It’s strange how certain words jump out at us when we read a passage of scripture. Our gospel today is full of reassurance and positivity – telling us pretty much that there’s nothing in this world that we need to be afraid of, and how precious we all are in God’s sight. But what do we see? Yes, the word “hell”. That’s what we take away from Jesus’ words. And we leave with, at the least, a sense of deep disquiet and, at worst, terror.
We seem genetically programmed to believe that we fail the test, so whenever anyone says, “Be careful you don’t …”, we think “That’s me. I’m done for.”
So, it’s time to bite the bullet and say that it is perfectly possible to be a fully committed Christian and not believe in hell at all. I know, because I am one.
I don’t “not believe in hell” because I’m a wishy washy liberal catholic Christian (though I probably am); I don’t believe in hell because to believe in it dishonours God. There is simply no way to accept the picture of hell that the church has traditionally taught that doesn’t reduce God to a petty and vindictive tyrant.
Any just judge will tell you that there are only two good reasons for punishment – to protect the innocent, and to encourage contrition and reform. Yes, you are required by the law to pay for your crimes, but the point is that a time comes when that payment has been made and you have a chance to begin again. The idea of eternal punishment where sins are never paid for and there is no hope of a new beginning makes the only motivation spitefulness – it’s payback time and I’m going to enjoy watching you suffer. Nothing could be a greater dishonour to the name of the Lord than to suggest such a thing. Woefully, the church has for centuries used this unhealthy picture to manipulate its people – nothing makes people do as they are told better than the threat of damnation. Shame on us.
Enough. The only thing that lasts forever is love. And anything that isn’t founded and rooted in love will cease to exist. The choice we have is God or “not-God”, life or death, being or ceasing to be. There cannot conceivably be “everlasting punishment” when this universe is rolled up and thrown away and all is made new. To be with God or to cease to exist are the only eternal choices – but we do have to choose.
So what is Jesus actually saying? Well, his culture had no preconception of this punishment waiting for us after we die. In the Old Testament, the wicked are seen as simply ceasing to be. Psalm 34 says they will “soon wither like the flowers, and fade away like cut grass,” and that’s pretty much it. The choice is life or death, but we choose life by what we do more than what we say; and we choose it even more by the longing in the depth of our inner being. That is where we choose the things of God or the things that aren’t of God. If my heart is set deep down on lies and greed, cruelty and pride, then I’m heading away from God, and God won’t overrule my choice. If my soul longs for love, joy, peace – for myself and all of God’s creatures – then I’m choosing God, even if I can’t live up to that longing.
When Jesus speaks of eternal flames and hell fire, he means exactly that: what isn’t growing in God is burnt up and ceases to exist. “Eternal” in the sense of spiritual purging rather than “everlasting”.
But don’t get me wrong; Jesus could not be more insistent that the choice we make in this mortal world is momentous. There is no going back from that choice, it is eternal. And there is certainly the image of those who reject God seeing clearly the enormity of that choice at the end. But the message is about the other choice, choosing life. That’s the good news we have to share. Neither life nor death nor anything in all creation can separate us from God’s love if we choose life.
So who will go to heaven? Everyone who wants to, that’s who.
Lots of love