Heaven, Hell, and the Older Brother
While I have reasons to believe God is a relentless redeemer both in this life and the next, reasons I have articulated in articles past, when asked if redemption is available after this life, I think a really healthy position every believer should probably have is…
“I don’t know, but I sure hope so.”
While all other thoughts can be endlessly and biblically discussed, to me, “I don’t know, but I sure hope so,” best resonates what is Christlike.
Jesus, hanging on a cross beneath heaven and earth, said, “Father, forgive them.” (from Luke 23:34)
“Them” is everyone. There is no exclusion, no “Father forgive them if they repent, if they agree with me, if they receive me, if they love me, if they say a sinners prayer, if they believe in my name.”
Just, “Father, forgive them.”
All of them.
2 Corinthians 5:19 furthers this thought telling us that on the cross, God was in Christ reconciling “the world to Himself” not counting our sin against us.
“The world” is all the peoples. There are no omissions, no “The world except for France, Saskatoon Canada, and the Prisco’s house at 37 W. Clowney St.
Just, “the world.”
All of it.
Then, Jesus, on a cross, said, “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
“Finished.” Case closed, settled, resolved. There is no one overlooked, no “It is finished except for Hank.”
In Luke 15 Jesus tells a story about an older brother who came in from working in the field to discover that his younger brother, the one who had left years earlier with some of his family’s money and participated in “wild living,” was home, forgiven, and restored to the family.
Benson’s Commentary refers to the younger brother’s “wild living” as “…choosing such companions as were most agreeable to his vicious inclinations, and, connected with these, he wallowed in unbounded riot and debauchery. Thus sinners, through a spirit of infidelity, independence of God, pride, self-conceit, and the love of pleasure…”
Dang, that’s some bad living.
But this kind of living only has one end. The younger brother hit rock bottom. Lost in his bad decisions, broken in his shame, experiencing the hell of desperate consequences, he remembers his father’s kindness. This memory softens the young brother’s heart and he repents; he thinks differently about his father and himself. “I’ll go home” he decides. I’ll say to my father, “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”
Well, you know the rest of the story…
The younger brother, nearing home, sees his father from afar and falls to his knees. Then he crawls toward his master. As he crawls he begs, and pleads, and grovels, and says a sinners prayer, and cries out “unworthy” until he finally arrives at his father’s feet, blistered, exposed and utterly ashamed.
At first, the father is wrathful. He watches his boy grovel and nods appreciatively, the fury on his face softening ever so slightly as he basks in the glory of his son’s acknowledgment of failure and humiliation. Stoic, the father, a perfect picture of justice, waits on his porch until his son arrives at his feet, blistered, exposed and utterly ashamed.
As a statue, the father continues to wait. The son must say the words; he needs to hear the words!
The son, weeping recites his plea for forgiveness. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”
As the son speaks, the father nods while sternly withholding his forgiveness until the son finally looks up and asks, “Is it finished?”
The father, emotionless, pauses, and the younger son holds his breath, his life hanging in the balance.
“I am satisfied,” the father says, and then, “I forgive you. You may now take your place as the lowliest servant in my house and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
And this is where everyone who has read the story sighs in relief, thankful for such a circumspect, judiciously charitable father.
Am I laying the sarcasm on too thick?
The truth is, the young son never had a chance to even get the word “sorry,” out of his mouth, let alone recite his entire confession. The father saw him from a distance and ran to his son and swept him up in an embrace. No, “sorry pops,” no sinner’s prayer, just perfect love, stunning forgiveness, and beautiful restoration.
Don’t get me wrong, the words the son had rehearsed were decent words, words his heart believed to be true, words the son felt he needed to say. But they were not words the father needed to hear.
Why? Because the father had forgiven his son long before he ever left home. That’s how love works. That’s how forgiveness works.
Forgiveness is not something earned, therefore it can be given before an offense even occurs.
The father wasn’t waiting on his prodigal son’s repentance to forgive him. Why? Because our Father’s nature, His love, affection, and forgiveness, isn’t determined by the actions or thoughts of His kids. We don’t get a say in the finished work of the cross.
Jesus said “Father forgive them,” “the world,” all of it. All humanity is reconciled in the “finished” work of the cross. Our repentance has nothing to do with His forgiveness, it is simply the recognition of what He has already done. Our role is to receive.
We are forgiven before we sin.
We are forgiven before we repent. That’s the nature of our Heavenly Father’s love. His forgiveness was revealed through the cross. It has been given whether we believe it or not. Isn’t that just good news?
On the flipside, to believe our repentance plays a role in His forgiveness is religious arrogance. It’s self-righteous earning, it’s slaving for our salvation, it’s “older brother” thinking.
Yeah, let’s talk about the older brother.
