Sunday night in a Little Rock hotel, I went downstairs to relax in the hot tub. I succeeded for 3 minutes, when an older lady from St. Louis sat beside me and asked me what kind of contraption was in my hand. I showed Paula all the cool iPhone apps (including my Bible one) and concluded that she was not well-versed in the important things of life (like technology and Jesus). So I frankly asked her what she thought about spiritual things. Before you think of me as godlier than I really am, or some natural evangelist, know that I purposed in my heart to:
1) enjoy a spiritual conversation and lovingly point her to Christ, or
2) offend her so badly that she left "my" hot tub and therefore, enjoy a few minutes alone.
For the next hour I heard an intruguing story of a former athiest, now believer in God. Paula knew a lot about the Bible, seemed to have a genuine concern for others, and a deep gratitude towards Jesus. I began to wonder why I felt the Holy Spirit's prod to talk to her. "It must be for my own benefit" I thought, as she seemed to speak prophecy over me that resignated with my soul. The timing was perfect when she encouraged me to let God be my plan, love people not use them, and be filled with the Spirit so that I can discern what He is doing in my life.
Somewhere along the way a teenage girl from Chicago sat beside us. I noticed she took her earphones out and listened intently to my and Paula's conversation, shortly before Paula mentioned that no one goes to hell and it doesn't really exist. She talked all about grace, how we are not saved by our works, and that she can not see how a loving God would ever send anyone to hell.
Crud. Hell is not my favorite subject. I've never wanted to come off like the "hell, fire, and brimstone" people who focus on damnation. But I couldn't let that one go, especially with a young person listening in. I asked Paula how she would explain the story Jesus told about Lazarus and the rich man. (Luke 16:19-30) The greedy rich man was in torment, and there was a fixed chasm between him and the resting place of God's children.
"Well, somehow God brings all people to Himself. He didn't die on the cross so people could go to hell. The rich man expressed that he was sorry. He showed love and concern for his family that was still living. So the rich man redeemed himself."
"But you just said you believed in all grace. How could his emotion or work save himself after he was dead?"
Then we talked about Osama bin Laden. She nicely pointed out that I was judging and saying OBL was going to hell because of the bad things he had done, because I don't know what kind of life that man had or how he was brainwashed. I politely noted that was not what I said. Bin Laden is in hell because he never trusted Christ to PAY FOR his bad things. The problem with people like him is not their ignorance, it is their defiance. He's not guilty because of any situation he was in, he's guilty because of his sin. Osama thought he was earning his way to heaven, and never turned to the true God or followed His ways.
It dawned on me that for thirty minutes I thought Paula and I were on the same page. But she never said the "sin" word. Friends, you can not speak the full gospel if you don't mention sin. I know it's a dirty word. We'd rather blame our humanity, circumstances, parents, education, but never our sin. You don't really know the worth of Christ's sacrifice until you understand the danger of being a sinner.
Paula can't believe in a God who would let people go to hell. I don't think I can serve a God who lets evil go unpunished. I have to believe there is some motivation for evil men to stop terrorizing innocent people. I hear the stories about parents in India boiling infants alive, rape, the Holocaust, 9-11. I've looked in the face of various victims and shared in their suffering. In times like those, I have to know God will deal with evil by punishment or save people through repentance. But it doesn't matter what I want to believe, because I am not the judge. It does matter what the Judge says. Scripture plainly teaches there is a hell. Jesus speaks of it often.
Luke 12:6 "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him."
I do struggle with the concept of hell. I can't tolerate the fact that it might contain people I love who haven't committed the "big sins:" murder, torture, rape, child abuse, etc. That's how my mind works: I love social justice, so I'm okay with hell for the most vile criminals.
My son has helped expand my mind on this subject. A portion of his typical, daily prayer goes as follows: "Dear God, thank you for all the wonderful things You have made. Thank you for Heaven for those who trust in You, and Hell for those who don't."
Hell? As a wonderful thing God made? Thanking God for it? I can't really do that yet. I did not teach my child this. He only knows about hell because my husband and I have read about it from the Bible. If it was up to me, I would have skipped those sections.
In my 6-year old's mind, hell does not exist for murderers. It is reserved for those who committ the most horrible act: not trusting in a perfect God to keep them from it. The problem is not that we humans sin against each other; we sin against the One who made us. The "who" makes a big difference. To illustrate, punch me in the face and you will suffer from the anger of my husband. Punch the President in the face and you'll encounter more serious consequences from higher authorities.
That is the problem with Hell. It occupies the likely suspects, but will also contain those who think in their hearts: "Screw You God. I don't need You. I'll save myself by my good works."