Heaven and Hell (Part 1)
The moment I started suggesting that God’s sovereignty is not defined by control was 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 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 chapter, as you read some of my thoughts on hell, here are a handful of things it would be helpful to know.
First, my passion and focus are to establish His Kingdom—the revelation of family that Jesus lived—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 this chapter are no different.
Third, I am aware of the contentious climate around the subject of hell within much of the North American Evangelical 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 chapter does not attempt to convince people whether or not hell exists. It does. You don’t have to live long or look far to find evidence. This chapter is about looking at hell through the sovereignty of love so we may confidently live loved and as expressions of love—so we can live in such a way as to establish His Kingdom and destroy the works of the enemy.
Ultimately, this chapter 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. 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. That 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 has experienced this man’s punishing ministry model at some point in their lives. And the reason is because it works.
If the goal is to get someone to buy a product or recite a prayer, then pain and fear of punishment are powerfully motivating tools.
The problem, however, is obvious. It’s spiritual manipulation. And it has devastating consequences. A god who participates in and manipulates our pain—who enhances our awareness of shame and brokenness so he can gain our trust—is a god who cannot be trusted.
I once saw a cartoon that illustrates the problem well. Jesus was knocking on a door, and from inside came the response,
“Jesus, I’m here to save you.”
“From what I’ll do to you if you don’t let me in.”
That humorous cartoon reflects much of the Western church’s heartbreaking perspective on God, hell, and salvation. For centuries, that punishing 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 ministry model is birthed directly from a theology of sovereign control. You see, sovereign control leads to a retributive perspective of Hell; they go hand in glove. A control narrative needs an ultimate punishment scenario, or it doesn’t work. A controlling God will use the pain and fear of hell to manipulate us into choosing heaven.
But the idea that God might control and manipulate our pain so we might be saved is not just devastating and abusive; it’s blackmail. And love doesn’t blackmail…
The famous atheist Christopher Hitchens once said, “Hell is blackmail.”
For the last several centuries, 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 He will send us to if we don’t acknowledge He’s in control.
When Atheists defend their position, they reveal what they believe about the god they claim doesn’t exist; 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.
Pain—experienced through poverty, war, abuse, racism, sickness, violence, natural disasters, and a sense of separation,
Actually, pain is the foundation of all religions.
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 on their certainty regarding the existence of hell—not some afterlife hell, but the living hell that can be tasted and touched here and now.
For those with a theology of sovereign control, the existence of hell here on earth is the foundational 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; hell, well, it most certainly exists.
You don’t have to search hard to find evidence. It looks like the sex trade, child slavery, the homeless, the 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 the tsunami…
The Atheist chooses Atheism because it’s less painful than the idea that love is somehow defined by a good God 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?
1 Matthew 6:10 KJV
2 1 John 3:8 KJV
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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