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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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aphorisms children Christians faith fear humorous jesus life sin spiritual life strength struggle suffering trust

Bend at the Knees

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Originally written in 2008, this piece by Belinda Burkitt still resonates in a time of pandemics and renewed protests over racial violence.

Chip Burkitt, editor.

“Bend at the knees!” Something I can remember calling out to my young children as we ventured across an icy patch on a winter walk in Minnesota. My husband and I wanted them to slow down and keep their already low center of gravity even lower to protect them from falling. They took our advice alright. But the funny thing was they would walk normally for a few steps then squat a couple of times, walk—stop—squat, repeat. Until they made it safely across the ice. This was hilarious to watch! Even now when we’re outside and encounter a patch of ice, the person in the lead calls to those behind to “Bend at the knees!” Then we all stop and squat.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my college-student daughter over the phone. She caught me up on the latest in her life. Nearing the end of her junior year and facing an unknown internship, she was realizing that many unknowns lay ahead for her. She was stressed—knot in the stomach, deep ugly pimple in the middle of the forehead, fearing the future STRESSED. Her small, safe community would no longer be her point of reference. Her place on the map that says ‘YOU ARE HERE’ illustrated with an arrow and a dot would soon be somewhere else. The familiar sights, sounds, and smells of rural Iowa and the crazy antics of dorm life were about to fade into new, more grown-up sensations. Sigh.

I listened. I nodded. I identified. My own strange, resistant-to-change feelings welled up. Wishing I could stop the inevitable flow of imminent change. Wishful thinking. Her next phase was bigger than me. Somewhere in the midst of her worry about getting a passport and writing yet another chapter summary and obtaining a letter of recommendation, I blurted out, “Bend at the knees!” Silence. “Bend at the knees, honey. Do you remember our winter treks across the ice?” She remembered. Now she listened. “You’re about to do some things you’ve never done before. It’s supposed to feel weird. Worry about slipping and falling out of control won’t help. Slow down. Get low. Be ready for the unexpected. Bend at the knees. Trust. Trust God’s plan, and all will be well.” I could hear her take a deep breath. The knot in her stomach loosened and the pimple began to clear up. “Okay.” She said. That was it. A sweet moment when the advise coming out of my mouth was exactly what I needed to hear. We shared the same encouragement.

There comes a time, okay, several times for everyone when we are confronted with a patch of ice on our path. When staying put is not an option. When life, God, calls us to keep moving despite the warning signs of potential danger. When there’s too much to be done and sitting around waiting for spring or forty degrees simply won’t do. Life following God will never be completely safe or void of obstacles or slippery spots.

Lately, I’ve been hearing the “Heavenly C’mon!”—God calling me to resume the adventure, encouraging me to keep moving toward him. My knees want to tighten and lock. It’s uncomfortable, new. I resist like a hobbit who wants to stay snug in the Shire, content to live with the small and the usual. Once again I am reminded that it’s not about my comfort. It’s about the mission. The cause that is big and right and worth fighting for. So worth getting over my petty fears and self-centered craving for safety.

A new fear arises. What if I fall? What if I am an expendable crewman who gets sent to the unexplored planet without a coat? Armed with a much too small ray gun? Only to be liquidated by the galactic bad guy. What if my job is to set up the rest of the episode? What if I’m a casualty? What if?

I actually fell on the ice this past winter. Or was it spring? Twice. I wasn’t watching because I thought there shouldn’t be ice on the ground this time of year when, fwip, BONK. (Expletive.) I was flat on the cold icy ground with an owie and a broken coffee cup. I was furious. Full of blame and rage that no one had warned me in advance to “Bend at the knees” or had even bothered to salt the side walk. I resolved, briefly, to never go outside again.

STAYING PUT IS NOT AN OPTION!

Move along… Move along… MOVE IT!

Staying put is not an option, is it? Sometimes taking action means our own survival. I think of the rock climber who was climbing solo in Utah some years back. He dislodged a boulder, pinning his right wrist to the side of the canyon wall. He was literally stuck. After days of waiting to be rescued, his water and granola gone, he had no other choice but to finally free himself by applying a tourniquet and severing his own arm. He then, rappelled down the cliff, hiked five miles where he found help and passed out.

