What the Hell?

Look. There are plenty of issues that should be occupying your attention as a global citizen, but the question of the eternal destiny of people is a big one and worth probing a bit; especially as it relates to how Christians operate in the here and now.

“People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that.

I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.” — Israel Folau

In the fallout to his controversial answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people,’ Israel published a long piece titled ‘I’m a sinner too,’ and it’s good, but it has also revealed some issues facing Christians in Australia that are much bigger than religious freedom or freedom of speech. The issue seems to me to be that people in Australia expect us Christians to be trying to ‘play God’ when it comes to how they live, while simultaneously believing that the idea of any god is harmful nonsense, when the function of God’s judgment isn’t to have us reaching for the pitchfork and forming angry mobs, but taking up our cross and laying down our lives in sacrificial love in the hope others might experience God’s merciful love, and the gift of life.

There are two very public responses to Folau’s two pieces that I’ve found particularly provocative… this one, from University of Queensland Political Science professor, Katharine Gelber, and this tweet (and resulting media storm) from one-test All Black Brad Weber. Weber tweeted:

“Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff. I can’t stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he’s saying My cousin and her partner, and my Aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To think that I play against someone that says they’ll go to Hell for being gay disgusts me.”

There’s been a whole lot of hatred, outrage, and ‘disgust’ from people who don’t believe in the God Israel believes in, or the Hell he speaks of… and a lot of this outrage is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how belief in hell is meant to work in the life of a Christian towards those who are facing it.

Hell isn’t meant to motivate us to hate others; but to love them. 

There are plenty of good reasons to be outraged at God and the prospect of Hell if you do believe in God; but there’s only two reasons I can see to be disgusted about the idea of Hell if you’re Brad Weber; one is the reason given by Peter FitzSimons in his piece on Folau — the mental and emotional wellbeing of gay people in Christian communities who believe there’s a destination just for them just because of their sexuality (which is part of why I didn’t like Folau’s first post, and love his second), two is if belief in Hell as the appropriate destination for ‘those people’ caused Christians to act judgmentally or with hatred towards ‘those people’ (in this case, gay people, but the ‘those’ can be just about any group because all groups of people, all people, are heading towards God’s judgment without Jesus, if the Bible is true).

And here’s the rub — I can see why people would believe that Christians take the judgment of God and use it to make moral judgments of others and to cause harm rather than using God’s judgment as motivation the same way Jesus did — to sacrificially love those who are God’s enemies in the hope that in laying down your life for them in myriad ways they might be confronted and arrested by the great sacrificial love God has for them…

Hell — or God’s judgment — isn’t meant to motivate us to sit in judgment over others, but to love them.

We aren’t God. To put ourselves in God’s position is the very definition of sin, the ‘original’ sin.

If Israel’s answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people’ is the same as his answer to ‘where would you like gay people to end up’, then there’s a real problem. If he puts himself in God’s place and acts as though he is God — or if we do — then there’s a problem… which is why his follow up is so important.

The problem in the other direction is a whole bunch of secular people who aren’t conversant with Christian teaching (but perhaps are with Christian practice) assuming that you can infer an ‘ought’ from this ‘is’ — that saying someone is destined for Hell is a personal expression of judgment and an assumption that ‘you’ are worse than ‘me’… to say judgment exists is not to say someone is more deserving of it than we are (even if it often comes across that way), nor is it to say we should treat a person differently to how we expect to be treated — two of the fundamental moral teachings of Jesus are ‘love your enemies’ and ‘treat others as you would have them treat you.’

Watching people who don’t share these categories try to understand and respond to what they think they mean is as painful as the meme pointing out that homosexuality is ruled out in Leviticus, but so are tattoos and Israel proudly has those — it’s just a poor understanding of how the Bible works from cover to cover (in case you’re wondering: there are several references to homosexuality in the New Testament letters to churches, and the idea that Old Testament Jewish laws should apply directly to non-Jewish converts was the subject of debates recorded in the Bible, in Acts 15, the Old Testament pointed to and is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 24)).

Hell and judgment are meant to motivate us to say ‘there but for the grace of God go I…’; to have us put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

God’s plan for his people is that we be like Jesus, inviting people to know the reconciling love of God, as his ambassadors, so that we no longer face eternal death and judgment, but eternal life. Here are a couple of quotes from the Bible (from the apostle Paul, about how he lived, and how Christians should live, if the stuff about death and judgment, and Jesus, is real). He says:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” — 2 Corinthians 5:10

This judgment thing is fundamental to Christian belief. It’s not an added extra (and it’s not us sitting in the judgment seat, but Jesus, it’s not ‘our plan’ but God’s plan). And this reality motivates Paul’s way of life with people who are facing judgment.

He says:

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” — 2 Corinthians 5:11

And then, that this persuasion isn’t motivated by earning bonus points with God, or to persuade people that they deserve judgment, but instead to love, and to invite people to experience the love of God.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

If there’s no sin, and no judgment, then there’s no need for this reconciliation stuff — but Paul’s profound motivation for speaking about sin, death, judgment, and Jesus is God’s love; it’s taking that loving invitation to the world that needs it.

