By Linda Rex
Have you ever had one of those situations that come up in life where you know you have to go do something, maybe go to a meeting, or see the doctor or dentist, or go visit a friend, and you don’t know whether to be excited about it or to absolutely dread it? It seems like I’ve had a few things I really wanted to do this week, but the thought of doing them has not given me any sense of anticipation, but only a dread of what might happen and how difficult they were going to be to get done.
The irony has been that this week, the weather has been such that a couple of the meetings I had to go to were cancelled. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to them—it’s more that my health is such right now that I cannot handle very much stress or exercise without having more fluttering or pressure in my chest from my heart acting up. I anticipate going to have the tests done on my heart next week, but I also dread what that is going to involve since I don’t really care that much for having medical procedures done on me.
It’s hard to know exactly how something is going to turn out. We, as far as I am aware, do not have the capacity to predict these type of life events with much accuracy. So we plan ahead the best that we are able to, and then we are in a position of needing to trust God the rest of the way. We walk by faith, not by sight.
I think we have to keep this faith perspective in front of us when we begin to talk about what happens after death. I believe this is especially true when it comes to dealing with issues of judgment. By that I mean that we have certain people we or others have encountered in life who seem to be just evil at their very core. In our minds, we believe that at the least they deserve to be punished for all the harm they have done in their lives. And we form this idea in our minds that becomes our apocalyptic end time, or our concept of hell.
But if we take seriously our belief that Jesus became sin for us, meaning all humanity, and he lived our life and died our death because he shares in our humanity, and arose carrying all humanity with him into the presence of the Father, then we need to rethink some things. Because our concepts of judgment and condemnation may need to be adjusted.
We can face death with either dread or anticipation. I’ve watched people mourn and grieve because a loved one did not know Christ before they died—and they are convinced that they have gone straight to hell—which for them means painful agonizing suffering forever. Surely we need to reconsider what hell may be, because even though the Scripture talks about the fire that is not quenched, I’m not convinced that the fire is a literal thing that burns people forever.
Let me explain. What if we consider the situation of someone who everyone believes was horribly evil and did awful things in his life—let’s say—Hitler. Here is a man who orchestrated genocide and the twisting of the German church and state into a horror not yet forgotten. We still have people among us who bear the imprint of the numbers of their incarceration. He was a scary, twisted human being. Of all people who deserve to “go to hell”, he is one.
The first concern I have is the issue of judgment. Who is Hitler’s judge? It is not me or you but Christ. And ironically, the One who is the Judge is the One who paid the price for all that Hitler thought and did while he was alive. Hmmm…that can’t be right—Hitler has the ultimate “Get Out of Jail Free” card—Jesus Christ!
So what about all the things he did while he was alive? Doesn’t he deserve to be punished? Shouldn’t he have to suffer the way he caused so many others to suffer? How can God be a just God if he just lets him off the hook? Doesn’t he deserve to be condemned?
That’s a really good question. If indeed, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and we are all “in Christ” because in him “we live and move and have our being” and we live, die and rise in Christ’s humanity, then he is not condemned. That can’t be right, can it?
But the real thing we need to consider is the overwhelming majesty and passion (or fire) of God’s love, which never ends, and in the end will burn away all that is not of God and his grace and love. God’s love for such a man is greater than anything we can think of or even imagine.
God’s heart for Hitler is the same as his heart for you and me—that he share in the life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit for all eternity. And the only way he can share in that love and life is to be transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit within and without, through grace by faith. Just because he died and is now in the presence of God, does that mean that God is going to stop loving him into the person he created him to be?
What if the fire of God’s love continues to rage against the evil that has control of Hitler’s mind and heart? For example, what if Hitler has to come face to face with each and every person he ever harmed or betrayed, and in doing so, has to experience not only the horror of what he did to people, but also the guilt and shame that goes with it? And what if those people and Christ himself, offers him grace over and over? And what if he doesn’t want any of it, but just wants to escape it all or not have to face up to anything he did?
When it comes to the place that all evil is cast away and all that is left is what is good, and holy, and right—will there be a place for him? In that place where the evil one has no control or influence any longer, he cannot blame anyone but himself for what he did. He comes face to face with who he really is—both his broken humanity and the new life offered him in Christ.
This is God’s love for him in the midst of eternity. And this for him can be heaven—a joining in the celebration and joy of communion with all others in the life and love of God, or hell—a refusal to accept or acknowledge the reality of the grace and love being offered to him in and through Christ by the Spirit. This refusal of God’s grace and love means a life lived in isolation and alienation, one of self-condemnation he has chosen to live in for all eternity.
The fire of God’s love never ceases to burn away all that is not what we were meant to be as humans made in God’s image. For someone who refuses to repent and believe, that is hell, because it goes against the grain, and it forces them to face spiritual realities they do not want to face. It means all they depended upon and believed in is of no value and no longer exists. They have nothing left, but the truth. And that can be excruciating, especially if they don’t want to believe or accept it.
God is not ungracious and mean. He is not a horrible monster. He loves people enough that he gave them eternal life even when they didn’t deserve it. But the quality of the life they enjoy has fundamentally to do with what they believe about God and who he is, and what they believe about themselves and who they are.
The future after death can be anticipated or dreaded—either way it will be an expression of God’s love for humanity and his firm belief that we will be the adopted children he created in the first place to bear his very image in our being. But as C.S. Lewis wrote, heaven’s door is open on the outside, and we can enter in if we so choose, or stand outside and feel sorry for ourselves.
Some of us may decide when we get there that we don’t have any interest in the celebration whatsoever. But the fire of God’s love will not cease drawing us to himself and purifying us forever. How we will experience that fire, as a consuming fire that can’t be quenched or a transforming flame that warms our souls, will be determined by our response to God’s love and grace. May we anticipate and not dread the day we come face to face with the living Christ.
Loving Father, thank you for giving us a promise of eternity in your Son and in the gift of your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive your gift of life today so that we may experience your love even today in every way in our lives. May we also rejoice with you in the eternal celebration of life forever through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. Amen.
“For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’” 1 Peter 4:17–18 NIV
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