Monday, October 1, 2012

Hell and Compassion

A recent Facebook post about hell posted by a Canadian radio talk show host who is very open about his faltering Christian faith prompted me to write down my thoughts on God and hell. I wanted to respond to his post but hesitated. I've tried to argue his points in the past, along with many others who have more theological training than I do, but lately it seems he is beyond apologetics. It is up to the Holy Spirit to change his mind now, and that is my prayer for him and for all those who have believed the lie that the God of the Bible is a mean and exacting judge.

The God I worship is not an arbitrary, indifferent judge. I don't believe that God "consigns" us to hell. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us plainly that He doesn't want a single person to perish. And John 3:17 says that He sent His son into the world to save us - not to condemn us.  I know from my own experience that we don’t just get one chance to repent and turn from sin. God is continually trying to draw us into a redemptive loving relationship with Himself all throughout our lives, even when we feel far from Him or want nothing to do with Him; even when we are completely immersed in our “sin”.

We've all heard testimonies about dying unbelieving people who've remained alive against all odds until the day they finally repent and give their lives to God; and then, soon after, they die in peace and without the fear of being cast into hell. That happened to the father of a friend of mine just a couple of months ago. God is merciful to the very end and continues to seek us out, just like the black sheep in the painting, and to call us to repentance – which simply means turning around, and moving toward Him – until we take our final breath. And who knows, maybe His mercy extends beyond death?

I've known several people who nearly died and saw terrifying visions of hell. One was a woman I met while ministering in the BC lower mainland prisons. She was an addict, a prostitute, and a thief, who accidentally overdosed when a skid row pharmacist gave her a dose of undiluted methadone. She told me she knew that God had allowed her to see hell because He wanted to give her another chance to live her life differently. He didn't want to send her to hell. He brought her back from the brink of hell and restored her to life so that she could have another umpteenth chance to turn to Him and be saved. This vision changed her life forever and caused her to seek and experience God's love and mercy. She was very gifted prophetically, and uncannily wise, but sadly, her struggles with addiction soon overtook her new-found faith only a few months after she was released from prison. I don’t know where she is today but I still think of her and pray for her often.

Revelation 20:10 says that hell was designed for the devil and his demons, not for mankind. In some translations, the word "hell" is used throughout the Bible in the place of "death" or "hades" which both mean something quite different. (See if you want to read more.) I think that while Jesus did teach and warn people about hell, the Church - as an institution - over the centuries, has distorted His teachings and used the threat of hell to manipulate and control people through fear. Perhaps some translators were influenced by this church policy as well?

Many people who, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, consider themselves safe and secure in their salvation because they are upstanding members of the Church may have a rude surprise awaiting them when they face the Lord on their judgement day. Those who self-righteously point the finger of damnation at sinners, have misrepresented God as a harsh and mean judge, ready to strike down anyone who steps out of line and cast them into hell as punishment for their sins. But which of us has ever lived up to the standard of conduct written for us by God in the Ten Commandments? Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I think those who pronounce damnation over others because of their perceived sin will get the rudest shock of all when they are face to face with the Lord and are called to account for their words and actions and for how they represented Him while on this earth.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7:21-2)

Jesus said to a mob of men who wanted to stone an adulterous woman to death (because that’s what the law said they were to do), "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7) This should be our attitude when we confront sin in the people around us. Jesus had compassion on the woman. "At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:9-11)

Jesus came to represent the Father. When His disciples asked Him to show them the Father, He said, "Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father!" (John 24:9) And, according to Hebrews 1:3, "He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature." If we want to know the true nature of God, we need look no further than the gospel accounts of Jesus ministry and nature.

I have known, personally, the mercy and compassion of the Lord. Twelve years ago, He saw me in my sin (and believe me, it was considerable), but - just like the woman caught in adultery - He loved me so much He didn’t leave me there. He called me out of my life of sin and futility, and He healed me and set me free from fear, and pain, and dysfunction. He gave me peace, and a new life, one with meaning and purpose. This is the God I know! He could have condemned me for the wrongs I had done and consigned me to hell, but instead He showered His love on me. He wanted so much more for me than I believed at the time.

