I have something I need to “get off my chest.” As I peruse linked articles on Facebook and Twitter and other places online I see a lot of posts about faith. Many times the articles and posts have to do with warning people about going to hell if they don’t behave a certain way or do certain things or live a certain kind of life. And this disturbs me. It’s not that I don’t believe in hell. But,
I’m not sure if preaching hell is the way to bring folks to heaven.
What I AM sure of is that it’s not the way we live that will keep us from hell. And I am also sure that it’s not MY job to decide who’s going where – that’s way above my pay grade, thank you very much. Some time ago in worship we read the parable of the wheat and weeds (or the wheat and the tares). In this parable Jesus tells us the job of sorting the one from the other belongs to the angels – in other words, NOT you and me (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). You can read my sermon on that text here.
You see, I believe in the power of JESUS. It’s not the way I live that keeps me from hell or earns me heaven. It’s Jesus that accomplishes that. Jesus didn’t die to make us holier than we are now. We don’t have one holy cell in our bodies apart from JESUS. There is no one who can boast in their works and their ability to live as God wants,
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and
“for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Apart from the Bible I’m also influenced by the documents of my faith tradition. In the Augsburg Confession we read,
“…our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace for us….Whoever imagines that he can accomplish this by works, or that he can merit grace, despises Christ and seeks his own way to God, contrary to the gospel”(article XX).
There is NOTHING I can do, absolutely NOTHING, that puts me in any favor with God or brings me close to the gates of heaven.
This is not to say that our actions aren’t important. The way others see us reflects God to them. In the Lutheran baptismal liturgy we present a candle to the baptized with the verse, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) So, do we want others to see God through us by experiencing GRACE or JUDGMENT? Because when the unchurched or non-believers or the “spiritual but not religious” read and hear talk about “you have to be a certain way or you’re going to hell” what they hear is judgment. But this is not the message of Jesus. He didn’t die in order to heap judgment upon us. He sacrificed himself in order that we might receive “grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)
So this is the way I choose to live my life and the way I approach evangelism. When a non-believer walks away from me I don’t want them thinking, “wow, another judgmental Christian telling me I’m going to hell – been there, done that, I’m not interested.” I want them to think, “Why is she being so nice to me? Doesn’t she know how imperfect I am? What’s up with her?” When a person has had an encounter with me, I want them to receive a message of God’s love and grace for them, not hate, not fear, not judgment. (Of course I’m not perfect, and there are plenty of times when I’m sure people have received a message of “less than grace” from me, but that’s why I need grace too!)
In my experience I’ve also found that fear of hell doesn’t really matter to people if they have no hope of heaven. Most people have judged themselves already, they don’t need me for that. What they need is to be FREED from that judgment – and better living won’t do that, only Jesus’ love can do that. And for those who think too highly of themselves? Well, judgment from me won’t cure that disease, it just confirms their belief that Christians are hypocrites and they’re above all that. And in the end those with an inflated ego feel an emptiness too – they’re just trying to fill it with “stuff.” Eventually that stuff will fail them. When it does, I want them to think of a loving God who’s willing to receive them with joy, not a judgmental God who will say “I told you so.” Think Prodigal Son.
I’d rather preach heaven than hell. I’d rather attract people with the joy of Jesus than the fear of the Devil. I’d rather say, “Jesus loves you” than “do you know where YOU’RE going when you die?” After all, Jesus gave us the command to LOVE our neighbors, not condemn them. Many people like to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” That’s wonderful, but folks should remember the next verse too: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Just my 2 cents…