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)

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