I’ve been thinking a lot about it it lately. I don’t think Christians can even begin to comprehend the scale of the harm that has been done by our concepts of Heaven and Hell. I think Heaven and Hell are, in many ways, insidious ideas.Think about it: we respond to the world not as it is, but as we are. The same is true for God. We respond not to God as He is, but to how we believe Him to be. Our actions are always based on our perceptions. And our perceptions are invariably flawed. Nowhere – I believe – are the consequences more potentially devastating than in our perceptions of Heaven and Hell. And our perceptions are unBiblical.
We have made the primary goal of Christian evangelism about a place and not about relationship. The question driving so much of our preaching, to the converted and unconverted alike, is: Where will you end up? It should be: With whom will you end up? It’s a subtle difference, but with very far reaching consequences.The Bible actually places very little emphasis on either place. It does repeatedly stress God’s desire to be in relationship with us. I suspect that the Biblical stress on eternal life is not aimed at frightening us into choosing the place we want to spend it. Rather, it is directing us to the fact that God is life. He is the author and sustainer of life, and apart from Him, therefore, life cannot ever be as fulfilling, exciting, or beautiful as it was intended to be. Because God is life, you cannot have life that does not include Him. Rejecting Him means rejecting life, It is not punitive, it is simply logical.
That’s why the Bible stresses the need to be in relationship with God. Not because He will punish us if we don’t know Him, but because we cannot ever satisfy our longings – the deeply rooted realisation that there must be more to our existences – without the One who placed those longings in our hearts in the first place. God is life. It is not punitive that separation from Him means death. If sin means death it is because God’s presence cannot tolerate sin, and the consequence of being separated from God is death because God is life.
But we’ve turned it into a quest for a place, not a quest for life. The modern evangelist pitch is aimed either at encouraging us to avoid flames or to seek bliss. And that misses the point. The “places”, however we have constructed them, were always merely incidental. It was always about the Creator and Author of Life. It was always about finding Him, not saving ourselves. There’s a difference.
Perceptions always lead to action. The difference is in the actions that must invariably follow these perceptions. If the aim is to find a place, then we can only incidentally love God. He is not our primary love: avoiding flames is, which means we ourselves are our first love. Imagine being told that somebody loved you not because of any qualities you possessed, but because they were afraid not to, or that they wanted the benefits of being in your presence. Would you call that true love? Certainly not! But that’s what we are promoting when we place an undue emphasis on Heaven or Hell.
It’s why I love Christ. Realising that my life’s deepest fulfilment would be found in being in relationship with Him, and realising that my sinful nature prevented that – not because he hated me for it, but because His own presence precluded sin – He found a way to make me sinless so that I could know Him, and therefore know life. And now, these many years after his death and resurrection, he still sustains all life on earth. We only know life because He allows it – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people alike (we are all sinful, so the distinction is actually arbitrary) . But life in this world of sin is not what He intended. It does not satisfy us. He wants to – and will – show us what life was truly meant to be, in a world purified of sin. Until then, He sustains it that we may come to know Him.
We hugely diminish His love for us, and the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice, when we turn it into a quest to avoid flames. To know God is life. Trying to obey His commands in order to bring that life is – in the words of the Bible – to be under “the curse of the law”. Stop trying to avoid flames, or trying to reap rewards. Just search after the heart of God.