Earlier in the year I was helping to share the gospel with someone who in many ways was very interested in the Christian faith. The main thing that held her back was this: She really loved her mother who was a practising Buddhist. To embrace Christianity was to embrace a truth system that taught that those who died apart from Christ would end up in hell. It was a reality too painful to imagine and so she held back.
I admired her response for a number of reasons. I admired her love for her mother. How could we fault that? And I admired the fact that she didn’t opt for some post modern solution about different faiths and different heavens for different people. But what about hell?
Hell is one of those aspects of the Christian faith that we sometimes wish wasn’t there. But there it is, clearly taught in the bible. First we are told that the primary anti God being will be sent there as part of his eternal judgement.
“And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” [Revelation 20:10 TNIV]
Then we are told that all those whose names were not in the Book of Life, all those who had rejected Christ were sent there too.
“The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. All whose names were not found written in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire.” [Revelation 20: 13-15 TNIV]
It would appear that hell is a hot place. But elsewhere it is described as a place of teeth chattering cold.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” [Matthew 8:10-12 TNIV]
Is hell a hot smelly place or a cold dark place? Clearly metaphorical language is at play but the metaphors point to a reality. Hell is a place you don’t want to be. It is a place for people who choose not to have a loving relationship with God. And it kills us to think that our loved ones are there. Especially people who have lived moral and caring lives but have rejected Jesus.
What do we say to people who struggle with this issue?
First off, I will say that God has not told me everything about everything. He has told me what He in His wisdom thinks I need to know. There are many things I would like to know. For example what happens to those who never had a chance to hear about Jesus? I guess that would include the Jews who lived before Christ. But He has not committed Himself to satisfy my curiosity. God has told me enough to know how to have a loving relationship with Him, and how to live my life. But there are many things He hasn’t told me.
I do know that people are lost apart from God and that my duty as part of God’s community is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and seek, in His strength, to make disciples of all people. With the data available in the bible I can make theological constructs to help answer some of the questions that the bible does not address directly. But no, I have not been given the full details on many issues.
What I do know is that it is not my job to speculate as to who goes where in regards to their eternal fate. I am far from being wise enough to make such judgement calls. And I do not have access to all the pertinent facts even if I am wise enough which I am not. For example I do not know what transpires between a man and God at the moment of his death. At most I can say is, from what we can see, this person did not accept Christ in his life time.
I am not here trying to offer false hope. All I am saying is that God retains the role of ultimate judge as to who goes where. And only He is qualified to do so. Therefore I really do not know for sure where ma or grandma has gone. I can only report as to what I saw in this person’s lifetime that is accessible to me. My job is not to speculate about the ultimate fate of people. My job is to share the gospel.
I also see from Scripture that there is an element of personal choice involved as to where people end up.
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” [John 3: 19-21 TNIV]
I can’t see a situation where there are people who want very much to be in heaven, to be in communion with God and other God lovers, forced to go to hell. Neither can I see those who do not want a living loving relationship with God forced to go to heaven. There are enough hints in Scripture that in the end God respects our trajectories and confirms our desires.
Just don’t ask me how all this squares with the doctrine of election exactly. Like I said I don’t think God has told us everything about everything. Therefore I must learn to live with certain tensions in theology while focusing on what is crystal clear.
In the end, I ask myself, do I trust God enough to believe He will do the right thing whatever that right thing may be? How big is my God? As Abraham asks of God: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” [Genesis 18:25b] Of all that I know of God, my answer is “yes He will.”
In other words I may not know what He will do and why but I know that God is a God of all holiness, all love and all wisdom and that He does not make mistakes. I, on the other hand, often do.
So will grandma go to the hell? I honestly don’t know. And if she does, somehow it will be the most holy and the most loving thing to do. I trust God enough to know that he does not make mistakes.
Will my struggles to understand hell satisfy everyone? Of course not. But what I can’t do is water down the faith and make a Christianity that fits my comfort zone. I can accept Christianity or I can reject it. But what I can’t do is make it what it is not.
I recently received an email from the person I helped share the gospel with earlier in the year. She said that she has decided to follow Christ and is going for water baptism.
What about her Buddhist mum? She said she came to a point where she believed God is big enough to entrust with the fate of her mum. She is right and I am glad. Very glad.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan