Reflection eleven: sin, heaven and hell

I want to take this post in a different direction from the original – mainly because there is little difference today with the thoughts I expressed five years ago.  I still believe in a God who loves the whole of creation, and who acted decisively to ‘save’ all of humanity through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that salvation is a communal experience, as well as a personal response to that deep truth.  I believe, therefore, that questions of who’s in or out are misplaced, as I believe God is at work in all ways to bring all things together.  

My instinct (framed by study and theological reflection) is that when we ask the question ‘what about justice?’ we usually mean that we want God to punish those who we have judged as ‘sinners’, forgetting a judge can show leniency if mitigating factors are persuasive enough.  Let’s leave that stuff to God, and instead focus much more on our own actions and what they speak of our beliefs.

Instead, I want to ask a different kind of question today.

What if we lived as if there were no heaven and hell?

What if, when we died, there was nothing beyond the grave?

What difference would that make to the way we live?

If we are living a life that is governed by our eternal destination, is there a possibility that we may actually end up missing the point entirely? 

Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for those who were obsessed with religious rules and drawing clear boundaries about who was ‘good enough’ or not.  He warned his followers away from being obsessed with external measures of greatness, urging them instead to live up to the exacting standard of sacrificial love for neighbour.  

The danger of focusing on life after death is that we completely lose sight of life before it.  If everything we do on earth is some kind of groundwork in preparation for our eternal  future, our motivation may become somewhat suspect – doing good to get our ‘reward’ in heaven, avoiding ‘bad’ to make sure we don’t end up in hell.  Don’t get me wrong – religious people have done many great things to improve the lives of those who suffer, but they have also done great harm in their desire to ‘please’ their God.  Think of the persecution visited on those who dare to believe and practice different things, the oppression of minorities who don’t or can’t fit their image or understanding of what is right or wrong…I’m sure you can think of as many examples as I can of misplaced zealousness which have led to great evils being perpetrated and justified in the name of the God of love.

This brings me right back to Jesus and his message to his followers. He consistently taught them to embrace life here and now, to seek to live lives of compassion, generosity and love for all. Yes, he taught them to build up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, he warned them to be prepared for judgement day…but at the root of these teaching is an urgent, immediate command to love God by loving others.  ‘Holiness’ is not meant to be some kind of ascetic badge of honour, but instead a willingness to engage with the dirt and grime of our world , and somewhere within it all to find God at work.  Our eternal reward is like an unintended side effect of our actions – think of the story of the sheep and goats: those who are rewarded by the king are almost surprised, those punished (un)righteously indignant.

The prayer Jesus left us contains that deeply significant phrase “your kingdom come here on earth as in heaven” – our mission, our purpose is to bring about quite literally heaven on earth.  That means the restoration of all things, the bringing of fullness of life here and now, the willingness to give up everything to see our fellow humanity experience what life can be if we’re willing to make a difference. 

Sin, therefore, becomes our unwillingness to embrace this rather than an obsession with morality.  The reality here is that if we can ‘love God’ and ‘love neighbour’ we will probably find ourselves moving away from the kind of selfishness that has been traditionally associated with sin – in effect treating others as if they are a product to be consumed to fulfil our desires.  We can’t love our neighbour and treat them without dignity, love and respect…it’s impossible!

My instinct is that if we put to one side any thought about our eternal destination and focus instead on how we can be ambassadors of grace here and now, we will find the treasure that Jesus tells us about within the lives that are transformed by our actions. We find meaning in helping others, find purpose in bringing transformation. We stop looking over our shoulder for a micro-managing God with a checklist of ‘naughty or nice’, stop thinking about what we will get out of it, and instead become aware of our vital, significant and costly participation in the bringing of the kingdom here on earth. 

If heaven is our calling to work towards on earth, then surely we are also called to eliminate ‘hell’ – personal, communal…in whatever form we find it. To stand by while evil prospers is to fail that calling to holiness.

And if, when we get to our last breath we can look back and see that our world is a better place for us having been here, then whatever – if anything – comes next, we can consider that we’ve lived as well as we could have. 

Death is one thing we all share – but let’s not be defined by what happens after it when we have so much to be getting on with here and now.  This, surely, is a God glorifying way of life, an act of worship worthy of the one who redeems, restores and transforms. A life worth living.


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