Everything that life offers us we somehow sense to be temporary. All things change. They corrode. They rust. They age. They wear out and then they go away.
We see this law at work in nature and in our everyday experiences. We know that someday, we too will wear out and fade away.
Many Christians are taught things about Heaven and Hell with the very best of intentions by their teachers, but when hearing them, never question them or investigate them for themselves.
It combined vivid images of Hell with observations of the world, pairing those images and observations with scripture.
More than just about any other work, this text has had a lasting impact on evangelicalism in the United States.
Its premise is clear. Show people the eternal horrors of a place of punishment called “Hell” and they will change the way that they are living their lives in the present.
I’ve read Edwards’ famous sermon more times than I can count. It is one of the most moving pieces of “Great-Awakening-Era” literature that has ever been written.
However, it moves me for all the wrong reasons.
It makes me think of God as nothing more than an angry kid with an ant farm- a vindictive, tormenting tyrant- an abusive Father who is always trying to hit me unless Jesus (my elder brother) steps in and takes the punches for me.
Though I’ve read most of Edwards’ works and find a lot of inspiration in them, I’ve never agreed with him on this topic.
THE WORDS OF JESUS
Strangely enough Jesus said something that, at face value makes me feel very much the same as it does when I read Edwards’ famous sermon.
It’s found in the Gospel Of Matthew and it says this,
“And He will say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’”
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
- Matthew 25:40-46
Well what the hell does that mean? (pun intended)
It seems to be saying that if I don’t welcome every stranger into my home, if I don’t feed every hungry person, if I don’t clothe every person who needs clothing, if I don’t visit sick people and people in prison then I am going to be punished for eternity.
Is that true? Is that the lesson Jesus is giving?
In his book “The RealAge Makeover” Dr. Michael Roizen claims that flossing can add 6.4 years to a person’s life.
Sounds crazy, right?
The general thinking behind this idea is that a person’s lifestyle choices added up over time can cause them to live longer.
In other words, if a person makes flossing a habit, that good habit will “spill over” into other areas of their life, too. Taking the time to floss will result in a person’s choice to also engage in other healthy habits, increasing their lifespan.
And this way of thinking is what I believe Jesus is getting at here.
He’s not saying, “Do this or else.” He’s talking about trajectory. He’s talking about lifestyle.
It’s interesting that this is precisely what Jesus chooses to place emphasis on in the passage.
This is not a passage about there hereafter. It is a passage about the “here.”
We are (unfortunately) programmed, largely due to the forebears of our “American Gospel” to place an emphasis on all the wrong parts of this passage and many others like it.
What Jesus is trying to say, is that in every moment we should be striving to be kind, giving, loving people to those in need around us.
Why? Because like flossing, it sets our lives on a trajectory, shaping us into our very best selves.
You can spend your life fearing eternity, or you can spend it loving the people right in front of you, but you can’t do both.
Jesus is saying, “Don’t focus on Hell. Focus on people. Don’t be enslaved by the eternal. Be present with those in need who are right in front of you.”
If we can learn to do that (and believe that) then this thing called “Hell” is put in its proper place in our belief system.
Is Heaven a real place?
Is Hell a real place?
We have no scientific data (absolutely none) that can answer those questions.
We have religious writings.
We have subjective accounts from people who claim to have been to both of these places having returned.
We have the words of Jesus, yes.
But in the end, the only thing we have to observe as “fact” is the here and now of our own lives.
And this is what the Apostle John is also trying to get us to see when he says,
“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us.”
- 1 John 4:17-19
Are you like Jesus in the world?
Do you live your life crippled by fear or motivated by love?
The way of fear causes a person to always look inward at themselves.
“I’m afraid I won’t have X.”
“I’m afraid I won’t experience Y.”
“I’m afraid of eternity!” so my faith is all about the afterlife.
Thinking like this places a life on an awful trajectory, breeding self-centeredness and paranoia. It threatens people instead of welcoming them.
Show me a person who only cares about what they can get out of this life for themselves and you can bet that is a person whose sole (and soul) motive is fear.
The way of love, however, causes a person to look outward at others.
Living a life of love for others places it on a beautiful trajectory. It breeds hope and peace. It welcomes people instead of threatening them to buy into something.
THE FEAR OF DEATH
A man came by to visit me in the office this week. He wanted to sit and talk with me because he had been thinking about death a lot.
His birthday was right around the corner. He was getting ready to turn the very same age that every man in his family had never lived to see- not a single one.
I asked him, “What worries you about death? Are you worried about what comes after? Where you will go? Where you will spend eternity?”
“No, not all.” he said. “I’m worried because I won’t be able to be here for those that I love. They need me in their lives, and I won’t be here for them.”
Bingo! He hit the nail on the head. This is the lesson that Jesus is trying to get across to us in this passage, and this man understood it.
When we spend our time looking outward at others, Hell becomes... well... just not that important.
WHEREVER YOU ARE
Wherever you are in your life today- if you are crippled by fear, if your life is all about you, if you are building a kingdom here on the Earth that meets your every need and your every want- you’re missing the point of spirituality.
The point faith is loving others.
The aim of faith is empathy.
The prize of faith is people- knowing people, loving people, and being there for people. This is what’s it’s all about, not the getting of things- even if those things are “spiritual.”
How might that inform the choices in our lives?
How might that arrest us in the moment at work, at play, or in our spiritual practice(s)?
You can live your life fearing or you can live your life loving.
It’s entirely up to you.