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complacency hell jesus life punishment religion sin spiritual life theology

Fear of Hell

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

To me this sounds more like hell than home, but that could be because I grew up in a loving home where I almost always found comfort and security. Still, for those who believe in heaven and hell, heaven has entrance requirements; hell has none. Hell accepts all comers. Maybe that’s why Jesus said the way to hell was broad, but the way to heaven narrow. It takes no special effort to get into hell. It’s the landfill of the universe. You end up there unless you take care not to.

The word Jesus used for hell, Gehenna, was a valley near Jerusalem where certain Israelite Kings had practiced child sacrifice, burning their own sons on altars to Molech or even to Yahweh. It was associated with fire, judgment, death, and apostasy. Several times in the synoptic gospels, Jesus commented on the extravagance of efforts one needs to make to avoid Gehenna. If your hand or foot or eye hinders you from entering the kingdom of God, cut it off and discard it. It is better to enter life maimed than to be whole and cast into hell. He may have had a more literal meaning in mind given how imminent the destruction of Jerusalem was and how strongly he urged his followers to avoid lingering in the city when invading forces were marching against it. It could be that Christian doctrines about hell rest on instructions to first-century followers to flee the coming destruction and to join not the resistance.

Jesus spoke of that destruction as a judgment upon the Jews. After all, their long-awaited Messiah came to them, but they did not recognize him, and instead trumped up charges of blasphemy against him and had him executed by the Romans. In the same vein, he inveighed against the Pharisees and religious leaders, implying that they were children of hell and that they could not escape being condemned to hell for they’re utter indifference toward the suffering of their own people. None of the passages that mention hell represent it as a place of eternal damnation for sinners. They represent it as a place of judgment for the complacent and self-righteous.

Of course, there are other passages that do not mention hell but nevertheless imply judgment or condemnation. There are the parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats—all found in Matthew 25. Each of these ends with some person or groups of persons left out. The door keeper tells the five foolish virgins he doesn’t know them. The master takes the money from the wicked servant and gives it to the servant who has ten bags, then he tells those standing by to throw out the worthless servant into the darkness where there will be frustrated anger and regret. Those sorted to the Lord’s left go away to eternal punishment. Even in these stories, however, Jesus seems to be critical of complacency rather than sin. The five foolish virgins are not fornicators. The servant with the one bag of gold is no thief. The people sorted to the left claim not to have neglected their duty; they just never saw it.

It’s interesting to think about hell as punishment. We use punishment in two ways: as discipline and as retribution. As discipline, the aim is instruction. As retribution the aim is justice. Hell, conceived as a place of eternal punishment, can only be retributive. It has no disciplinary purpose. Surely an eternity of torment cannot be justified for just going with the flow! What is so bad about complacency, about not making an effort?

I think the disciplinary aspect of punishment offers a clue. We punish children so they will not experience the natural consequences of their bad actions. For example, the natural consequence of playing with fire is getting burned. We do not want our children to get burned or to burn someone else, so we punish them for playing with fire. The punishment is not as bad as the natural consequence. It is light and temporary and meant to instruct.

What if hell is the natural consequence of complacency? What if going with the flow is something only dead fish do? What if spiritual laziness leads to spiritual death as surely as physical laziness leads to poverty? Maybe God, rather than actively chastising the damned forever—and without reason, merely stops impeding their headlong rush toward self-destruction. Maybe, as C. S. Lewis once noted, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.”

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about me Christians culture faith hell self spiritual life suffering

You’re Still Not Special

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If you remember middle school and even high school at all, you remember wanting to fit in. Being different from about 6th grade to 10th is a terrible curse fraught with repeated attempts to be yourself—whoever that is—while being like everyone else. Most kids don’t want to be special. Yet our culture constantly tells them that they are. The media we aim at our youth (What a loaded metaphor that is!) continually reinforces the message that mere uniqueness is good. But there is no virtue in being different, nor is there anything wrong with being ordinary.

When you first begin, you are the center of the world. Even in impoverished countries, children begin life being cared for and protected from most of life’s vicissitudes. Some, pampered too long or by nature resistant to learning about themselves, never outgrow that infantile sense of entitlement. I find evidence of it still in myself.

Alain de Botton notes that anger comes from frustrated expectations. His solution? Lower your expectations. This is harder than it may appear. I find myself getting angry about the paltriest events. I drop a tool while I’m working. “Damn it!” I exclaim, usually under my breath. Why? I find that I expect perfection of myself. Other people may fail but not me. Others might fumble; their tools might succumb to gravity, but I am better than that. If I drop a tool, it is supposed to remain suspended in air until I grasp it again. Why isn’t the cosmos organized to suit me? What the hell1Hell may well be thought of as a place for people to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” kind of world is this where things obey impersonal rules instead of obeying me?

One would think that my experience of life in this world would have cured me of such foolishness long ago. Yet here I am still cursing when things don’t go my way, still frustrated by a cosmos that refuses to yield to my whims.

Having grown up as a Pentecostal Christian and a hillbilly, I inherited the moral superiority of the one and the recalcitrant independence of the other. Not only am I better than you, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you tell me what to think or do. Like the Jews of Jesus day, I had an absolute certainty about my own righteousness and contempt for those who didn’t measure up. I was insufferable. My journey toward freedom and perhaps a little humility has been long and arduous. It took me a long time to realize that God’s acceptance is not based on my goodness but on his mercy. That is why he is able to accept anyone who comes to him without showing favoritism. Yes, he expects us to give up our sin, but the most common sin we all commit is in grading ourselves on a curve while flunking everyone around us. We want special treatment. Our situation deserves special consideration. Yes, we’ve done some bad things, but there were extenuating circumstances. Our parents! Our race! Our class! Our culture! Pity us, O God! It is you who made us as we are! Amazingly, he forgives even such transparent attempts to manipulate his mercy.

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adult boredom children death hell life memory novelty

All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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