Lent introspection – This past Tuesday, on Mardi Gras, Kevin of the Big Hominid and I went out to Puccini near Gangnam Station, where we spent three hours eating some really good Italian food and talking about stuff like pluralism, hell, and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Kevin wrote a fine review of both the food and atmosphere, quoting me at a few points, so I feel that lets me off the hook for writing a review of my own. Suffice it to say the food was excellent (as expected), I had a great time, and I was glad to hear that Kevin enjoyed himself as well.
Today’s entry, though, is going to be more about what we discussed than what we ate. More accurately, it’s going to be an elaboration (although most likely not a clarification) on a particular subject we touched upon. By way of warning, I should note that today’s entry is going to be extremely religious in nature. But it is in keeping with my policy of brutal honesty about myself, so while I may warn you, dear reader, I will not apologize.
Anyway, my current train of thought began with an innocuous mark Kevin made in one of our email exchanges. He made a fairly standard “going to hell” joke, and I replied that, while I was not offended, hell wasn’t a laughing matter for me. This prompted him to ask me about my perception of hell, and we discussed this (among other things) over dinner Tuesday.
I was raised to understand hell as being complete separation from God. That is, I was raised to understand hell in an abstract sense. When pressed for a more concrete description, the best I could come up with was: “fiery and dark.” I guess I was never too concerned about the physical aspects of hell, because the spiritual aspect was far more frightening. At least, that was what I was taught. In truth, I cannot really understand what it means to be separated from God. Perhaps it is the abstract and unknown nature of this threat that makes it so terrifying.
This doesn’t really get us any closer to what hell actually is, although it does suggest that hell is not so much a physical space as a state of being. The Bible doesn’t really have too much to say about hell. It mentions it a number of times, but we only get bits and pieces of what it might be like. Take this search on “hell” at BibleGateway.com, for example. There are fourteen results, but most of the results don’t offer any description of hell. Four verses talk of the fire of hell—Mark 9:43 says that hell is “where the fire never goes out.” Luke 16:23 speaks of hell as a place of torment, and 2 Peter 2:4 mentions “gloomy dungeons.” That last verse is also interesting because it says that fallen angels were sent to hell “to be held for judgment,” indicating that hell is something of a holding cell.
I think part of the confusion over hell stems from the various terms used in the Bible: Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, the lake of fire, etc. Are all of these describing the same place, or are they different places? “Sheol” is the Hebrew word for the land of the dead, and is often translated in the Bible as “grave.” Gehenna, it is said, was a constantly burning garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem, and is apparently used as a metaphor for hell. Hades is a Greek word that has the same function as Sheol, and the lake of fire is used as a synonym for hell.
Basically what we are dealing with is a more or less neutral land of the dead and a place of torment. In Protestant theology, there is no neutral ground: you either go to heaven or to hell when you die. But then you have the judgments upon Christ’s return to earth, where the dead are judged and sent to their final destinations. So does that mean that there is a difference between the “holding place” mentioned by Peter and the final hell that is complete and eternal separation from God? I cannot give a definite answer, but that seems to be a possibility.
Kevin also asked me what I thought the function of hell was, because “it’s not for punishment.” At the time I didn’t address whether hell was for punishment or not because I understood what he was saying (at least I think I do, and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong). Punishment is simply a penalty for wrongdoing. But we had been talking about the differences between the Christian hell and the Buddhist hell, and one difference between the two is that the Buddhist hell is not eternal. Basically, Buddhists go to hell to “work off” the evil that they did in their lifetimes before being given another chance in the human world (depending on the severity of the evil, it might take more than one cycle to get back to the human world). The same thing goes for the Buddhist heavens: once you have enjoyed the bliss commensurate with your good deeds, you get dropped back down to the world of the living to try again.
In Christianity, however, heaven and hell are eternal. Heaven is still a reward and hell is still a punishment (determined by how we receive Christ during our lifetimes), but our grace in heaven will not run out, and hell is not there to burn away the evil we have done do we can be given a second chance. This is an oversimplification of both faiths, of course, but that’s basically what I think Kevin was talking about—punishment in the sense of discipline for the purpose of reform. So, what is the function of hell, besides punishment? I’ve always thought that hell was where those who refused Christ and whose sins were not covered by his blood were sent after the final judgment in order to purify the new world that Christ will build when he returns to earth. Although I never thought much about it before, I guess this supports the idea of a separate holding place for those who die without Christ, since hell would only be needed once Christ returns to earth.
