(Photo courtesy of Photonopticum)
This is the thirteenth part of a series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts. This post is adopted for two previous posts I have written on hell
The story of Abraham is a curious one.
Though he was called out by God to enter into a special covenant that would lead to him becoming the father of the world’s three major faiths, he was a deeply flawed man who was constantly screwing things up.
However, what I find particularly curious about Abraham is not what we read in his story, but what’s missing.
There is no mention of hell anywhere in the story of Abraham and his famous covenantal relationship with God.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “there are plenty of stories in the Bible that don’t mention hell.” That is true. But as Evangelical Christians this should be a bit of a problem, for we lean heavily on the fear of hell in our salvation pitch, every bit as much or more than we do the everlasting arms of Jesus.
So much so, that I often wonder if we’re more not afraid of hell than we are in love with Jesus.
The gospel pitch that we give and have been giving for generations is that sinners should “come to Jesus” or “believe in God” so that they won’t burn in hell. It’s that fear of eternal torment that pushes people into what the Bible would call a new covenant relationship with God.
Yet, hell plays no role whatsoever in the story of Abraham “believing in God” and then entering into a covenantal relationship with that God. It is because God first chose him, blessed him, and took care of him that Abraham chose to follow God, not because he feared that God would torment him in hell for all eternity if he didn’t accept God’s offer.
In fact, such fear of eternity in hell has no role whatsoever in any of the Old Testament characters and their relationship with God. Instead, it is their love for God, never their fear of hell, that drives them to worship, devotion, and faithfulness.
Such timing, though, is out of sequence for the modern Evangelical gospel. According to the Evangelical gospel the foremost reason to “come to Jesus” is not because Jesus first loved us, but so that God won’t send us to hell. We may tell people they should love God because Jesus saved them from hell, but it is that fear of hell that is supposed to spur our love. We can “love” God only because we have “faith” that God won’t be sending us to hell.
It’s this gospel that gives rise to the fiery church services and turn or burn preaching that so many of us are so used to. It’s this gospel that leads us down to the altar, over and over again, to “give our hearts to Jesus” in order to ensure our eternal destination. It’s this gospel that rips the church apart at her theological seams out of fear that believing the wrong doctrines will anger God and sentence us to an eternity in hell.
But is this gospel of fear really “good news”?
Or perhaps, in light of the story of Abraham, the real question is “Is this gospel of fear even necessary?”
I’m not sure that it is.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s not.
Fear of hell is certainly a powerful weapon to wield in the crusade to “win” converts. It’s brutally efficient in its ability to slash deep down into our innermost fears. But if that is what spurs us to “faith,” then our faith isn’t really faith at all.
Abraham didn’t come to faith in God because God showed up one day and told Abraham he was going to hell if he didn’t enter into a covenant with God. Abraham came to faith in God because God first loved Abraham. It wasn’t fear of hell that drove Abraham to the sacrificial altar. It was love for a God who didn’t have any reason to love and bless Abraham, but chose to do so anyway.
To me this is a God truly worth worshiping. To me this is a God to enter into covenant with because this God stands ready to bless, not to damn. To me this is the God who “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
But what about if choose to not enter into that covenant? What if we choose not to worship that God?
What happens then?
Do we burn in eternal torment for all eternity?
To answer that, I think we need to look at another Old Testament character – Adam.
In my Blogmatics post on sin I talked about how I understand sin as an act of idolatry in which we try to put ourselves, mere creatures, in the place of our Creator as lords of our own lives. When we do that, like an emancipated child we strike out on our own and sever our relationship with God. Or to put it in Abrahamic terms we break our covenant with God, a covenant that for us, much like it was for Abraham, is the source of life.
This severing from the source of life puts us on the path to death.
In my Blogmatics post about salvation, I talked about how I believe Jesus saves us, not from Satan or even from hell, but from ourselves and from the inevitable death that comes from self-worship and life apart from God.
I believe this is why the New Testament appeals so much to resurrection. Jesus’ invitation in the gospels, like Paul’s challenge in the epistles, is not just a get out of hell free card as if the eternal destination options are life in heaven or life in hell. Rather, Jesus beckons us to accept his offer of life and reject our pursuit of death.
For Jesus, the so-called “new Adam,” the eternal options were the same as they were for the old Adam – life or death. Through Jesus’ doxological life, death, and resurrection, his life of worship opens the door for us to experience eternal life. Apart from that new source of life, there is only death. In just the same way that without being able to continue to eat from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve faced death, if we choose not to eat the bread and drink the cup we are offered from our Lord we too will suffer death.
And therein, lies the problem with our “need” for hell in our evangelical salvation pitch.
Based on what I see in Jesus’ teaching in the gospel and what I read in Paul’s epistles, I believe we face death apart from God, not life in eternal torment. If hell is separation from God, and that certainly seems to be how it is described both in the gospels and even in Revelation, then hell is death because there is no life apart from God.
Otherwise, for us to remain essentially alive in eternal conscious torment, God would have to me the one maintaining that life and to me, not only does eternal punishment for finite sins seem grossly unjust, but a God that sustains life simply for the sake of suffering and torture seems to me like an incredibly wicked, vindictive, and persevere God.
A God altogether different than the Jesus we encounter in the gospels.
As Paul says in Romans, the consequence of sin is death – not eternal torture. This is exactly in keeping with the Old Adam vs. New Adam motif that Paul uses 2 chapters later in Romans while simultaneously maintaing the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” language Jesus uses to describe the final judgment. For certainly there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when one discovers they face death.
In other words, I do not believe that there are 2 different resurrections: a resurrection to eternal life in heaven and a resurrection to eternal life in hell. I believe there is only one resurrection unto everlasting life or there is death. And if that is true, then we need not appeal to eternal torment for we are not saved from the grip of the devil or ceaseless torture, but from the death that comes from our own delusion of self-worship.
The good news of the gospel, then, is not a get out of hell free card, but God’s gift of eternal life to people who deserved death.
I believe this is a much richer, a much more hopeful, and a much more Biblically faithful gospel message than the turn or burn gospel we have for so long proclaimed.
That said, I do not believe whatsoever that we should cease warning people about the consequences of sin or the death that awaits us should we choose to reject the Source of Life.
However, I do believe that first and foremost we should be proclaiming a God who’s love drives out fear, not a God who drives our fear to another level through the threat of eternal torture. It is this sort of God whose fundamental nature of love, not wrath, compels God to incarnate that love in the form of Jesus, so that creation, though it sought death through its own self-worship, might have the chance to live forever with the very Creator who stands ready to welcome humanity back with open arms despite our never-ending attempts to usurp the heavenly throne.
That is love.
That is grace.
That is forgiveness.
That is salvation.
And that, I believe, is the good news of the gospel.
Grace and peace,
***I updated this post with a couple of sentences to clarify why I think eternal conscious torment is problematic.***