On Sunday we discussed two controversial topics: heaven and hell. I think around these two topics there has been so much fuzzy thinking, so much conjecture, so much just silliness sometimes that many people just avoid thinking about them.
Well that’s what we tried to clear up.
We took a look first at heaven, looking at the picture of life painted without sin prior to the fall in Genesis and revealed in Revelation. What we see so clearly is that we will continue to have deep relationships with others, with creation, with tasks and purposes, and most of all, with God. Heaven is not a place where we float around in the clouds, singing songs on harps to Jesus. Heaven is here on earth – where we move, live, and create with God, others, and creation. Heaven is a beautiful continuance of all that is good and worthy in our lives. And it’s a beautiful thing.
N.T. Wright describes it this way:
The redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks, to celebrate and extend the glory of his love.
And that sounds anything but boring.
With that we turned to discussing the doctrine of hell. Now this is a confusing, and unclear doctrine for most people at the best of times. Much of their thinking has been more influence by popular culture, Dante, and poor theology than the actual Biblical account. And something we want to at least acknowledge up front is that there isn’t a lot of Biblical material that deals with this directly. And that much of it is metaphorical. That doesn’t mean hell’s not real, but perhaps not every image is meant to be taken literally (i.e. hell is discussed as a place of darkness and fire – which seem to be mutually exclusive).
So with those provisos we dived into the topic by addressing first and foremost: why do we even need this doctrine?
Many people struggle with the idea of hell, and so I discussed why I still believe we need to retain the doctrine. First, is that I do believe that the theme of hell, and judgment are in scripture. Secondly, that God honors free will. And thirdly, that justice requires putting things right.
So I want to expand on the idea that God honors free will. I don’t believe in what’s called “universalism” (that everyone gets to heaven), because I believe in free will. I believe that God, out of love, created us with free will. Which means we are free to reject God, and even reject heaven if we choose. And I don’t believe that God will override that free choice. Robert Farrar Capon writes,
Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.
Also I believe in justice, so I also believe in the necessity of hell. I don’t believe that justice can just pretend that evil doesn’t have consequences. I believe in hell because I believe that ultimately true and deep evil needs to be confronted and made right. Part of that making right is there being justice for the victims and oppressed in the world. And in this then we need to be clear – God does not torture. As Michael Bird shares, “Hell is about justice, not torture”. And I think that Dale Allison gets to the heart of why my view of justice entails some doctrine of hell by writing this:
I do not know what befell Mother Theresa of Calcutta when she died, nor what has become of Joseph Stalin. But the same thing cannot have come upon both. If there is any moral rhyme or reason in the universe, all human beings cannot be equally well off as soon as they breathe their last and wake again.
Or as N. T. Wright comments:
I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, the murder of children and careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own.
And I’ll close my thoughts on hell with this quote from Daniel Migilore:
Hell is not an arbitrary divine punishment at the end of history. It is not the final retaliation of a vindictive deity. Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God.
And I think that’s true. You don’t miss heaven by a bit, but by a constant and consistent refusal of the love and person of God.
So that’s what we looked at. It was a tough sermon, but I think one that will for sure spur more thinking and discussing. And certainly there are lots of other views out there. What I think is really important though is to be sure on what you personally believe. I think the hard doctrines and big ideas deserve thought and aren’t to be swept under the rug.
We ended with a reminder that the main point was that in the end all will be made right. That’s the purpose we are heading towards – a world put to right. A world that is finally fixed from evil, sin, and destruction. A world we live on in full communion with God, others, and creation.
We gave three simple little practical points with this to close. To focus on loving and not judging. Focus on sharing Jesus, not figuring out the details. We should be encouraged, it will end right. These are some practical ways that this should actually affect us. We should focus on loving and not judging who is in or out. We should be focused on sharing Jesus, not just debating details to death. And we should be encouraged that no matter what we see in the end God will make it right.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts: it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No sermon says that all should be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and dot the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master builder and the work. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are the prophets of a future that is not our own. Archbishop Oscar Romero
Big Idea: That in the end all will be made right
- Heaven isn’t just a heavenly location but the place where God’s reign is full and comprehensive.
- Heaven is a place where we have this clear, immediate, and personal connection with God.
- The redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks, to celebrate and extend the glory of his love. N.T. Wright
- “There is more to heaven than clouds, angels, and elevator music”. Michael Bird
- The necessity of hell: free will and justice.
“Hell is about justice, not torture”. Michael Bird
- Hell is not an arbitrary divine punishment at the end of history. It is not the final retaliation of a vindictive deity. Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God. Daniel Migilore
- We need to focus on loving not judging.
- Focus on sharing Jesus, not figuring out the details.
- We should be encouraged it will end right.
Adult Discussion Questions:
What stuck out to you from the sermon? What was challenging to you? How did God speak to you through it? What was new? What lingering questions do you have about heaven or hell? Who can help you to wrestle through them? What you most looking forward to with heaven?
Discussion Questions for Young Families
Today talk to your kids about heaven and what it’s like. Talk about how we’ll have friendships, relationships, and tasks in heaven. Talk about how best of all we’ll have a relationship with God that is deeper and fuller than anything else.
Challenge for the Week: Keep being faithful to God.