Now, I am not a theologian, or even a theology student. These are just my ideas and impressions, backed in part by Scripture but definitely not watertight. Still, I think every Christian has to come to terms with hell at one point or another. It’s a rather thorny and uncomfortable subject to deal with, mainly because there’s really no way of candy-coating it. It’s easy to talk about heaven, and it’s easy to talk about God’s love. But it’s much more difficult to talk about hell and God’s holiness.
That might seem like an odd pairing, hell and holiness, but I believe that God’s holiness is the reason that hell exists. It might seem more natural to pair God’s wrath with hell, but that is a more human reaction. We wish evil on those who anger us, but God is not like that. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. I do not see God wrathfully throwing sinners into hell, but reluctantly separating them from himself to purify his new world. If we are God’s creation, why would he gleefully destroy us? No matter how wicked a child has become, his parents will continue to love him, always holding on to the hope that he might repent of his wickedness. I think it is the same way with God.
The problem that many people have with hell is that they are unable to reconcile the idea of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to die for our sins and the idea of a God who would allow people to be condemned to eternal torment. Truth be told, I sometimes have difficulty with this myself. I can reason it out, of course: God condemns no one, it is we who condemn ourselves, though God tries his hardest to save us. God must remove sin from his sight because he is holy, and he cannot make exceptions because he is just. God is not holy and just in the way that we might say someone is honest or intelligent. Even a normally honest man might lie, and even a normally intelligent man might make a foolish mistake. But holiness and justice are God’s nature, and unchanging.
This is what I have been taught, and this is what I can say that I believe. But this does not mean that I do not struggle with the idea. As a human being, it is difficult to comprehend a God that can be loving and yet so just and holy that he will cast those who reject him into the darkness. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that love covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12, 1 Peter 4:8)? Aren’t we exhorted to overlook offenses, even to submit to them (Matthew 5:39)? One would think that God would be able to overlook those who reject him, especially if it meant that they did not have to perish.
This would not be just, though, and it would go against God’s nature. And the sins and wrongdoings we are encouraged to submit to or overlook are not on the same level as a rejection of God. I know that this is the answer to this question, and I believe it to be true, but it still troubles me. I wish it could just be about God’s love and about goodwill toward men. Sometimes I just want to brush hell under the carpet like a pile of dust, hoping that no one will notice it. But if you believe that what the Bible says is true, it becomes impossible to gloss over the fact that, just as there is a heaven, there is also a hell.
I suppose that by posting this entry I am risking offending some readers. But I’m just giving voice to some of the things that have been bouncing around inside my skull since Tuesday. This has not been a very thorough discussion of the subject, and I haven’t really reached any satisfying conclusions. As often happens when I peel away the layers of my thoughts and fears, I have found only more layers. I don’t know what my readers think of entries like this, but I can honestly say that these are the least satisfying entries I write. I feel like I’m stirring up a can of worms and then just sitting back and watching as they wriggle all over the floor.
So, I don’t know if I’ve actually accomplished anything today, but at least I should answer the question that began this whole thing: why is hell not a laughing matter for me? In a word, because hell represents the ultimate failure. If I were to end up in hell, it would mean that my faith was a sham or that everything I believed in was a lie—equally horrifying possibilities.
But why am I worried about going to hell? After all, if I believe what the Bible says, and I have accepted Christ as my savior, then I should be going to heaven, right? Well, I was raised to believe that you could lose your salvation. I’m not sure if this is the actual doctrine of the church I attended, or if this is what I was taught, but it was what I ended up learning. The problem with this idea is that if we can lose our salvation, that means that we can somehow earn it—or at least be worthy of keeping it—and that goes against everything the Bible says.
I do understand why the idea of losing one’s salvation holds such sway, though. It makes little sense to us as humans that we can make a decision once and be granted eternal salvation, no matter how we may treat God after that decision. The Bible says that Christians will be identifiable by their love and by the fruit of the Spirit. But what if I do not love and do not exhibit the fruits of the Spirit? Does this mean I am not a Christian? What if I did exhibit the fruits of the Spirit at one point but I no longer do? Does this mean that I was a Christian at one point but am no longer? Have I, in other words, lost my salvation?
