Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Brighter Side of Hell

During my four part series on hell, eternal punishment has taken quite a beating from myself and the other bloggers who visit here (yes, pun intended). So now it's time to reflect. Is there any type of hell that you wouldn't object to? Or even a hell you would like to see remain in the picture? It certainly has staying power. And many continue to hold on tightly. Maybe there are good reasons. Especially if entrance into hell has to do with works, it can give us a sense of ultimate justice in this world. And I for one do long for justice when I see some of the horrific ways human beings treat each other. So maybe there's actually a place in my mind for some sort of works based judgement system that extends punishment commensurate with the crime. However, this does make me nervous when I reflect on my own imperfections. It's so hard to construct a system of punishment I'd actually want to apply to myself.

I think hell has been used to corral and control the masses to greater and lesser extents by the church. The ultimate behavior modification system. We may use the threat of hell on ourselves, worrying we need such external controls to keep ourselves in line. Perhaps at times it does make a difference? 

And what if Christianity dropped hell from its doctrine? Would Christianity suffer in any way? Why does Christianity hold on so tightly to hell? When I began to question hell, I also had to question the need for a savior. If Jesus' death doesn't save us from hell, then what is it's purpose? Does Jesus' importance or value diminish if there is no eternal torment from which to save us?  Does Christianity actually turn on the gates of hell?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mythbusters: Hell is Overcrowded

Finally I am coming to the fourth sermon in the series on hell preached by my minister. In this sermon he spends time answering the objection that too many people are destined to hell. In essence, his argument is that naming Jesus as the only path of salvation is actually the most inclusive option for God. He offers two primary supports for this position. First, compared to salvation by our deeds, salvation through faith in Jesus offers everyone a chance at salvation, regardless of their ability to be good. Here is a quote from his sermon:

(Timothy)  Keller is saying that most people believe that the most generous and inclusive way to think about the chair to heaven is to think that any good person can sit in the chair.  The way to the chair is to live a good life.  No matter your religion, if you live a good life, you’re in the chair.  But here’s the problem with that—what about those of us who don’t live a good life?  I can’t speak for you, but I can confess about myself—there’s a lot, an awful lot, about me that is not good.  There’s a lot in my life that is pure evil.  That means that I don’t have a shot at this chair.  Only the people who live a good life have a shot.  The rest of us are left out.  That doesn’t seem very inclusive at all.

But here’s what God’s done.  God’s said, “You know what, goodness is not going to carry the day.  Grace is.  So here’s how this is going to work—anyone, good or bad, can sit in this chair.  Anyone—moral or immoral—can sit in this chair.  I don’t care what your gender is, what your race is, or what your income is.  And I especially don’t care what your moral record is.  I don’t care if you’re a prostitute or the President.  If you want to, you can sit in this chair.”  I want everyone right now to raise your hand.  You can sit in this chair.  And God finishes, “The only thing I ask is, you let Jesus lead you here.  He alone has made it possible for you to sit here.”

My minister's second supporting argument is that God has done absolutely everything he could have done to bring all to salvation through Jesus. Again, another quote from his sermon:

Some may think that God’s intolerant for making salvation dependent upon Jesus.  But what more could God have done to create a way for all people to have heaven rather than hell?  What greater price could God have paid?  What greater sacrifice could God have given? If that’s not the action of a God who loves all and wants all to be saved, I can’t imagine what more it would take.  We don’t have to make God sound more loving by pretending that God’s going to save everyone whether or not Jesus is in their picture.  If we want to make God sound loving, Jesus is the only picture we need.  The cross shows how desperate God is to make sure that we, and every person, does not spend eternity in hell.  There is nothing more God could have done to fill that chair.  And you can bet that the God who went to such great lengths on the cross will go to similar lengths to give every person on this planet every possible chance to respond to that cross.

In response, I must say I agree that in theory, a model of salvation based on grace has the ability to bring more people to salvation than one based on deeds. And further, if Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity, then God has found a way to save everyone at cost to Himself. However, in the churches of Christ, you really don't discuss salvation for long before moral behavior does enter the equation. There seems to be a hybrid grace/works model that we have adopted. Usually, it is framed in terms of "I will show you my faith by my works." This allows for works to be important without them technically counting towards salvation.

I confess that I still don't understand why faith must be relevant to salvation at all, if grace saves us. Why can't grace just, well, save us? Without us asking Jesus to lead us to the "chair" of salvation? And it's one thing to assert that "the God who went to such great lengths on the cross will go to similar lengths to give every person on this planet every possible chance to respond to that cross." However, where's the evidence for it? When we basically see entire countries of people living according to a Jesus-free religion, why should we maintain that they've been given every possible chance to respond to that cross, particularly when they've never heard of it? Or associate it with infidels trying to destroy them? Or find the whole Christian religion to be foreign to their worldview? And this says nothing of people raised in a Christian culture, who nonetheless reject it based on any number of factors predisposing them to disbelief and wariness of the Christian religion. Maybe what I'm saying is that even if God somehow gave everyone a chance to "respond to the cross", not everyone would be able to do so, given their culture, background, personality, experiences, etc. And if it's impossible for everyone to "respond to the cross", where's the grace in that?