Heaven and Hell (Part 1)
The moment I started suggesting that God’s sovereignty is not defined by control is the moment I met some angry people who felt they must challenge the idea.
Their proof? Hell.
The best way to expose a lie is to be immersed in the truth. The best way to illuminate darkness is to have a very bright light.
In the same way, I would like to suggest that the best way to perceive hell is through a greater revelation of the Kingdom of heaven.
Jesus gave us our focus and our mandate when He taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” (1) And Jesus lived as an expression of that Kingdom, “that He might destroy the works of the devil.” (2)
I would like to suggest that any thought about hell that isn’t interpreted through the measureless revelation of heaven should be held suspect; any conclusion about hell that isn’t birthed from sovereign love is flawed and therefore dangerous to our spiritual and emotional well-being.
I have found that those who tend to preach most fervently on the horrors of hell and eternal damnation seem to have very little evidence of the Kingdom of heaven in their lives. You know, the righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul wrote about in Romans 14:17. Those last two evidences, peace and joy? They are often markedly absent.
Everything Jesus said and did, both established the kingdom of heaven, and destroyed anything that resembled hell – the works of the devil.
And so, in this article, as you read some of my thoughts on hell, here are a handful of things it would be helpful for you to know:
First, my passion and focus are to establish His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven thus destroying the works of the enemy.
Second, I am a relational theologian who has written a book on the goodness of God that highlights the disparity between control and love. I have done this all to empower a greater trust and intimacy with God. The focus and intent of these articles are no different.
Third, I am aware of the contentious climate around the subject of hell within much of the North American church today. My thoughts are not definitive. Please take them as suggestions from a fellow traveler and let not your heart be troubled.
Fourth, this article is not an attempt to convince people about whether or not hell exists. It most certainly does exist. This article is about looking at hell through the sovereignty of love, so that we may confidently fulfill our mandate to establish His Kingdom and destroy the works of the enemy.
Ultimately, this article is an attempt to expose how a theology of sovereign control has distorted our understanding regarding the nature of God and His relationship to humanity, particularly when it comes to how we, the church, have most recently defined and navigated the reality of hell.
Twist the Knife
Many years ago, I had lunch with a wealthy Christian businessman. My wife, Karen, and I had just launched our ministry, A Family Story. (3) This fella, endeavoring to be helpful, explained his business model as a way to instruct us on how to develop our ministry model.
“Jason, do you know how you lead someone to God?” He asked rhetorically before continuing.
“You find where they have been wounded… while talking, he leaned toward me and began poking at my bicep insinuating a gaping laceration, “…you make them painfully aware of the hell they are experiencing in their life. You poke and prod at the wound… He poked and prodded at my arm… “until they are fully and painfully aware of their desperate circumstance.”
I winced in horror. This was exactly the response he was looking for. His eyes lit up and he continued.
“Then you take a knife…” he made a fist as if he held the weapon in his hand, picture an 8-inch serrated bowie knife, “…and you thrust!” He demonstrated with a forceful stabbing motion against my imaginary wound.
“Then, when the knife is in the cut,” He paused for effect, “You twist the blade!” He turned his fist violently against my arm.
Still misunderstanding my horrified grimace, He sat back, crossed his arms and nodded with satisfaction, “Finally, when they are in agony and can’t take it anymore, you give them their salvation, the answer, Jesus.”
Sadly, most of the Western world, at some point in their lives, have experienced this man’s ministry model. The reason they have is because it works… if the goal is to get someone to buy a product or recite a prayer.
The problem, however, is obvious: it’s spiritual manipulation. And it has devastating consequences. A god who manipulates our pain, who enhances our awareness of shame and brokenness so He can gain our trust, is a god who cannot, and should not, be trusted.
I once saw a cartoon that illustrates the problem well. Jesus was knocking on a door and from inside came the response,
“It’s Jesus. I’m here to save you.”
“From what I’ll do to you if you don’t let me in.”
That cartoon, and its attempt at humor, unfortunately, reflects the heartbreaking perspective much of the Western church has on God, hell, and salvation. For centuries, this perspective of hell has been used as an evangelistic tool. “Turn or burn” has defined much of Christian colloquialism for far too long!
I believe this type of ministry model is birthed directly from a theology of sovereign control. You see, sovereign control leads to a punitive perspective of Hell; they go hand in glove. A control-based narrative needs an ultimate punishment scenario or it doesn’t work. A controlling God will use the fear and pain of hell to manipulate us into choosing heaven.
But the idea that God might control and manipulate our pain so that we might be saved is not just devastating: it’s blackmail…
As the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens once said, “Hell is blackmail.”
For centuries now, much of the Western church has presented hell through the lens of sovereign control. And Atheism is its purest by-product.
Atheism is the most intellectually honest response to the disparate idea of a good God who wants to save us from the hell that He will send us to if we don’t give Him control.
When atheists defend their position, they reveal what they believe about the god they claim doesn’t exist: that he is a controlling, disinterested monster – a harsh master who expects us to give him his due, while never concerning himself with our pain.
Pain. That’s the foundation of Atheism.
Actually, pain is the foundation of all false religions.
Pain, experienced through poverty, war, abuse, racism, sickness, violence, natural disasters, a sense of separation…
To atheists, pain is proof that hell exists.
It’s a bit ironic, but you could say that the Atheist’s argument that God does not exist is firmly based in their certainty regarding the existence of hell. Not some “afterlife hell,” but the living hell that can be tasted and touched here and now.
Atheism is a religion with a theology of sovereign control, where the existence of hell here on earth is the foundation for the argument that there is no God. It’s a good argument too because, while God may be harder to prove in a control narrative, hell is as plain as the nose on your face. It is obvious that hell most certainly exists.
You don’t have to search hard to find evidence. It looks like the sex trade, child slavery, the homeless widow and orphan, divorce, the hopeless feeling that there is no other option but abortion, or suicide. It looks like cancer, or crippling depression, sickness, loneliness, and suffering. It looks like the destruction caused by a tsunami…
The atheist chooses atheism because it’s less painful than the idea that love is somehow defined by a “good” God who is sovereignly in control of such devastation. Atheists choose atheism because, in a control narrative, it’s too painful not to.
But what if God is not about control, and therefore hell is not about punishment? What if hell could be perceived another way? What if sovereign love revealed the whole story?
This article is an excerpt from my book, God Is (Not) In Control: The Whole Story Is Better Than You Think
Part One of Three
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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