Let’s take a closer look at the fruit of the Spirit. This is the fruit that the Holy Spirit will bear in the lives of Christians. Fruit is often used by Christ as a metaphor for someone’s actions or behavior. Matthew 7:15-20 is one example of this, and an important one at that, so I will quote it here.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
This seems to be strong evidence for the theory that one can lose one’s salvation. After all, if we bear bad fruit, than we cannot be good trees, can we? Then how do we explain someone who made a commitment to Christ and then later bore bad fruit? Doesn’t Paul tell the Philippians that he is “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6)? That is, once God begins the work of redemption, he sees it through to the end. He will not abandon anyone. So how is it that someone can make a commitment and later fall away? There is only one logical answer: the commitment was never true in the first place.
I think it is important to note, though, that in the passage above Jesus is specifically talking about how to spot false prophets. I mentioned and linked to the passage on the fruit of the Spirit, but I think it is important enough to quote in full here, along with the preceding verses.
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:16-26)
There is a warning here that those who live by the sinful nature will not inherit the kingdom of God, which is in keeping with what we have seen so far. But that is not all that is said here. Paul says that Christians have “crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires,” but at the beginning of the passage he refers to a conflict between the Spirit and the sinful nature. It is obvious that this crucifixion of the sinful nature is not a one-time event, as the battle still rages inside us and we are exhorted to make the right choice—to live by the Spirit. We must crucify our sinful nature constantly, because we will never fully be rid of it in this lifetime.
The very existence of this passage would also seem to indicate that those whom Paul recognized as Christians were not living by the Spirit but by their sinful natures, becoming “conceited, provoking and envying each other.” Does this mean that they lost their salvation? And if they started to live by the Spirit again, would they suddenly regain their salvation?
The fruit of the Spirit is an outward manifestation that the Spirit lives inside of us. It is something that happens after we make our commitment to Christ and obtain salvation, not a prerequisite of salvation. The Bible makes it very clear that it is not by works that we are saved but by faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14). This might seem paradoxical, if not contradictory—we are not saved by works, but faith without works cannot save us? If salvation is a free gift of God, then we shouldn’t have to work for it, should we?
I have heard it said that our reward in heaven, not our salvation, will be determined by our deeds on earth. That is, if we do not live our lives for God, we will still be saved, but our reward will be little. This theory is backed by 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, which is important enough to quote in full here.
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
The foundation laid by Jesus Christ is our salvation, and what we build on this foundation is how we live our lives. The fire is the judgment of our works, and if our deeds are shown to have been in vain, we will suffer loss, though we ourselves be saved. This makes sense to me, and is the theory I currently subscribe to, but I cannot say that it is the undisputable truth. It just happens to be where I am right now. I have a hard time accepting that a true commitment can be nullified and salvation truly gained can be lost, but I can’t say that I am able to reject the idea with one hundred percent certainty.
Then again, if I was living by the Spirit, I would have nothing to worry about. I suppose the root of all of this is the knowledge that I am not living the way I should be as a Christian. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? If that was a report card, I would be flunking out of school. Sure, I go to church every week. I even sing in the choir. I listen to the pastor’s sermons, and I even vow that I am going to make some changes in my life.
But do these changes happen? No, and I even know why they don’t happen. Because I’m trying to do these things through my own strength. Yet I don’t pray, and it’s been so long since I’ve read the Bible that I had to flounder and fumble for verses when talking with Kevin on Tuesday. I recently made a commitment to spend at least an hour a day working on Liminality in one form or another—could I not spare another hour getting my spiritual life back in order? Of course I could, and now that I’ve come out and said it, I suppose I no longer have any excuse (if trying to ignore the problem can be called an excuse).
So I guess I have come to a conclusion in a way, and in the end I find that it’s not about hell or losing one’s salvation, it’s about the way I live my life. That’s where it begins, and that’s where it ends.
I actually wrote most of this entry yesterday, but when I finished writing the last paragraph I thought, “Why not now? Why not start now?” I took a little quiet time for myself and thus wasn’t able to finish the entry and edit it for posting. I suppose it is appropriate, though, that I post an entry examining the state of my faith today, seeing that it is the first Sunday of Lent. And although I hadn’t originally planned on giving anything up for Lent, I have decided that I will make a sacrifice of sorts. Compared to some, I don’t play a lot of computer games, but I do spend about an hour playing them in the evening on most days. So I am going to give that up and use that time to get myself back to where I need to be.
One final note: this is not really related to the rest of the entry, but today also happens to be my wife’s and my ninth wedding anniversary. We just got home from a nice dinner, and now I need to wrap this up so we can watch a DVD that we rented. It’s hard to believe it’s been nine years already.