Heaven! Hell! Oh, the places you’ll go!
CrossOver reflection for Week Eleven • Beginning February 10, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 24
I guess I could be called a nerdy church kid.
When I was growing up, I did Sunday School, confirmation, and youth group. When I was in high school, there was a group of us who got together on our own and did Bible study. We didn’t have any adult leaders or any commentaries. For that matter, we pretty much just had the Revised Standard Version of the Bible to work from. But we spent time together wrestling with tough questions.
The question I remember the most was about heaven and hell: If you have to be a Christian to go to heaven, then how is that fair for people who might never have heard about Christ? It just didn’t seem like a loving God would send people to hell who never had a chance.
As the years passed and my understanding evolved, I questioned whether God would send people to hell if they were Muslim or Hindu. Or atheist. Or even if they are a really bad person. Would a God who loves everyone really punish someone forever?
Clearly, there are many people who believe in that kind of heaven and hell. I received an anonymous piece of mail this week trying to make the Biblical case that homosexuality really is a terrible sin. It was full of bad biblical scholarship and worse science. It also contained this zinger: “Will you go to heaven when you die?” If you have broken any of the Ten Commandments, “…the Bible warns that one day God will punish you in a terrible place called Hell.” Of course, you can “repent and trust Jesus” and you will be saved. The threat of hell is still alive and well in some parts of the church.
As Brian McLaren points out, Jesus’ teaching gives us little help in understanding what heaven and hell are like. But he does give us a lot of teaching about who goes where. He pretty much shoots down the “if you’re nice and don’t break any of the rules, you’ll go to heaven” theory. In Jesus’ teaching, those people we tend to look down on may be the very people who will be in heaven. The people our society holds up as “blessed” may be the least likely to be there.
The bottom line here is not about who is going to heaven or hell, or each is like, or if these places really exist. It seems like a waste of time to speculate too much on this. What we really need to do is ask ourselves and our churches if we are we treating everyone like people who are worthy of spending eternity with God. Doing so may allow us to be pleasantly surprised to discover that God is working in places, and in the lives of people, we’d never expect.
And those surprises could turn out to be real blessings—even offering us glimpses of heaven here on Earth!
Jan Nelson is the lay leader of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and the lay delegate to General Conference 2019. In her previous life, she was a middle school math teacher.