What did Jesus save us from? The reality of hell

This is passion week, when we are supposed to focus on Jesus’ last days and sacrifice for us. This post has been in the works for a long time. It’s hard to talk about hell, but isn’t it just as important to know what we are saved from as knowing how we are saved?

Jesus talked more about hell than any other person in the Bible. Does that shock you a little? It certainly surprised me. Isn’t Jesus all about love and forgiveness?

22As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. 24And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

This passage from Isaiah contains both beautiful promises for Israel and her descendants and also dire warnings for God’s enemies. Jesus uses some of the same language about the undying worm when he speaks about hell.

Mark 9:43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

I’m going to quote several passages here. If you don’t want to read them all, you can skip to the commentary, but I want to emphasize that this wasn’t’ just a occasional theme in Jesus’ teaching.
Matt 7: 13 Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matt 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matt 25:1-13  “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Luke 13:22-30 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’  “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

I could go on for several more pages of verses where Jesus talked about hell and judgment. I touched on this a bit in my last post, but it seems really odd to me when people say they love Jesus but don’t believe he would exclude anyone. Or that they don’t believe in hell because Jesus is all about forgiveness. Well, yes, he is about forgiveness, for those who ask, but these verses make it pretty plain that many will not ask and will be excluded from the Kingdom.

Hell makes us squirm, for a couple of reasons, I think. First, we know deep down that we don’t deserve paradise. We know we can be selfish and ugly and evil. But, hopefully it’s not just for ourselves that we dislike hell. We don’t want anyone we love to go there either. And thankfully, Jesus agrees. He is not willing that any should perish. At the same time, he warns us that many will. You might think of it this way: God is at least as merciful as you are and probably a lot more so. Would you pardon a mass murderer just because he confessed and repented? I don’t know that I would, but I’m convinced God would. I suspect there are a whole lot of people I’m not willing to die for. But Jesus died for every one of them. Whether they accept that is another question.

Think of the woman who was able to pity her molester. Doesn’t that leave you rather slack jawed with awe? I would at least want to beat him with a baseball bat. Only a little bit, of course. To say “Father forgive them.” while you are still hanging from the nails they pounded through your wrists? That is the heart of God.

The hell”, I can hear the skeptic saying. “If they don’t turn, he’s going to burn them!”

So, there’s the rub. You don’t like the fact that forgiveness has a condition? That we only get redemption at the price of what? Our pride of course. What else would you expect it to be? Pride is always the root of evil.

On the day you were born, you were looking for hope, you looked everywhere but the end of your rope.” (Chris Taylor)

Yep, there it is. That’s the condition. As long as we think we can fix it ourselves, we are doomed to reject God.

Only a miracle can keep you with us,” Taylor goes on. “and only pride can keep you out.”

You have to let it go. Every time we lay aside our pride and get humble, God is waiting to forgive us. Not some of the time, every time. Every time we hang on to our stubborn pride and willful arrogance, we trample his blood. It’s a condition but it’s a tiny one. Or a huge one, depending on your point of view. It’s only our ego, which is no problem to let go, unless it’s all we have. We tend to think our ego is us, but it isn’t really. It’s often the thing that limits us from moving forward.

Have you ever heard some say:

What the hell do I care?”

Can you see the irony? Because avoiding hell is all about caring. Caring enough about your soul to let go of all the garbage that stands between you and God. And when I write this stuff, I have to admit it’s not primarily for everyone else to read. It starts as my own therapy session, to get my head on straight. Giving in to God isn’t a one time deal. It’s that and more. A lot of Christian traditions, like the Orthodox, do not see salvation so much as a one time prayer as a lifestyle, because they view God as present in every aspect of life. And it’s true that you have to give up on your pride over and over again to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God.

If hell seems a little extreme to us, we probably aren’t taking evil very seriously, whether it’s our own evil or someone elses. I suppose we don’t really think our sin is all that bad, or that somehow God has not done enough to reveal himself to people. In other words, we judge him to be unfair. We secretly or blatantly wonder if he couldn’t just pardon everyone, with no conditions. Believe in everything or believe in nothing and still get paradise. That seems to be the universalist’s bottom line.

Do we want that? Really? Do we really think a non repentant Hitler could stand in the presence of God? That an unrepentant Charles Manson would even want to give worship to the Almighty? But of course, you’re not a Hitler or a Manson. You are just a normal sinner. Of course, Jesus says if you’ve thought it, it’s technically the same thing. Murder in the heart is just as bad, it’s just not acted out for one reason or another. Here’s the thing: if you refuse God’s love and pardon, I don’t think you would want to be in Glory. Because without love, we are just left with ego and selfish ambition. I don’t see how heaven can exist for the person who rejects such great love. Heaven would be hell for them. To be in the holy of holies and still hold onto your unholy pride? I think God’s presence would burn instead of soothe.

