Q&R: “If hell is not eternal conscious torment, why share the gospel?” Brad Jersak
If hell is not eternal conscious torment, why share the Gospel?
This reader rightly perceives that I would balk at the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment in a lake of fire. That a good and loving God could somehow inflict his children with everlasting torture in a fiery furnace would render the words ‘good’ or ‘loving’ utterly meaningless and call into question how his character is any better than that of Satan.
The good news (or gospel) is that in his love, God sent his Son as Savior of the world. He is the means by which God conquers “the wages of sin” (death) and flings wide the gates of grace. In affirming human agency and God’s refusal to coerce, C.S. Lewis imagined that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. The news, as I read it, in the Book of Revelation, is that Jesus holds the keys of death and hades (Rev. 1:18)–not us–and the gates of the New Jerusalem shall never be shut (Rev. 21:25). And from this, I see that the Spirit and the Bride shall forever issue the invitation (Rev. 22:17) so that hell need not be eternal for anyone.
That’s an odd thing for Jesus to show John, when in a number of his parables, our Lord does describe the doors being shut and the “foolish virgins” (in one example — Matt. 25:1-13) being locked out and sent away. How can both be true? The two visions are either in contradiction (I don’t think so) or they can be harmonized by seeing that judgement is penultimate (2nd to last) and redemption is ultimate (when everything and everyone has been subjected to Jesus, and he hands over the kingdom to his Father, and finally, “God is all in all,” as in 1 Cor. 15:28).
Okay, then. For those who can buy that much, the question often arises, if hell is not eternal and does not get the final word, why the urgency to share the gospel? The obvious answer is that the good news invitation and our response to it are the means by which we enter the experience of our salvation. Sometimes people think we mean that ultimate redemption is automatic, which is to say, without any means to our redemption.
But the Scriptures include a constellation of means that include the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death on the Cross, his conquest over the grave, his glorious resurrection, the proclamation of the good news, and a willing faith response. If hell need not be eternal infernal ruin, and if redemption into the kingdom of God is our end, then all of these factors comprise the means by which that end (telos) comes to be true.
So back to our question: why the urgency to share the gospel, even at the risk of martyrdom, that we see in evangelists such as the apostles Paul or John? To put it in two concise statements:
1. We share because the gospel is about how we come to experience eternal life and fullness of joy and freedom through knowing Jesus and surrendering our lives to his loving care. In other words, Jesus is the best thing that’s ever happened to us, the kindest person we’ve ever met, and has become the foundation of meaning for our lives. We share Jesus because we love Jesus!
Thus, our love union with God in Christ is the point, from rebirth to eternity, and not merely an escape route or fire insurance from the consequences of sin.
2. We also share the good news because we love people. We know so many people who are already ‘lost’ and ‘perishing’ and hurting in so many ways under the tyranny of fear and death and alienation right now. The ‘house of their lives’ is already drowning in flames. They are gasping and desperate and despairing, urgently in need of the love, joy, peace, hope and freedom that Jesus offers as we trust him.
Sadly, rather than bringing good news of God’s love that frees people from fear, religions of every stripe, from Voodoo to much of Christianity, have only loaded on a greater burden of fear, to the point of generating serious mental and emotional illness. Despite how Christ may save them someday, they are clearly in need of saving today, often from the preachers who’ve dehumanized and demoralized them with threats of hellfire and “bad news religion.”
So the urgency is not so much delivered as a threat that God will perpetually incinerate you if you fail to act or believe right, but that in his great love for us, Christ has come to rescue those who are already lost, enslaved or perishing. As Jesus says, the Good Shepherd even leaves the safety of the 99 sheep comfortably warming their pens, and goes out to seek and to save the one lost sheep until he finds them (Luke 15:4).
Knowing this, we don’t despair, nor do we sit back to do or say nothing, since “it will all pan out in the end.” No. Out of love for those who continue to suffer in the brambles of this painful human drama, we bring urgent words of good news! You are not relegated to this present darkness, to slavery to the demands of your ego or to the chronic sins that torment you. Least of all do we, who still struggle with entanglement, need to hide from an arbitrary or vindictive God. We preach wholeheartedly that God is love and his ways are merciful, his heart is gracious and compassionate and he offers Christ to every thirsty soul.
So, are you thirsty? As they say, “I know a Guy.” And he knows you. Ask him to meet you. In prayer, I often imagine an infinite Spring of mercy–a Waterfall of pure goodness–that represents of the Life of God. I get into that downpour of living Grace and I open my hands and heart to receive. I pray, “Lord, I want everything you have for me.” No striving, just simple, attentive receptivity.
Over time, I’ve discovered the clay of my heart slowly moving from recalcitrant to receptive, from brittle to malleable. I still fall a lot, but I feel like falling isn’t failing, because I have learned to run to the mercy rather than hide from it. So when I share my faith, that’s one way I do it.
To me, this is not airy-fairy platitudes. It’s life and death. It’s what I said to a patient in ICU whose anxiety was so high, that she sometimes needs to be put in restraints so that she doesn’t tear out the many tubes that feed into her body right now. The problem is that when the doctors put restraints on her, she howls with fear and pain as memories of childhood abuse flood her mind. But you know what: she knows a Guy. And she is learning to enter the Waterfall and surrender to the mercy of God and the care of her doctors, trusting Jesus to stay with her. [Where was this Jesus in her years of abuse? That’s an important conversation she’s able to have with him now]. But I know this: she’s found the Waterfall, she knows Jesus and, just for today, she’s choosing surrender. Here is what she said:
“I now realize I had been in complete fear of those restraints every day, all day, in case I had to have them. Now I don’t have to fear. I can breathe.”
I wonder… just as the Bible uses both the Refiner’s fire and the Launderer’s soap as alternative images for the same cleansing process, might we also use the biblical imagery of the Great Physician, loving us through treatment in ICU, even when it requires restraints? And where is our agency? Where is our repentance? Isn’t it in our surrender to his care, trust in his treatment, even when (even at the end) our flesh strains against it?
So maybe you can tell me… if hell is not eternal for her, what’s the urgency to share good news? Answer: her great need for peace and healing and Jesus’ even greater love for his daughter. And that works for me.