Summary: Our vision of a loving God makes the idea of a punitive Hell very unnerving for us. Jesus speaks of God’s love, but he also tells us in the Gospels about God’s punishment for sinners.
Additional Text: Genesis 15:1-18
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)
Is Hell Real? Our vision of a loving God makes the idea of a punitive Hell very unnerving for us. Jesus speaks of God’s love, but he also tells us in the Gospels about God’s punishment for sinners.
The discussion of punishment makes us uncomfortable. Not just us, though. Throughout time, the idea has been difficult to come to grips with. For example, in our Old Testament reading today (Gen 15:1-12, 17-18), the lectionary deliberately excludes the middle verses about God’s punishment of the Egyptians and the Amorites. (Gen 15:13-16) I included them today so we would have the full context the author intended.
Even our Gospel reading today was optionally purged of punishment. The entire Narrow Door section (Luke 13:22-30) is an optional reading. But without the context of the Narrow Door, the importance of Jesus longing to be able to gather the people of Jerusalem, the Jews who believed they had salvation just by being part of Abraham’s offspring, makes little sense. Without the narrow door passage, we can believe that things will still be OK when Jesus returns on Judgment Day, because everyone will recognize him as the savior, and say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The Narrow Door passage tells us, and the people of Jerusalem, that many people who thought they were saved because they had all the right boxes checked off on their “Requirements for Salvation List” will be stunned that they actually are not welcome in Heaven, while a bunch of Gentiles will be allowed in. Most Jews counted on their privileged position as descendants of Abraham to guarantee their entry into God’s Kingdom.
But in the Narrow Door passage, Jesus shows that salvation is a personal, not corporate, event. Heaven is not an HMO, or Holy Maintenance Organization, where the requirements for entry into the plan are reduced if we’re able to get a large enough group to participate.
Salvation is an individual experience that has individual requirements with individual results based on individual decisions.
Sharing meals together was a very high, spiritual level of fellowship. Remember, the Pharisees really criticized Jesus heavily for eating and drinking with sinners. So to have shared meals with Jesus, in their minds, meant an unbreakable guarantee that they would be part of any future celebration.
But we can associate with Jesus and then reject him. We do it all the time. We meet for church services each week, and then spend the other 166 hours doing whatever we feel like, often the exact opposite of what Jesus wants us to do.
The simpler term for doing what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do is “sin.” We don’t like to use that word because it sounds so judgmental, so we come up with all sorts of euphemisms like “alternative lifestyle,” or “pro-choice,” or “situational ethics,” to name just a few.
But Jesus states clearly in this passage — that the church’s hierarchy would prefer we not read — that sinners will not get into Heaven and will be sent away in terrible sorrow and misery. Without Jesus, that means all of us. Only with Jesus are we declared sinless and welcomed into the Father’s Heaven. It’s not our Heaven that we have some kind of right to inhabit.
I think that’s become an unfortunate by-product of our democratic form of government. For all its benefits — and I believe we have the best form of government existing today — the “me-ism” has grown way out of proportion in the past few decades.
We have become so convinced that we have all sorts of rights that no one has the authority to take away — like the right to offend others but not be offended by them, the right to free healthcare and prescriptions, a right to not be bothered by someone smoking a cigarette, and so on.
All these supposed “rights” lead us to an entitlement mentality by which we have actually become convinced that we are entitled to be in Heaven because God created us and that, whether we believe in him or not, he is obligated to let us be in there because we think it would be wrong for him to not let us in.
And since we think Heaven is OK, but Hell is wrong, God is not allowed to have a Hell, but if he decides to have one anyway, he is forbidden by human sensibilities from ever sending us there.
It amazes me that we can post “No Trespassing” signs all over our own earthly property and yet believe that God has to let us into His Heaven.