|Depiction of the Scene from
“The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis
I received a question this week about hell, which is very timely since we’ll be talking about hell at AC3 this month in our Crossing Over series. The question was basically this: “My brother is offended by the very idea of hell and wants to know why I think he’s going and I’m not. It made me uncomfortable that I didn’t know how to answer.”
It’s a good question and made me think hard about how we approach this topic in candid conversations with outsiders to faith (and you can read my whole response here):
This can obviously be very touchy. But actually, it’s best that the topic turns personal – not by getting into the eternal destiny of your friend, but by talking about you. For every Christian who takes Jesus seriously, should be clear about one thing: you are qualified for hell. Start there. Before you judge another, you can judge you. And you know you; you know your heart; you know your posture towards a holy God, and without anyone trying to make you feel bad, you know in your quiet heart, you’re among the people whose pride and depravity separate you from God. That’s the default position of everyone.
See, in such conversations, you should try to fix the misconception that hell is somehow the destiny for the especially bad people. And that somehow Christians are the special “good” people that God loves because of their goodness; that they’re his favorites (due to their politics more than their actual moral performance), and the rest of humanity are especially bad. This is understandably offensive to moral living unbelievers – which is most of them. They KNOW they are morally better than many others, including many Christians, whose sins and hypocrisies they take great pleasure in pointing out.
Well, no well-instructed Christian believes this myth that only the good people go to heaven. So, when you do finally get into why you might believe someone outside of Christ will not experience life in the hereafter, but those who trust in him will, you must point out that the Christian position is near OPPOSITE of that “good people” myth. The true Christian position is something closer to – only the bad people go to heaven.
Saying that will get the hell-skeptic’s attention. Of course you’ll need to explain, but it’s not hard.
First of all, to explode the “good person” myth, ask: if only the good people go to heaven, who are they? What’s the standard? No one could ever agree to one. Maybe God grades on some kind of curve, but then, who sets the curve? How much good, is good enough? No one could know and thus the whole “good person” theory leads to a lifetime of insecurity, prideful comparisons, doubt, fear and not measuring up. Which summarizes the religion and spiritual life of millions of people. This problem is precisely what Christianity comes to solve.
Now, if a person says, well, “good enough” is simply living up to your own moral code, being true to yourself – then my challenge would be to ask whether anyone passes even that radically reduced bar of moral performance. I don’t. I believe things, and want things and intend to do things that I don’t do – every day.
Finally, a lot of non-Christians pride themselves in thinking the Sermon on the Mount is their guiding code. Three words in response to that are: “don’t go there!” Why not? Well, simply because the Sermon on the Mount, for all it’s wonderful, lofty teachings, essentially puts the achievement of true goodness out of the reach of EVERYONE. Jesus spiritualizes the law in that famous sermon. He tells us that adultery is more than not sleeping the wrong bed, it’s a heart thing too. He tells us that heart murder (a simple curse!) puts a person in danger of hell! (Matt 5:22)
And if that’s the case, then EVERYONE is in danger of hell, because the standard of “good enough” is impossibly high. In fact, Jesus says in that sermon, “be perfect.” Well, that rules me out.
Therefore, good people don’t go to heaven, because according to Jesus, no one is good. That is, not “good enough.” Yet, despite Jesus revealing the depth of our predicament of condemnation, the same Jesus comes to rescue us from it. He later says, “I have not come for the well, but for the sick.” (Matt 9:12) He says that in response to some very high moral performers looking down on the sad company of losers and sinners he was hanging with.
Jesus is clear, you don’t get the Kingdom by being good enough. Bar’s too high. No one crosses. All fall short. Now you might have a friend who thinks their moral performance outshines Gandhi and Mother Teresa. It might serve at that point in the conversation to point out that people like Teresa and Gandhi were both convinced they were not “good enough”.
(Gandhi for example – whom we think couldn’t possibly be lost – was tormented by the things he saw inside his heart. He wrote in his autobiography: “It is a constant torture to me that I am still so far from Him whom I know to be my very life and being. I know it is my own wretchedness and wickedness that keeps me from Him.”)
I’ve asked a Jesus loving, hell disbelieving friend this question before: “Jesus said he did not come for the well, but for the sick. Are you well or sick?” He had no answer. And I could see the wheels spinning: If he says he’s sick, he affirms that there is such a thing as sin and God rightly stands in judgment on it, a place like hell is a just consequence of it. If he says he’s “well” then he’s admitted that the Jesus he thinks he loves has basically said to him, “I haven’t come for you.”
Who did he come for? The sick. Which is to say, those who KNOW they are sick. All are sick, but until they become convinced of it, a person will find Jesus gracious offer to be offensive. Yet once a person becomes convinced of their badness, their sinfulness, their fallenness and their candidacy for hell, they get humble, and desperate, and they spy in Jesus a way to be “good enough” that isn’t about them, but rather about his amazing mercy.
So it’s in THAT sense that only the bad people go to heaven. Meaning, only the the people who see they are truly bad, far from God, and rebellious against God’s goodness, can have a moment where they put themselves at the mercy of Dr Jesus to heal their soul sickness. If you think you’re good enough, you will never abase yourself like that. People who are convinced of their own goodness are not likely to see their need, therefore, won’t turn to Jesus for grace and forgiveness. Only those convinced of their badness will so turn, and thus only the “bad people” go to heaven. Which is to say, the forgiven people.
So to get back to our skeptic’s question: why would I go to heaven and he would not? Not because I’m better than him. More likely because I am worse! Because I know I am not good enough and could never be. I leave open that my friend theoretically might be “well”, and it might take bullets out of his indignation gun. But I know I could never be, thus I turned to Christ.
In your view then, IF your beloved friend would go to hell, it might have to do with him being a better person, someone self sufficient enough to reject any help along the way, and maybe because of that pride, turn a blind eye to dark heart places that show the truth: his heart is deceptive and selfish and greedy. A person who goes to their grave not seeing that, will stiff arm God’s grace by refusing the humility that the Christian gospel requires to receive it. And that person is “on their own” on judgment day. You simply believe that moment will not go well for anyone who doesn’t get their passing grade somehow other than their own spotless moral performance.