Today I got a message in my inbox:
Hi Ethan! I came across your article on Church Leaders, and I’m just so thankful I finally found someone who explains exactly what I’ve been feeing for so long… I do have a question though, how can I know if I’m even saved in the first place? Just like the student you mentioned in your article, my main reason for believing is really just my fear for hell…
I began to reply to her but then realized that it is not a simple reply, but (at least) an entire blog post. So here are some thoughts. If I can make just a few people a little less scared of God, it’ll be a massive success.
I distinctly remember the morning: I was probably in 4th grade(ish), and at a Colorado summer camp that no longer exists. The sermon that morning had been on the gospel, with a special emphasis on hell. My small group sat outside in a circle and I told my counselor that, yes I was indeed scared of hell, so I’d be praying to accept Jesus.
It was probably my sixth time accepting Jesus (phrase open to interpretation) but, like the respondent today, I wasn’t sure if the other 5 times had yet worked. I didn’t feel any different.
Fast forward to Australia when I was 19. I was getting baptized and hoping very badly that I would feel different when I emerged from the water. Yet again, I rose up from the ocean and felt the same as before.
It would be almost a decade before I began to unpack a lot of what the Bible teaches about salvation, the gospel, heaven and hell, knowing Jesus, et al., and realize that the way it’s all packaged to Americans is tragically below what is actually in the Bible.
Too often, the gospel is presented as a golden ticket on a one-way train to heaven for a bunch of undeserving sinners. As long as your faith is good enough. And you love nothing more than praying and worshiping. And you cry every time you think of Jesus. And you give up all material possessions in order to free your desires. Et cetera.
I think that a lot of our conversionist language emerges more from Middle Ages feudalism, or Muslim conquests, than from Jesus. We have the verse which always pops into mind, Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s it, right? That’s the train ticket, yah?
The thing is, if you look at the chapters before and after, you find no mention of the afterlife. We never stop and ask important questions like, “What does Paul mean by the word ‘saved’?” We are so accustomed to reading the Bible through this lens of afterlife terror that we assume that any reference to being saved refers to heaven or hell. We sift all of the Bible through a filter that sorts things into ‘heaven and hell language’ even when it’s not there.
Most passages about being saved conjure images of a life raft being tossed to us in a torrential sea sucking us down to the depths. Thank goodness we are saved from an eternity down there! Better hold on tight or I’m doomed!
And that’s our Christian faith. A little inner tube saving us from the bad place.
But in context, that verse is talking about generations and descendants and the continuation of Israel and the offspring of Abraham forward into history. Paul, a Jew, is writing to Gentiles about how to get in line to receive this same blessing from Abraham and be a part of this ongoing call to bless the world. Could it refer to the afterlife? Possibly. But immediate context suggests otherwise. Either way, there is far more context to dig into than what we are typically presented with when presented with ‘the gospel.’
Last night I was talking to someone who’s on the fence about Christianity. He asked if, since I’m a pastor, I’ll try to convert him. I said, ‘yes, pray this one minute prayer and then you’re in forever….because that’s what the Bible prescribes.’
…Except that it doesn’t.
The Bible talks about a lot of things: knowing God, living like Jesus, transforming our minds and hearts and affections, being and making disciples, as well as a slew of action items like taking care of the poor, the orphans and widows, etc.
But it doesn’t talk about “going to heaven.”
It talks about one person going to heaven: Jesus. Because in the Bible, the word ‘heaven’ literally just meant the sky and everything in it–clouds, sun, moon, stars, etc. In the ancient mindset, there is everything we can touch, like the sea and land and plants and animals; and then there is everything up there, which is, the heavens.
And when Jesus ascended into the sky after His resurrection, He literally went to the heavens.
“But aren’t you worried about getting me into heaven?” asked my friend last night.
I said, “Maybe I would be if the Bible were more worried about getting you into heaven. The issue is, most of our conceptions of the afterlife come from Dante and Renaissance artwork more than from the Bible. It talks about life and resurrection and being with God, and living well in this life. The Old Testament has roughly 3 verses on the afterlife….”
Let that simmer.
“People often ask me what I believe about hell,” said my New Testament professor last year. “I always respond with, ‘do you mean Hades? The Outer Darkness? The Lake of Fire? The Eternal Punishment? The Second Death? Gehenna? Hinnom? Which hell are you referring to?”
He was pointing out that the Bible is far more complex when it talks about, well, everything. And we have oversimplified it to thinking that there is hell and there is heaven and we want to avoid the former and go to the latter and this is the Good News of the Bible…
But each passage needs to be read in context. What are the implications of each of those ‘hells’? Is Jesus talking about the afterlife, or is He talking about living in sin so that your life (this life) becomes a literal garbage pile (Gehenna–a word often translated as ‘hell’ in English)?
Or what about the fact that Jesus ONLY talks about hell with the religious teachers, and never with outsiders like the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners? Seems that if anyone was in danger of being scorched by hellfire in Jesus’ eyes, it was the exclusive religious folks, not the outsiders.
What about the fact that there is not one clear, distinct method by which people are saved in the New Testament? You’d think that if it were so important, Jesus would have laid out the instructions for how, exactly, to get to heaven, or a prayer to recite so we can lock it in. Instead, the only formula we get is the Lord’s Prayer, which is surprisingly lacking in language about the afterlife, and deals exclusively with our life on this side of the grave.
So all this begs the question then, what is the Good News? What is Christianity? Is it merely a method of escaping hell? If that was the overarching narrative of the Bible–that we are bad and the world is bad and hell is coming, unless you manage to convert to Jesus–then it would seem like predominantly bad news. Or at the very least, scary news.
When you’re writing a story, it’s the bad guy who has the plan. S/he’s the one driving the plot forward. The good guy is just responding to the plan of the bad guy and always ends up thwarting the bad guy’s plan at the last minute. Think of any movie you’ve ever seen. Who was the one with the plan, driving the plot forward?
Is this true of the Bible too? Satan had a plan to pull us all to hell, but Jesus managed to outwit him at the last second with the cross and salvation, thank goodness? Who is really driving the plot of the universe forward?
Maybe we should take a larger look at life, at creation, at the universe, and see that the Good News of God is actually that God is the One who had a plan from beginning to end and it is a good plan. He wants us to thrive and enjoy life and live well and not go down paths that are bad for us or for others. He doesn’t want us to destroy ourselves or those around us.
Jesus says that His way of life (His yoke) is light and easy and leads to rest for our souls (Matthew 11).
This doesn’t sound at all like the street preachers downtown telling pedestrians that they’re on the road to hell.
This doesn’t sound like an invitation to fear and worry and fretting about whether we are in or out.
This sounds like wholeness and shalom.
It sounds like freedom to love our neighbor and the outsider and the stranger; to love our work and enjoy creation and add to it by becoming little creators ourselves. Paint, make pottery, do yoga, lift weights, start a business, tend your garden, dress in funky thrift store finds, look at nebulas through a telescope, write a poem, have coffee with your annoying neighbor, and all the rest of the elements of the good life.
It’s all part of the Good News.
The Bible is far less myopic than we often make it.
Let us never come to it again out of fear of hell.