September 25, 2013 by Pastor Ben McIntire
“THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY, THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN, THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST. JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER; MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY, THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE. BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS WERE MADE, AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY. ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.”
The inscription above the Gate of Hell.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno: Canto III
Hell, damnation, judgment, condemnation, eternal suffering and punishment for sin. For some, these are the words that define the message of the church, and so it’s no great wonder that they stay away and have nothing to do with organized religion. I can’t blame them. If I had had similar encounters or experienced the “Christian message” in that fashion, then I’m sure I would find a different way to spend my Sunday mornings. However, I have been blessed with a faith that comes from God’s Holy Spirit, which was delivered through people who preached, spoke and lived the Gospel message that Jesus brought—a message of hope, grace, love and forgiveness. For those who feel alienated, judged, frightened or disgusted with organized religion, I sincerely beg your forgiveness on behalf of those who have hurt you in the name of the Christian religion. I hope God’s Holy Spirit will still call you into faith; not religion, but faith that will sustain and save you in this life and the next.
Condemnation has been all too common in the history of the church, as leaders have struggled to pass on the faith in the face of heresies, antagonists and persecutors. And yet, in this history, the church itself has antagonized and persecuted many. As a pastor in the Lutheran tradition, I have a heart for a faith that is rooted in the Gospel rather than in human traditions, which is really what religion is. Even so, some of the words of Martin Luther (the German monk, priest, professor, and reformer of the sixteenth century) were used as propaganda by the Nazis during World War II. We are all human and therefore imperfect, and so our religions continue to reflect that imperfection.
On the other hand, God has given us the great gift of faith. This perfect faith is a gift, a work of the Holy Spirit and not of our own skill or work. As a Lutheran Christian, I believe that it is this perfect faith in Christ which saves all people and redeems them to share in an eternal relationship with our Creator God. If that is true, then there are a couple of points that we have gotten wrong in our popular understanding of heaven and hell. I will begin a book study at my church soon on the book Love Wins by Rob Bell—taking a closer look at these misunderstandings and our way of thinking and talking about heaven and hell.
One of the largely unexamined notions in popular consciousness is the idea of Hell as a cave deep in the earth, full of fire, demons with pitchforks, and the constant torture of evil sinners. If asked, many of us could give a quick list of some of the people we think are in hell or who deserve to be cast into it in the future. In the Inferno, Dante illustrated the nine circles of hell by filling it with the villains and traitors of his own time and place, politicians, crooks and thieves from Florence who were well known for their particular sins. In each circle of hell, a different type of sinner is being tormented in a way that befits the sins that caused them to go to hell. In the deepest pit of the Ninth Circle of hell, there is found Satan, the father of demons with three mouths, devouring those most infamous traitors, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ, and Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Caesar.
In Love Wins, Bell examines these kinds of notions and wrestles with questions like “Who goes to hell? How do we know when someone is bad enough to be unredeemable? Why do we judge people and condemn them? How do we understand and believe in a loving God, if he sends people to hell? Does God punish people for eternity for the relatively brief sins committed in a short lifetime of eighty years?” These are exactly the questions we will address in our book study. If you are in the Creston area, I hope you will join us on Sundays at 9:00am, beginning October 13—and if you are not, I encourage you to pick up Love Wins and think about the questions it raises.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the faith you have given me by your Holy Spirit. Thank you for the grace you have shown me in the salvation won by your Son Jesus Christ. Help me to be a witness to this faith by sharing the grace and love with others that you have first shown me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.