God IS love. Believe it! It’s true! And He is merciful towards sinners. And this sinner is grateful to have known and experienced His love and His kindness in my life. I wish everyone could know how good and kind and tender He is. It’s as easy as opening the door of your heart and inviting Him to come in.

"Look! Here I stand at the door and knock. If you hear me calling and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal as friends.” (Revelation 3:20)

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Revelation and The Light of the Gospel

In the seventies there was a revival called The Jesus Movement that touched many people in North America and even in the small coastal BC town where I lived then, bumper stickers proclaiming, "I found it!" or "Born again!" or something to that effect, were prevalent. I remember laughing in derision at drivers who displayed these proclamations on their cars. I thought they were sadly deluded - and even stupid; that their happy-clappy faith was nothing but a crutch, an escape from the crushing and stark realities of life - which I believed then were the inescapable truth.

I appreciate the irony that I can now count myself among the happy-clappy crowd, even though at that time in my life I probably would rather have died than become one of them. God's mercy and love are so great they are truly unfathomable. He waited patiently, more than twenty years, for me to become humble and broken enough to bow my will to His - and I will be eternally grateful that He did. My life truly began that day in August 2000, when I finally made a decision to turn my will and my life over to His care and let Him be Lord of the rest of my life.

I was reading 2 Corinthians 4 this morning. As I read verses 3-6, I could see that the same "veil" that Paul describes in this ancient letter to the first century church at Corinth covers the spiritual eyes of unbelievers today. That veil was what kept me blind and unable to see the truth for most of my life.

In verse 5 Saint Paul tells us what the stumbling block is that prevents unbelievers from receiving the Light of the Gospel. Just as I did, "the world" sees Christian believers as stupid, arrogant and bigoted because we proclaim that our way is the only way to God, that there is no other true spiritual path. But, as Paul explains, "what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as (their) servants." Yes, we believe that we are priviliged, that we possess knowledge that the rest of the world doesn't know, because God has "shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God..." but having received this knowledge cannot produce arrogance in us. It brings only humility and gratitude because...."we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." (Verse 7)

We are fragile, imperfect vessels; we have done nothing to earn this privilege; we are no different and no better than anyone else. And God uses "jars of clay" so that it will be obvious that the "surpassing power," and the glory, belongs to Him and not to us. That is the reason for our happy-clappy demeanor - we are continually giving thanks and praising God for the wondrous work He has done in our lives. Our gratitude cannot be contained, and it overflows, causing us to gush and to want to proclaim God's goodness to the world.

We know that have not gained this knowledge because of our own intelligence or wisdom - it can come only through revelation: "For God..has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," and it is available to every person who will humble her/himself and seek God - and who beholds the face of Jesus. In that face is love everlasting, love without end, love without condition, love beyond anything you have ever known: pure love that fills every void and heals every hurt.

So, if we seem giddy and foolish, it is because we know that we have this treasure in jars of clay; we know that we are undeserving and unworthy - and yet we have been given the greatest treasure of all, "the knowledge of the glory of God," and the love of His Son, Jesus!

In my Bible (ESV), Jeremiah 29 is called "The Letter to the Exiles", and through it God would speak these words to you, "I know what I'm doing. I have it all planned out - plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I'll listen. When you come looking for me, you'll find me. I'll make sure you won't be disappointed..." (Verses 11-14 from The Message)

So, join us and behold His face. He's watching you - yes you! - with love and anticipation; waiting for you to turn to Him. And I can say in all truth and sincerity - and from my own personal experience - that you will never, ever, regret it. But, just as a word of warning, if you take my advice you just might that you too have become a life-time member of the happy-clappy faith club!

To read 2 Corinthians 4 in The Message go to:

Opening photo courtesy of my son, Jeremy Sean Williams, photographer: