Hell and the Older Brother
Excerpted from Leaving and Finding Jesus / Chapter Ten: Yes, I Sure Hope So
In Luke 15, Jesus told a story about an older brother. He worked his father’s land faithfully while his younger brother ran off with his inheritance to live in, as Benson’s Commentary notes, “unbounded riot and debauchery….” (1)
Then one day, while slaving under the hot sun, the older brother learned his prodigal brother had returned, received forgiveness, and been restored to the family. You probably remember what happened next.
Upon hearing about the prodigal’s return, the older brother leapt with delight, left his labor, and raced to the house to greet him. As he neared the house, he recognized the sounds of merrymaking. Thrilled that His Father had thrown a party, he ran to join them.
There was cheering, wonder, and joy as he reconciled with his brother in an embrace. The older brother also felt a stunning reverence for their father’s relentless, ultimate, restorative nature. “I have hoped and eagerly waited for this day. Reconciliation, at last!” The older brother thought as heaven invaded earth. And everyone was so happy!
Yeah, that’s not what happened.
The father did throw a reconciliation party, but the older brother wasn’t happy about it.
Instead, he took offense and became furious at his father’s forgiving and reconciling nature. As far he was concerned, time had run out on his younger sibling long ago. Hell trains, gnashing of teeth, and eternal separation in a lake of fire—you know, forever, etc. That was the punishment his little brother had earned.
“While my brother partied, I slaved,” the older brother thought angrily. Then he began to count sins. He hadn’t wallowed in “unbounded riot and debauchery” or rejected and betrayed the family. Like a Rich Young Ruler, he’d kept all the commandments. He hadn’t committed murder or adultery, hadn’t stolen anything, or given false testimony; he honored his father. “Hell, I’ve worked my ass off for the old man,” he thought as he fumed outside the reconciliation party.
That last thought was his tipping point into hell. “I’ve earned a reward while my brother has earned punishment, but instead, our father forgives and restores him to the family?” He thought. “It’s unacceptable!”
The older brother would take no part in forgiveness or reconciliation. He wouldn’t join the party. Hell, he wouldn’t even go into the same damn house! And that’s what he told his father after his dad left the ninety-nine to be with his wayward son.
The older brother fumed as his father stood quietly beside him outside the party. The laughter of reconciliation spilled into the cold dark night, each sound of joy offending his self-righteous paradigm until he couldn’t take it any longer. He turned and erupted.
“Look!” the older brother said to the Emmaus Road Stranger…
Wait, let me try that again.
“Look!” the older brother said to the Farmer who went out to sow seed…
Nope, one more time.
“Look!” the older brother said to his father. “All these years, I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet, you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”
The father looked at his oldest boy and said, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” In essence, “Son, there has never been any need to slave under the heavy weight of reward and punishment. Eternal life has always been available to you here and now!”
The older brother was confronted with the offensive truth that he had been keeping score in a game his father wasn’t playing. When it comes to heaven and hell, I think most Western Christians are playing the same deterministic reward and punishment game, which reminds me of a joke I once heard from my friend Paul Young. It went something like this.
* * *
A man arrived suddenly at heaven’s gates. He was surprised and unsure of what to do. “Do I just walk in?” he wondered to himself. The Apostle Peter, who happened to have gate duty that day, saw the man’s consternation and walked over to him. Relieved, the man lowered his voice and asked, “So, do I just…walk in?”
Peter lowered his voice to match the fella and solemnly responded, “Well, I guess it depends.”
The man nodded, “It depends on something,” he thought. It made sense. “Uh…what does it depend on?” He asked.
Peter answered, “Well, it depends on how many points you have.
“I’m required to have points to get in?”
“Uh…how many points do I need?”
Peter leaned in and quietly said, “You need a hundred points.”
The man thought for a moment, then grinned. “Only a hundred? Well, I pastored a church for 40 years; only took time off according to my contract. Preached the gospel and prayed for people.”
Peter smiled broadly. “That is wonderful. I will totally give you a point for that.”
The man looked shocked. “A point, one point? That’s all it’s worth, one point?”
“Totally worth a point,” Peter repeated, grinning.
“Uh…well, I worked at the soup kitchen on Saturday evening for a few years, you know, helping with the poor and all.”
“Another point, good for you.”
The man, nervous now, continued. “Okay, I asked Jesus to come into my heart as my Lord and Savior, was baptized and all?”
Peter thought for a few seconds before speaking. “Well, not sure about that one. Folks have only been doing that for a couple of hundred years, so probably not.”
The man began to panic as he thought about his life—all the stuff he had done and not done; and for what, two points?
Right about that time, another fella showed up, and the pastor recognized him as the owner of a coffee shop in the same town where he had lived and died. He was a nice guy, but only a C&E Christian. You know, Christmas and Easter. The fella walked by and waved to him and Peter and then proceeded without hesitation right through the Pearly Gates.
The pastor leaned forward and asked in a desperate and serious tone, “Are you kidding me? That guy has a hundred points?”
Peter put his arm around the pastor and grinned, “Naw, he’s just not playing this game!”
* * *
You know, when our faith is built upon the dualistic certainty of reward and punishment, we’ll think of heaven and hell in the context of points earned or lost. We’ll slave for a god who counts sin, a god who measures the width, length, height, and depth of the distance between us. And eventually, we will participate in the hell of separation and retribution in direct opposition with the reconciling heart of a good Father.
And how great is that darkness?
(1) Benson’s Commentary