Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Afterlife (Part IV)

Perhaps the most unpleasant doctrine of the Christian faith, but one that is essential, is the doctrine of hell, which does not include, but should, a description of Houston in August. As the great British thinker and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton noted, “When hell is lost, heaven is not far behind.” What he meant by this is that when we jettison the doctrine of hell from the Christian worldview, we inevitably skew towards a utilitarianism which also neglects to acknowledge heaven and, consequently, becomes a “this-life” project of self-actualization and/or humanitarianism.

So as unpleasant as it may be (and hell should never be an outcome we take satisfaction in), we must acknowledge and live out the Christian teaching that those who reject God’s grace and forgiveness cut themselves off from eternal life (Romans 2:8-12) and face God’s consuming fire of judgment (Hebrews 10:26-27). This has been called “the dark side of divine justice.”

Many feel that this Christian doctrine portrays, or even reveals, God to be “unfair.” They ask, what about the Aborigine in Australia who has never heard about Jesus? Or the Buddhist in China who lives a compassionate and exemplary moral life and knows about Jesus only in a peripheral way? My considered response, and firm conviction, is that God judges people by what they hear and understand. The apostle Paul declares, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? (Romans 10:13-14). One might ask, “Yes, but isn’t hell a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ issue; your view would suggest there are ‘degrees’ of acceptance?” I readily acknowledge this difficulty, but it is the best way I have been able to appropriate my understanding of God’s justice through the scriptural witness.

There are in fact many questions which I will confidently leave to God to answer because they are difficult and troubling, such as “Do you mean to say that a Christian who has lived an abusive and destructive life is more pleasing to God than, for instance, a sincere agnostic who has lived virtuously?” To say “yes” would seem to make God a legalist. But we also must consider the New Testament witness about being saved by God’s grace through our faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So here is how I emerge from this thicket of issues to live with a workable doctrine of hell: I localize it. I can’t answer the global questions about indigenous Paraguayans living in the Rain Forest. But I can live out the light of Jesus Christ in my life through words and deeds, lovingly calling people to faith in Him and living in such a way that this invitation is a winsome one, while confidently, and sadly, declaring that those who reject (and I will let God determine what “reject” means) this divine initiative have no hope beyond this life.

I will talk about various views of hell in a future article. In the meantime, while discussions about the Rain Forest are titillating, the more pertinent question for you and me is how we are living out our “ambassadorship” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:18-20) in our little corner of the world. In August in Houston


Post a Comment

<< Home