On April 10th, I sent out the following tweet:
I'm thinking of doing a long series of blog posts (more than I can tweet thoughts on) entitled "What Christians Get Wrong." No attack or insult. A space of curiosity and learning (which hopefully feels familiar by now). What topic would you include?
There was a good response, and each tweet showed a desire for the church to be better. I especially appreciated the ones who pushed back against the idea of "wrong." Sometimes I choose particular words because I don't give it enough thought. Other times, I realize a few might misunderstand, but the majority will know what I'm asking. Words are tough, even when you're a writer. These tweet responses and this series don't point necessarily to a wrong thinking so much as an incomplete one. Think how much better we could communicate with one another if we kept this in mind. I often say, the highest compliment I can receive is when someone tells me I made them think. Post by post, tweet by tweet, I want us to think through these topics, and consider ways we can show the love of Christ within them. Because for a Christian, that's the bottom line. Our foundation.
I want to share my initial thoughts here, not my well-researched, edited words meant to be published in a book someday. I've learned a lot about Christianity in my years of talking with others on social media, and I want to share what I've learned. In story form, not academic expertise. I'm setting a timer on these posts, so they'll actually be my thoughts, and not turn into a research project. Feel free to teach me about the things I don't have quite right. My inbox, comment sections, and private messages are always open.
If you thought, after reading this post, you'd fully understand what the Bible, and church tradition, teaches on hell, you're going to be disappointed. I'm going to take a big picture approach with this post, writing about my approach to things that require scriptural scholarship, and sharing a few stories along the way.
When I was in college, my grandpa died. I loved that man fiercely. Grandpa tried to be a good man, mostly, but even with the rose-colored glasses I wore as his beloved granddaughter, I could see he had a good many flaws. I grew up all-in churchwise, as in Mom took us every Sunday, and a few nights during the week too. I memorized a load of scriptures and had a fervent faith. Grandpa didn't go to church. I can think of two or three occasions where church came up in conversation (namely one time a Jehovah's Witness pair showed up on his doorstep, and I handled the discussion, which delighted him to no end). So when he died, I struggled with where I thought he was for all eternity. I knew what I'd been taught, he would be tormented, burning forever, in the pits of hell. How could I live with that?
About ten years later, my dad died. Like father, like son. I loved my dad but knew of his flaws all too well. He didn't go to church, but never complained about Mom taking us children. I knew I'd witnessed to Dad over the years, we all had, but had no way of knowing if he ever made a decision to ask Jesus into his heart, making him Lord and Savior of his life, thus securing his eternal destiny.
Speaking of the phrase: Asking Jesus into his heart, making him Lord and Savior of his life...
I was asked to serve on a leadership team of a mom's group some years back, and it was at a church where I was not a member. In order to be confirmed in this leadership position, I had to fill out a form answering questions about my Christianity. I didn't have any trouble answering the questions, and turned in the form. However, it came back to me, as the committee wanted a bit more clarification on my understanding of when I became a Christian. I had answered broadly, of how I grew up as a disciple, growing in my faith. What they wanted was this phrase, mentioned above. I changed my answer, inserting this phrase, and they were satisfied.
I don't know where my grandpa and dad are for all eternity. I do know I asked Jesus into my heart at seven, and he's been Lord and Savior of my life since then. Honestly, he likely held that role years before I announced that decision to respond to his invitation. I understand it all so differently now. I still hold most things of my childhood as true, but realize the language I have, compared with the language other Christians have, can vary, while our actual beliefs don't differ as much as I thought.
So, back to hell. It really does require our attention. Because of my very personal experiences with my grandpa and dad, I want desperately to "figure it out." And figuring it out, for me, means reading Scripture. Also the notes at the bottom of study Bibles. It means reading any number of books. It grew to mean listening to what other Christians believe about hell. It meant going a little easier on Rob Bell than my evangelical brothers and sisters have. It has developed into studying church history and original languages. It has included a geography lesson or two. It includes asking Church about what she has taught traditionally. It has led me to embrace mystery in a greater way.
This winter in Bible study, we studied the book of Jude. the Bible study teacher is a well-known conservative woman. I could clearly see she leans reformed. She taught as if she needed her views on hell, highly traditional, to be true. The two or three weeks I led our group in a discussion about this topic of mega importance, I confessed I didn't have the same confidence she did. I'm not a universalist, but I've come to trust more fully in God's perfect, restorative justice. As with so many things, I don't fall cleanly into a category of belief about hell. We can't explain it away, certainly, but we also can't explain it. Not without removing a number of historical understandings and time traveling back to ancient Jerusalem circa AD35. It surprised a few women, who landed squarely in the camp of the video teachings, but they respect my quest for knowledge. They know I seek Jesus above anything else. One woman responded:
Thank you. You've made me want to study up more on a topic I've given little thought to.
I trust God. I believe Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later. That's a saving power that continues to form me every single day. I've also found it's dangerous to be flippant about what we believe. To accept an entire doctrinal stance based on what someone spoon feeds us, when that person has only been spoon fed one version of a complicated subject matter. No pretty bow to wrap this one up. I'll keep studying hell, and other theological complexities. Because I think our lives, now and into eternity, depend on it.