Well, its a long essay but a thoughtful one. It starts with the crazy, tongue in cheek idea of rebranding hell, frames the question about how a loving God can send people to hell, and then moves on to think about how the church (including Willow Creek and Rob Bell) have communicated this sobering doctrine. The thing that most stood out for me was when he talked about Bill Hybles 9/11 sermon. Bill talked about his own anger and desire for over the top vengeful response to the attack.
In speaking about his own capacity for revenge and hatred, he had opened up a possibility, a way of talking about evil that felt relevant and transformative. It wasn’t fire and brimstone; it wasn’t condemning the sinner as some degenerate Other. Rather, he was challenging his congregation to exercise empathy in a way that Jesus might have, suggesting that he among us without sin should cast the first stone.
The “you” language is never that helpful in talking about sin. “I” and “us” are probably better. We all fall short.
How can a loving God send people so hell? Well, the first step in answering that is asking another question. How did a loving God stop people from going there?
Now, heaven is being in God’s loving presence, fully and forever. The heavens and earth will be renewed and united as the setting for that, but if we are talking about the essence of heavenly paradise it’s God’s loving presence. Imagine knowing perfect love forever, being loved perfectly forever, and in turn loving a perfect being with your whole heart and mind and strength forever. Bliss.
But, because God is perfectly burningly holy and good (which, incidentally, is why its so good to be loved by him, rather than by an imperfect, reasonably good, god who sometimes does things that are bad) there is a problem. How can a perfectly good God love and delight in and accept and cherish something that is less than perfect. How can he be good and love sinners?
So back to the question. At least the second one. How can a good God square the circle and love bad people? How? He did it by sending his son, Jesus, to identify with us in our sin and be punished for it. Though he never did anything wrong himself, he took on our sin, the bible says “Became sin” for us so that we might know and enjoy God’s love. His sacrifice pays for our wrongdoing. The bible talks about his blood covering our sin and his goodness, his righteousness being given to us. Our lives thus hidden in Christ Jesus we no longer need to be excluded from heaven and expelled into hell. God so loved us that he did the most costly thing imaginable to keep us not only from hell but bring us into his loving presence.
How do we play the get out of jail free card? Do we have to pay money, or be good or go to church? Well, actually trying to do any of those things to avoid hell is pretty much guaranteed to get you there. The only thing that we need to do, the only thing we must do, it trust that Jesus has done it all for us. It’s as simple as that. Pure grace, received by pure faith. Wow. Sometimes we get a bit disorientated and “so many religions, how am I to know which is the real one”. Ask how should I get to heaven and hundred of Spartacuses stand up. But try asking which ones ask you to do nothing to earn salvation. Ask in which world faith is salvation a free gift? In which one are you disqualified from entering if you think you have worked hard enough to deserve it? Only one is left and that is Jesus.
So, how could a loving God send people to hell? It’s a legitimate question but once we realise what he has done to keep us from hell, and what is required of us to avoid it, it becomes slightly less pressing. Another one comes to mind instead. Why would we not take Jesus up on his offer. Why, if he went to such lengths to keep us from hell, and make it so easily avoidable, do more people not take him up on his offer?
I suppose it could be partly to do with not actually believing God exists at all and not thinking that heaven and hell are real places. But could it also be that we don’t actually want to admit that we are not good enough for God? That we don’t need his forgiveness. That we don’t want his love?
I’m not saying we should not think about the original question. You know, the one about a loving God sending people to hell. It’s just that it’s probably helpful to think about some of these other ones too.