Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17
The sixteenth verse of the third chapter of John’s Gospel is one of the best loved verses in the Bible. And for good reason. It declares God’s unlimited love for the world and promises that everyone who gives his or her heart to Jesus will have eternal life, now and forever.

But that verse is also one of the most controversial and divisive verses in the Bible. For many Christians, what it means is that those who believe in Jesus are saved, and go to heaven, while those who don’t believe in Jesus are lost, and go to hell.

The uncomfortably common paraphrase would read something like this, “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that those who did not believe in him would go to hell.”

Of course if you phrase it that way, almost no one would own it. But for many Christians the idea that someone is going to hell is at the core of their beliefs.

In my Christmas Eve sermon last December I shared my belief that God’s grace is unlimited, that no one is left out, and that in the end we all go to God. As I spoke, a whole row at the back of the church emptied out. A young woman stood up, looking very unhappy, and then motioned for her companions to follow her. Maybe she was just taken with a sudden and urgent need for the rest room, but they didn’t come back and my guess is that she was not about to have her Christmas Eve spoiled by some preacher telling her that God loves everyone.

Over the weekend, Rob Bell, the Evangelical mega-church pastor who wrote “Velvet Elvis,” came under a strong attack because his new book apparently denies that God will condemn anyone to eternal damnation. The book is called, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and it is due for publication later this month.

Bell is being called a heretic. The critics say that in traditional Christian theology heaven and hell are real places. And they say that though there are many issues that divide Catholics and Protestants; this is not one of them. The traditionalist critics believe that God loves everyone, but that those who do not believe in Jesus as their personal savior are condemned to hell.

The same critics have come after Brian McLaren for the same reasons.

Rob Bell’s position is not really new. We would have to search long and hard for a theologian who really believed in the “lake of fire.” Maybe Jonathan Edwards?

Rick Warren, the Mega-Church Pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life, says that he believes in hell. But for Warren, hell is being separated from God. What he believes is that we choose to be near to God or separated from God, and that choice determines our destiny. It’s a long way from the eternal fire.

People want to believe in hell because they want others to be punished. The love of judgment (when applied to others!) is part of our sinful nature. Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” And the truth is that we love that image.

But if we look at the whole of scripture and if we really consider the life and teachings of Jesus, then the idea of a literal hell simply will not bear close examination. As Rob Bell asks in a promotional video for his book, “Does anyone really believe that Mahatma Gandhi is burning in hell?”

The reality of our lives is that we are sinners, just as Jonathan Edwards said, and we are in the hands of God, but the more theologically accurate title for our life story would be, “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.”

1 comment:

  1. I agree. In thoughtfully reading the Bible over the past 20 years, particularly the New Testament and more specifically the words of Jesus, I don't see how it can be any other way.