My dad died April 1st, 1996, almost twenty-five years ago. His theology prohibited choosing the day of death, but if he could have chosen, it would have been April Fools’ Day. It fitted his humor. His gravestone is in a local cemetery, and my mom tends the plot on Easter and Memorial Day.
Last year, as my mom tidied the grass and planted flowers, a seven-year-old boy and his grandmother approached. The boy asked my mom what she was doing. My mom answered,
This is the grave of my husband. He died many years ago. His body is buried here, and I like to plant flowers in his memory. But his soul isn’t here.
After he died, his soul went to heaven.
The young boy stared at my mom for a few heartbeats and barked,
Or to hell!
My father was a pastor. In one of his churches he had an elder, named Russell Hitt, who was editor of a Christian magazine named Eternity. I once asked why they named it Eternity, why not something more relevant like the famous magazine Christianity Today? Hitt said:
Our human nature always thinks today is more important than yesterday or tomorrow. But Scripture constantly tells us our deepest life comes when we look backward (to the Exodus, crucifixion, resurrection) and forward to life of eternal joy with our beloved Father. Mortality is about today. Christianity is about eternity.
Our subconscious approach to time probably affects us more than any other belief of our hearts. If we believe “this week” was going to be our last days on earth, we wouldn’t worry about our upcoming Annual Review. Heck, we’d probably play hooky.
But if we thought this challenging year on earth was a drop in an ocean of eternal bliss, we would whistle while we work at a difficult job or in a terrible economy, viral pandemic, or if an opposing political power arose.
When I worked at my software company, I sweated too much in the office, I traveled too much, and each crisis seemed like the end of the world. Now, thirteen years later, I bet not one single former employee or client ever thinks back about those disasters or my work contribution.
It’s not that I shouldn’t have cared for employees and clients; of course we should care. It’s that those crises were not nearly as important as I thought; they had nothing to do with eternity. They have been forgotten.
People scorn the “pie in the sky” nature of Christianity and even more disdain any talk of hell. There are scores of writers today (like Rob Bell) who ignore the hundreds of verses about hell simply because it doesn’t fit with their modern doctrines of today. I haven’t heard a sermon on hell in twenty years.
But the idea of two different eternities has always been a crucial element of Christianity. Lewis wrote:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
… It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
We may not want to talk about hell, but if we forget to think about heaven, we do damage to our souls. God “has put eternity in our hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). We are in the middle of a story with foes and struggles and tension; it is only when we read the end of the book that we can finally lay down our fears and striving and control.
After that young boy said my father might have ended up in hell, his grandmother looked aghast and stammered an embarrassed apology. My mother smiled and said,
I’m so glad he’s got his theology right.
P.S. I actually once did preach a sermon on hell, back in 2008, Practicing the Doctrine of Hell. You can find it on my Sermons Page.
Hell of a thing to write about…(joke). Thanks for the insight to help us all to keep our theology right.
I think what struck me about my mom’s story (she told it to me last week) was that I DO NOT think much about our future, yet I think if I did, it would make my present “struggles” so much more bearable.
Right or wrong, fear of Hell played a part in my conversion to Christianity as a freshman in college in 1971 after reading the then popular Hal Lindsey book, “The Late Great Planet Earth”. My relationship with Christ today is centered more on God’s love, care, and forgiveness, but there is no doubt that orthodox Christian doctrine must include the reality of eternal separation from God if we don’t accept Jesus as our savior and the redeemer of our earthly sins.
I continue to be in wonder at how much the society we live in affects the beliefs of our hearts. It’s not that science can prove or disprove a heaven or hell, but there is always a hidden sense that “Nowadays we know better.”
This past summer I experienced going to a county Baptist church where they sang from the hymn books and the sermon was on hell. And the children sat through the whole service. It was revealing to see the families together and a reminder of how far we have come away from those days. Our world is spinning with changes and we who are holding on to the whole truth of the Bible, are not acceptable. I praise God for the teachings of your Dad and many of those “old fashion” preachers!!!
Before Judaism and Christianity, not one single religion in the world believed in a loving God. In scripture God reveals his love.
And now we arrogantly judge God, as though we can think of ways he can be more loving.
What could be more loving than for him to take Hell for us?
It has occurred to me that the Lake of Fire might be like this : What if the “flames” and “torment” were the final Realization of Truth—who God and Jesus Christ really are, all of the truth regarding them; finally seeing and understanding God’s Plan, seeing His true nature—then—realizing you had totally missed it All; forever living with the full knowledge of WHAT YOU HAD MISSED!!
Thanks for your comment. Really interesting thought.
CS Lewis said it like this:
In the end, really, hell is separation from God. That is why Scripture teaches Christ suffered hell for us. When he cries: “My God my God, why have you abandoned me?
Great discussion, Sam. Our Church – Journey Church of Myrtle Beach, has a Motto:” No one goes to Hell on our watch!” We are a Grace preaching, Holy Spirit living group of believers. Our Pastor’s (and my own) view of what Hell is like are identical to your own. Hell is eternal separation from God (Through your own choosing) with the knowledge of what you have missed. The most difficult, and long lasting choice which God gives us, is the ability to choose our final destination. He always acknowledges the sanctity of our choices, that IS what true love is. Our choices ARE reversible, but only as we modify our beliefs…. Hmmm “Beliefs of the Heart” what an appropriate description of human life.