The thought of people facing death and judgment is so troubling for God that he sent Jesus to die on a cross as an act of reconciliation; he took the first step. This stuff only makes sense if you’re prepared to believe there’s a God who has a standard, and that we fall short of that standard (what we call ‘sin’ — literally, etymologically, an archery term for ‘falling short of the target’), and that this falling short is total (not just about our sexuality or particular ‘transgressions’), a deliberate departure from God’s will, and destructive for ourselves, others, and the world, and means we don’t get heaven but face judgment. Without these categories anything a Christian says about God, hell, Jesus, reconciliation or judgment will sound like nonsense.

But for people who do operate with those categories, one needs to consider how they operate to produce a coherent way of life rather than just picking one bit to get offended at in isolation.

Paul also says, elsewhere:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” — Romans 12:1

The ‘in view of God’s mercy’ bit; if you were going to unpack that, is basically ‘because you are meant to face God’s anger and judgment as his enemy, and instead, through Jesus, are his child’ — the reality of God’s judgment and our place as Christians is that we’re meant to lay down our lives just like Jesus, in response to God’s love for us.

There’s lots of good reasons to probe around Christian beliefs and teachings around Hell (and lots of how we picture Hell that comes more from Dante’s fiction than from the Bible, and a reasonable theological case to be made for conditional immortality as an alternative to eternal death-as-death); but the idea that Christians believing or speaking about Hell is inherently evil or harmful, is only really true if either ‘being told things we disagree with and don’t like to hear’ is evil, or if somehow we’re acting not just as messenger but judge, jury, and executioner and sending people there ourselves, when we deserve exactly the same fate. It’s really God that Weber should take umbrage with, not Folau.

In his follow up, Folau said:

I think of it this way: you see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?

In this case, we are talking about sin as the Bible describes it, not just homosexuality, which I think has been lost on a lot of people.

This is good stuff — though that last line troubles me because I think it was Folau’s initial answer that created what was ‘lost on a lot of people’… and it presents a dilemma for Christians if views like Weber’s or Professor Gelber’s start to shape the way public conversations about the afterlife happen.

Professor Gelber raises the spectre of Folau being brought the courts on vilification charges; it’s a fascinating thought experiment revealing the default assumptions in the secular frame our academy, political and legal spheres have adopted — which will be utterly incompetent for assessing issues around religious freedoms if allowed to sit unchallenged, and if they can’t make room for the assumptions of religious participants in a truly secular (no official state religion), pluralist (many religious groupings), society.

My view is that it is unlikely the comment would reach the threshold of vilification, by which is meant that the comment was capable of inciting hatred in its audience against a member of the targeted group.

Well. What a relief. But given his comments were, by (theological) definition designed to be both an act of love in themselves, and are reflective of a theological belief that should motivate love for the member of a targeted group either our society has problems in how it perceives Christians and understands this stuff, or the way we Christians take this teaching and run with it is problematic.

Professor Gelber, like many in a post-enchanted secular world where there is no transcendent or divine foundation for morality or ethics has adopted an ethical framework based on harm, our apparent right not to be harmed, and our responsibility not to cause it.

“The responsibility that attaches to freedom of speech is the responsibility not to use one’s words, or one’s position, to hurt others. And despite the nursery rhymes, we know now that words can hurt, and hurt badly.”

Words about hell, judgment, or death, certainly describe something harmful and a prospect that is meant to motivate us to consider how we then live; but if hell is real, and Israel believes that it is, then the harm based ethic becomes a paradox. Who gets to define or choose which harm Israel should perpetrate on his neighbour — the harm potentially caused by speaking what he believes to be true, or the harm potentially caused by not speaking what he believes to be true? Gelber wants Folau to be a ‘role model’ and use his platform carefully, and responsibly, to minimise harm — but that is precisely what he was attempting to do.

“Folau has failed to appreciate the special responsibilities he carries as a role model for young people everywhere.

He is entitled to his religiously influenced view. But as a role model and national sporting star he should not have chosen to air a view so imbued with prejudice on the stage that is social media.

The best take-home from all of this should be a greater appreciation of the fact that words matter, and that the more powerful the speaker, the more aware of this they should be.”

What’s really going on here is a value judgment, from Weber and Gelber, that Christian beliefs are nonsense, ‘imbued with prejudice’ and so airing them is, essentially, always harmful (and again, a caveat, Folau’s answer would have been much less controversial if he’d broadened it immediately to include himself as a sinner, as he did in his follow up, rather than answering the question as framed).

Perhaps we’ve given them the ammunition for this belief by assuming we can operate in a secular world with totalising ‘natural’ arguments, rather than asking for our religious ones to be accommodated (like in the marriage debate), and by not denouncing those who do attempt to respond to sin with judgment (and exclusion) rather than with costly, sacrificial, love.

Love isn’t love; that’s a fluffy logical nonsense… but.

The cross is love. 

A loving response to God’s judgment, and God’s own invitation to be reconciled to him, by grace, not because we’re more deserving than anybody else but because we accept the invitation.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.