His extraordinary will to survive challenges my extraordinary desire to be safe. I comfort myself with the thought that even Bruce Willis doesn’t have that kind of grit. Staying attached (literally) to his arm would have been his death.

It reminds me of the disturbing words Jesus spoke,

“If your right hand offends you, cut it off.”

Yeah, but Jesus was talking about being tempted to sin, right? Like getting rid of your TV or throwing out your video games. I know, I know. But could it be that staying put, even when we are stuck under a gigantic boulder, is sin? Is it possible that doing nothing is an offense because we are not making every effort to fulfill God’s call on our lives? To live the life He has called us to live? When playing it safe is toxic, you do what needs to be done and get going!

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Christians current events guilt jesus kindness love persecution poverty punishment religion righteousness Satan sin spiritual life suffering theology

Opportunity to Display God’s Work

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In chapter 9 of his gospel, John launches into the story of how Jesus healed a man blind from birth and the aftermath of that healing. Here is how the story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1-2

Notice the assumption behind the disciples’ question: this man’s suffering is the result of sin—his own or his parents. In other words, this man is bad or was badly brought up. That’s why his life is messed up. This same assumption is still current in our society and in our churches. People are poor because they’re lazy. People are sick because they eat junk food. Some even say that natural disasters are the result of sin, often sexual sin. (You can find examples here, here, and here.) Jesus’ response sweeps away this kind of thinking.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him….”

John 9:3

Jesus first addresses the disciples’ false assumption. He says remarkably, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Now, of course, Jesus was not claiming that this man and his parents were paragons of virtue who lived sinless lives. Imagine, however, what it was like to be a man born blind in a society where misery is regarded as proof of God’s judgment for personal sin. Since the man was born blind, the judgment fell on him at the moment of his birth. This means that either it was a judgment on his parents for some terrible sin they had committed, or it was a judgment on the man himself for some prenatal sin. In fact, the disciples were not seeing a suffering man at all. They were seeing an opportunity to hear from the Teacher about an academic discussion current among the religious sages and scholars of the day: can you sin before you’re born? To the disciples, the man himself and his misery evoked no compassion. He was merely Exhibit A in an intellectual debate. To be fair, the disciples had no idea that the man could be helped in any substantive way, but their ignorance was in part due to their assumptions about the justness of the man’s condition. To help such a man might be to oppose God’s righteous judgment.

So when Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he liberated the man from the judgment of God. He also liberated God from the inexorable logic of cause and effect. Then he explained how his disciples were to regard suffering, “…but this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It’s tempting at this point to regard God as some kind of monster who afflicts people with blindness so he can later heal them and get praise and adulation for his “mercy.” This is not at all the God that Jesus revealed. Jesus consistently blamed suffering and evil in the world on the devil and his demons, and he credits God with doing good and overthrowing the schemes of the devil. According to Jesus, the devil lies, steals, kills, and destroys, but God tells the truth, gives to all who ask, raises the dead to life, and restores all things. So God can’t be blamed for the man’s blindness. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in the question of who or what caused the man’s blindness. He focuses instead on the opportunity the man’s blindness presents, an opportunity to respond to the situation with God’s work.

And what is it that God does when faced with blindness? He heals. Again and again in the gospels when Jesus confronts suffering and oppression, he responds with love and compassion. Nor is his compassion an empty feeling of good will or empathy. He acts on what he feels. He touches lepers even though doing so makes him technically unclean. He heals the sick even when doing so angers the religious authorities because he does it on the Sabbath. He feeds the crowds of people who came out to hear him even when doing so endangers him because the people are ready to force him to be king. Jesus risked ostracism and opposition from the authorities to meet the needs of people who needed his help. Sometimes, as in this instance, he even invited opposition in order to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in power.

For Jesus, therefore, and for all who want to follow him, suffering and oppression never represents an occasion for assigning blame or railing against the results of sin. Instead, they represent an opportunity to display God’s work—to heal the sick, to deliver the mentally ill from the destructive thoughts that torment them, to provide help to the poor, to feed those who are hungry, to give drink to those who are thirsty, to alleviate suffering and pain wherever it appears.

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