Do you still remember the story?
The older brother, upon hearing about his young brother’s return, leaps with delight and races to the house to greet him. Upon arriving, he discovers a party has been thrown and he’s so pleased! He can hear his father and younger brother inside the house celebrating like heaven on earth, and he runs in to join them. As he enters the house there is cheering and wonder and joy and also reverence for the relentless, restorative nature of their father. Everyone is so happy!
I don’t know about you, but I’m enjoying the satire.
That’s not what happened. The older brother, discovering his father’s forgiving nature, was furious and wouldn’t go into the house, or join the party.
The older brother hadn’t “chosen such companions as were most agreeable to his vicious inclinations.” Nor had “he wallowed in unbounded riot and debauchery.” He had worked his ass off, no – more than that!
“I’ve slaved my ass off!” He thought. “Forgiveness!? My father forgives and restores my brother to the family? Now? After all this time?”
The older brother couldn’t jive with this. As far as he was concerned, time had run out on his young brother long ago.
Hell, as far as the older brother was concerned, the moment his younger brother rejected his father and their way of life, the moment he had turned his back on the family, he might as well have been eternally lost. As far as the older brother was concerned, unending darkness, gnashing of teeth, and a lake of fire, you know, forever, was better than his brother deserved.
Yeah, still working the satire.
The older brother was offended at the goodness of his father.
The older brother’s offense stemmed from his punitive-based theology regarding God… I mean, his father.
He had been building his entire future on a father who operated in the context of reward and punishment. The forgiveness and restoration of his brother revealed that his father’s nature was vastly different than he had believed. This completely blew up his whole paradigm. It shook him to his core. Apparently he had been keeping score in a game his father wasn’t playing.
“All the slaving I did was for nothing.” He thought bitterly, followed by, “I might as well have lived it up with a little unbounded riot and debauchery like my younger brother!” That last thought, it just pissed him off more and he doubled down. He was not going to join the party.
The older brother believed he had clearly earned where his younger brother hadn’t, and his father’s forgiveness just exposed his self-righteous earning belief system.
By the way, it’s not possible to believe in punishment without eventually having to wrestle with self-righteousness.
Sadly, the older brother’s belief in a reward/punishment based system – his theology – revealed that he was positioned directly against his father’s heart. The older brothers’ affections were ultimately exposed as being contrary to His father’s.
And by now you may be asking, “But Jason, what does this have to do with our thoughts on whether forgiveness and restoration might be available to us after we die?'”
I am not responsible for the nature of God. I am responsible for my affections.
When it comes to being a son or daughter in our Father’s house, we only have one option. It’s to celebrate the forgiving, redeeming nature of our Father. Always. And when I write “always,” I mean now and for all eternity. Anything else is sinking sand.
For the sake of our hearts, I think a really healthy position believers should probably have when it comes to our thoughts regarding whether redemption is available after this life is, “I don’t know, but I sure hope so.”
Anything less, and we are in danger of positioning our affections against God’s relentless love nature; a nature Jesus so clearly revealed on the cross.
I understand this article is strong. I understand the subject of hell is a sensitive one. I get the fact that many Christians believe that they have hell figured out. Many have interpreted the bible in a way to be convinced of their thoughts, and that’s cool. But this article isn’t about what happens to us after we die, it’s about our hearts being soft right now.
Because, while I have reasons I personally believe God is a relentless redeemer both in this life and the next, reasons connected to scripture, community, history, and experience, I don’t know what it looks like on the other side of this life. But the fact is, neither does anyone else.
What I do know is: I am not responsible for the nature of God, I am responsible for my affections. That’s what is within my control. And I can’t afford to lend my affections to the older brother, I can’t afford to determine who my Father can or can’t forgive.
If our hearts don’t truly desire to see all our brothers and sisters “in the party” in this life and the next, it’s past time to repent. If the idea of God redeeming us throughout eternity offends, it’s past time to repent. If we are bothered by the idea that His goodness is beyond our ability to understand, it’s past time to repent.
We may disagree, but let’s do so with great love, affection, and hope for all who are lost; let’s do so believing that our Father “is not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Jesus said He did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them (Luke 9:56). So at the end of the day, when it comes to the question of whether repentance, redemption, restoration, and transformtation is available to all on the other side of this life, I believe “I don’t know, but I sure hope so” is in beautiful alignment with the heart of Christ.
And that’s why I would recommend this be every believer’s heart position regardless of our questions, thoughts, or even conclusions.
Because, at the end of the day, while we may not all be in agreement about what we think happens in the next life, we can all agree on this; our Father is hosting a party for His kids.
And we can also all agree that there’s only one place to be when our Father hosts a party.
And it’s not outside throwing a hissy.
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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