouldn't I want to be saved from that? Especially when that salvation comes as a gift freely given by God through the sacrifice of someone other than me...namely, his son...and not through any effort or contribution of my own.
So I don't really need to believe there's a literal hell to know I need to be saved. I don't need images of flames and pitchforks and demons to flee a life of misery and live in the joy God intends for me. Do you? If Francis Chan can prove to you convincingly that there really is a hell where you will spend eternity if you don't accept Jesus will that motivate you to rush into his arms (Jesus, not Francis Chan)? I say 'no'. Based on what I've seen of human behavior, the threat of pain or even actual suffering, isn't enough to turn people from bad habits. Witness the lifelong smoker laying in a hospital bed having just lost a lung to cancer and jonesing for his next cigarette.
Future peril, eternal or otherwise, will never trump current pain as a motivator to find freedom from the effects of sin. Being told there's a hell isn't nearly as powerful as empathizing with someone who's suffering the consequences of a life soaked in sinful behavior and knows they can't bear that pain any longer. Jesus didn't come to save us from hell. He came to save us from sin, death and the power of the devil. All those are current concerns not future threats. Sin and its effects on my life is a current threat to my marriage, my job, my health and my physical well being. Death as final separation from God was the curse visited on me at the time of Adam and Eve's fall and a condition in which all humanity lived until Christ defeated it on the cross. The power the devil has is limited to this world - he is prince of this world, after all - but it is fearsome and he is driven to destroy me. He does it with pleasure, selfishness, isolation and all the temptations of the flesh.
So, again I ask, why is it so important that we understand hell? In my opinion it's much, much, much more important to know, fully and intimately, what God says about loving others, serving those in need, caring for widows and orphans, sharing the resources he's blessed us with to see that pain and suffering on this earth is dealt with. I think it's far more important that we strain ourselves to end hunger, eradicate poverty, provide clean water and secure shelter, and end disease. It's time to stop building multi-million dollar complexes and calling them worship centers. It's time to stop investing countless hours and endless dollars producing thousands of glitzy stage productions every Sunday. It's time to stop threatening people with eternity and start challenging them to live in the present as a light to the world.
And do all of this in the name of Jesus Christ who we represent and who, by his Holy Spirit, moves within all who believe.
If there is any teaching to be done it should be to help people realize that Jesus did not die on the cross to save them from a bad hair day. We are saved from sin, death and the devil so that we might shine the light of Christ's love to those who are still in the grip of sin, death and the devil. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. Care for widows and orphans. These are Biblical injunctions worth our time and attention along with Jesus' greatest command, 'Follow me.' Do this and hell becomes irrelevant no matter what people think.