And of course, if you have any sense of justice, any iota of mercy for the victims of hate in this world, you would not want them to see the faces of their unrepentant tormentors forever. God separates the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, because they can’t grow together for eternity. There’s a time when it’s too late for a goat to become a sheep. That’s what this life is for. And there can actually be a great deal of comfort in knowing that evil will finally get it’s due. That you will no longer be at war with yourself and that we will “Shed the sins and sorrows we’ve carried all these years.” What a beautiful picture, this throwing off of all the weight that bows us down, all the struggles, all the sins that we still cling to. The tormentors become the tormented. That is justice, not hate. It’s not God being a bully, it’s him giving us exactly what we acted like we wanted. Hell isn’t so scary when viewed from this perspective. It’s the inevitable end to a story that starts with a dragon sneaking into Eden and stealing our innocence. For Eden to return, the dragon and all that have his heart must be banished. Only then is balance restored, justice served, and love can reign unhindered.

So, I’ve said all this and not really answered the question of what hell looks like. I’m not sure I’m qualified to give a total answer, but: Johnathan Edwards was convinced that hellfire had to be literal to hurt. But how could hell, being prepared for spirit beings, the devil and his angels, be literal fire? And wouldn’t fire just burn you up and that would be the end of it? The actual descriptions Jesus gives for hell vary a bit. A place outside of the wedding feast, a dark place, or a firely place or a place where the worm doesn’t die. A junk heap where fire always smokes and smolders. I think the most disturbing picture, if you really think about it, is that God is inside with the folks at the feast and you are outside, out of his presence. That might not sound so bad unless you realize that you have never been outside his presence anywhere on earth. Now, I know I already said that God is everywhere present. And there is some debate as to whether God can be truly absent from anyplace that exists. But, at the least, I think it’s safe to say that he removes all the good that results from his actions. On this earth, even the ungodly get cucumbers. (This is kind of a joke I have tossed around in discussions with those who believe Jesus only died for a pre chosen, elect few.) The response is usually that they still get the good things of this world, which is true as far as it goes. But to get fresh cucumbers once in awhile but not the chance to experience redemption is not much comfort. But, in hell, you don’t even get cucumbers. Or love or companionship or comfort or beauty. Or any of the things that make life worth living on this planet. Actual pain from flame that soon burns you up, might seem preferable, but those who see hell as annihilation are really stretching to get there. Maybe that could be a topic for another post. An inner pain of eternal grief over one’s foolishness is more likely the reality.

If you still have the nagging sensation that hell is unfair, perhaps you will consider this:

1John 1: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

No darkness at all. No capacity for wickedness, or cruelty or for being unloving. When we decide to judge God for bringing justice to the world, we decide that God is in someway wicked and that we have the capacity to know better than him what is truly loving. A lot of people try to reinterpret or overlook Jesus’ teaching on hell. The irony is, they are doing exactly what the serpent did in the garden. “Did God really say…”

Would God really wipe out all of humanity because their imaginations were only evil all the time, as happened in Genesis? That’s what scripture says. And it shouldn’t in any way negate the pure, unselfish, merciful love of a God who would lay down his life for all of us. Can you imagine a world where every thought of everyone was always evil? When people flippantly accuse God’s judgment of being unfair, I wonder if they truly think about what kind of world that would be. We think we have seen evil, but never to that extent. We tend to think each generation is the most evil one yet. If you believe your Bible, you can’t logically think that way. Do you even know one person who is totally evil every moment of every day? I can’t say I do. And still, God gave the people an extra 120 years to repent before sending the flood. (at least that’s how I read that verse.) And he is staying his hand today to give people a chance to do the same.

There is a common theme today I see in a lot of blogs and writings, that God looks like Jesus. Always. And I agree, but some of the people who say that will also do their best to pull the teeth of the Lion of Judah. They would see him as never running out of patience and slaying the wicked, no matter what Revelations says. Or never teaching of hell, in spite of the fact that he talked about it more than anyone else in the Bible. If you find parts of the Book hard to understand, rest assured, there is no darkness in him. If he judges people unworthy, then they are past any chance for redemption. If he sends them to the pit, it’s not because he has a dark side, but that he knows their hearts and would protect his own from their corruption. He knows who has ultimately chosen to be fool and who has decided to be a sheep. If you can’t understand his ways, trust his heart. His heart is always good. Perhaps we should all take a moment this week to thank him for what he has saved us from.

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Rachel Svendsen

Reading. Writing. Me.

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