“So you think I’m going to hell?”
It’s a question that I’ve been asked many times. A loaded question that’s sometimes trying to trap you and to get you to say something outrageous, sometimes asked out of genuine disbelief, and other times asked out of amused curiosity. It’s not uncommon for a question like that to come before or after something like, “I can’t believe God would send me to hell just because I don’t believe in Him…I’m a decent person.”
These sentiments, sometimes mixed around or phrased a bit differently, sum up pretty succinctly the reactions I’ve had from a lot of people when telling them what I believe about God, particularly in situations like our Christian Union’s ‘Text-A-Toastie’ (text in a question, get a toastie with your answer) where I won’t necessarily have had time to build a relationship with the person before talking to them about what I believe. From what I’ve observed and experienced, this sort of thing seems to sum up a lot of people’s immediate reactions.
The problem is, it’s a reaction built on completely false assumptions, some explicit, others implied. One premise, perhaps the most pertinent here, is that you can do enough on your own for God to shrug his shoulders and let you into heaven even if you never actually believed in him. A second premise often linked to this sort of thing is that God sending people to hell is automatically cruel, especially if you can’t understand why the person in question would be going there. The third premise is that God must see right and wrong the same way as we do (anyone who thinks they’ve ‘done enough’ is assuming that the things they’ve done enough of are the right things).
Those three premises are wrong; the gospel of Jesus that I believe is greater than all of them.
Premise 1: You can do enough on your own. Jesus makes it pretty clear that you can’t. When a rich young man comes to him in Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t challenge his assertion that he’s never broken any of the ten commandments. That’s a pretty impressive moral feat by anyone’s standards. But Jesus goes further and tells him that he still needs to do more; he needs to give away all his money. Jesus is making a point about money here, but I believe He’s also teaching us that we can never do enough to reach God’s standard, the standard of absolute purity. In His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) He challenges us not just to be pure in action but to be pure in thought as well. Paul puts it even more bluntly in Romans and says that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard. The founders of Christianity were clear that we can never do enough.
Premise 2: God sending people to hell is cruel. It would be if it was undeserved. But the consistent theme in both the old and new testaments is that God is just. He will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. There are too many verses to list but I can find you a few if you ask! This is not an act of cruelty but the fulfilment of justice, the response to our righteousness (complete perfection) or lack of. God judges everyone to the same standard that has been in place for all time; that judgement is anything but a form of sadism on His part. In fact, the Bible says that God desires that no one should perish.
Premise 3: We know what right and wrong are. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says God in Isaiah 55:8. In our sinfulness we’re so far from God that we just don’t think like He does. We have some idea of right and wrong based on tradition and a vague sense of humanity’s worth, but we do not have the crystalline, unchanging, unmarred perception of God. He sees things in a way that we never can and he is uninfluenced by culture and time. Who are we to decide if we’ve lived a life pleasing to Him? On a very basic level, many people think the ten commandments are a pretty universal standard of right or wrong, but how many of them keep the Sabbath or devote their lives to worshiping God? The commandments aren’t all about murder and stealing.
If those premises are wrong, then what’s right? Here’s the truth of what I believe:
We can never do enough to please God on our own, yet God doesn’t want to write us off. So He came as a man to die the death we deserve so that we don’t have to die it, and in exchange He gives us His perfection. I am not good because of what I’ve done but because of what He’s done, and what He’s done is make a way for everyone to have access to Him, no matter what we’ve done.
The standard, that none of us can achieve, is unblemished perfection. Being ‘as decent as the next guy’ is not enough. We have to be as good as God Himself, and He has offered us that goodness at the price of His own blood, the blood that should have been ours. This is the meaning of what Christians call ‘grace’ and this is at the heart of what I believe.
I don’t expect you to respond to that right away, but I do want you to see that God demands a response from us all. He has offered us perfection and it’s up to us what we do with it. We can reject it or accept it. I know that this has been brief and I’ve skimmed over some heavy theology, but I’m trying to cap the word count somewhere! This is as good a statement of my belief as I can get right now, and I guess my final question is this: what will you do with it?