Trying in vain to find a radio station that music that doesn’t nauseate me, I stumbled across a religious sermon. I sometimes stop on these stations, and not just to make fun of the epic Southern accents. Occasionally, I pick up an insight that I think is helpful, or a metaphor that I want to plagiarise for a future lesson.
Other times, however, I find I’ve walked in on a theological nightmare. This was one of those days.
The topic of the sermon was “Hell,” which I have found is a favorite topic of people who are convinced they aren’t going there. As best I could discern in the few minutes I could stomach, the pastor’s purpose was to provide a graphic description of Hell and convince the listeners of its stark and frightening reality.
When I tuned in, he was focused on the eternal aspect of damnation. He spoke of the “sinner” (which he defined later as anyone who did not accept Christ as their personal savior) suffering “unspeakable” pain, not only physical but emotional, and realizing after “ten billion trillion years that it is never going to get better.” He then said that if we do not believe in such a reality, then we do not know Jesus Christ.
Christ the sadist? No, I don’t know that guy.
Let’s think this through a bit. First, let’s consider what we know about Christ. Granted, the New Testament gives us more information about His teachings than His personality, but we get enough insight to have a working understanding of what He was like. We know that He was loving, compassionate, and patient. We know that He spent his entire ministry relieving suffering, whether through healing physical ailments or providing spiritual relief. We know that His most violent act was tossing over a few tables and chasing money changers out of the temple (and who hasn’t wanted to turn over furniture at a bank at least once in their lives?).
We know that He refused to condemn an adulteress who had no idea who He was, much less having accepted Him as her personal Savior.
We know that at the moment of His greatest betrayal, He reached out and healed the severed ear of one of those arresting Him. Someone who did not know Him, much less worship Him.
We know that while hanging on a cross in unspeakable agony, He spoke words of comfort to a thief. Someone who did not know Him, much less worship Him.
We know that in his final moments in mortality, He asked for forgiveness of those who had crucified Him. Many of whom did know Him, but rejected Him.
Let’s contrast that with the Jesus offered by the radio evangelist. That Jesus considers the lowest sin in life the failure to accept him as a personal savior…even if you have never heard his name. That Jesus marks as our crowning achievement the spoken acceptance of him as our savior…even if we do not act in accordance with his commandments. He is on the supreme ego trip, because what is most important is what we think of him, not we do.
More important, that Jesus looks down at a child starving in Ethiopia in cold condemnation. This child will have his mortal suffering compounded by a “billion trillion years” of sadistic torture. This child will be treated on the same level with Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin…and Gandhi. That Jesus decrees that the overwhelming majority of his creations will spend a few difficult decades on Earth, followed by an eternity of infinite agony. And he is cool with it.
That Jesus doesn’t get his “h’s” capitalized on my blog.
The ministry of Christ was, at its sacred core, a ministry of love, compassion, and hope. He instructed His disciples to judge no one, rather than to sit back and gleefully describe the future sufferings of their brothers and sisters. Christ is the Creator, not a destroyer. His is the Redeemer, not an executioner. He is the embodiment of mercy, not a merciless God.
Do I believe that those who knowingly rebel against the commandments of God will have to endure some kind of consequence for their actions? Absolutely. Unfortunately, I am also one of those people, as every day I do things that are inconsistent with my professed discipleship. Do I presume to know the nature of such consequences, or do I have the audacity to decide who will be punished and how? Absolutely not.
But when I hear descriptions of a literal Hell in which all nonbelievers are subjected to perpetual torture, I have to respond that I know of no such place. I do not believe that Dante’s imagination is doctrinal. I believe that there will be consequences for what we do in life, but I also believe that our Judge is perfectly able to balance justice and mercy. Only He is able to perfectly understand our hearts, minds and actions, and because He knows me perfectly, I have hope that He will treat me fairly when this life is over.
Without such hope, Christ would have little to offer us.