I have been thinking about the matter of “how things appear” lately. And I will admit that it appears to me most of the world is heading towards hell. Literally.
I know by saying that I might appear to be very self-righteous, pompous, and judgmental – in addition to a lot of other negative adjectives. Please let me explain.
First, let me get this out of the way: there is no way I deserve heaven. Second: I would submit that this handbasket is not a conclusion that any Christian should be eager to make. After all, Christians are those who are eager to share the message of how Christ has come to save all persons – how He is the One who pulls us out of the pit.* Like Him, we are to be eager to save and not condemn.
But I will admit that I thought about hell recently when I read an article by a man who has watched and studied all of the available execution videos from the terrorists who threaten us today – something I will not be doing anytime soon. After carefully watching these videos this man, a former C.I.A. agent, concluded that terrorists take great pleasure in brutally killing their victims. Even putting the “best construction” on their actions – and yes, I know even thinking about doing this sounds scandalous too many of us – I think that we are still forced to conclude that they want to appear to enjoy the sickening bloodshed of which they are a part. Such is the world that they have now made for themselves and others.
Perhaps very few of us would hesitate to assert that this world deserves to dwell in hell: if people can rationalize even this kind of psychological terrorism – even if it is “just for pragmatic reasons” – what won’t such persons rationalize? What evil worlds will they not create?
But it’s too easy to think about such brutal thugs being on the road to hell.
It is not so easy to think about the rest of us as deserving such a fate – surely not us much more civilized Americans! (um…think again – here is the very brief part of this post that goes with the “racist” in the title) Surely, whatever our sins, how we appear on the outside has not given us away – revealing us as deeply evil – as well! Right?
For the Greek philosopher Socrates (according to Plato) it made sense to assert that we only choose what we think is good. Further, no one chooses evil willingly, he said. On the one hand, disturbingly, part of Socrates’ view makes some sense: human beings are certainly capable of believing – probably even through an unrealized suppression of what they at some level know – that evil acts are good. This would indicate not only a frightful, but deeply culpable, ignorance.
On the other hand, Socrates, who said “know thyself”, seems incredibly naïve and un-self-aware here when he says no one willingly does evil.** The Roman poet Ovid, four centuries later, seems far more serious and aware when he says, “I see the better way and approve it. I follow the worse”. Top it off with Augustine’s famous story about the pear tree, and we should begin to see that our inborn evil – that inevitably displays itself on the outside – is the most lethal of cocktails and needs to be dealt with.
I become more firmly convinced with each passing day that all of us perpetually underestimate the seriousness of our sin. “Even murder Brennan”?, replies the well-respected Christian author Philip Yancey to the late Brennan Manning upon his confession that he had broken all ten of the Ten Commandments. To this I can only say: “Well, what did Jesus tell us on His Sermon on the Mount?” How does a Christian with Yancey’s level of sophistication think such a question is a good one at all? Do we not take Christ’s words seriously at all?
But this lack of conviction about the seriousness of our sin – and accompanying culpability – in these matters of thought and desire are only the tip of the iceberg. We do not even begin to fear, love and trust in God as we ought…. In fact, the Bible says that we are – or at the very least, were (this would be Christians) – His enemies: all of us to a man have all declared war on Him and His ways. As one person put it, only God knows what even an “innocent” infant would do to a fellow creature in his rage were he of similar size to us – and sippy cups were not made of plastic. But our guilt goes far deeper yet: we all would betray Him and His people if it were not for His constant grace and intervention in our lives.
We are those who have committed High treason. And we know very well the penalty for this is death.***
But what about those who are trying hard to avoid hell? Do they not appear heaven-bound? A recent article on First Thing’s First Thoughts blog made the case that not only were the Crusades just wars, but that most of those who fought in them did so out of a deep sense of spirituality. The deeds of these Crusaders, the author says, were “penitential acts”, performed with a view towards their own salvation in the life to come.
Even putting the “worst construction” on the evidence these men have left us (perhaps in good “self-hating Western fashion”, some may be eager to insist), they, at the very least, thought it wise to appear that their reasons for fighting were related to their own quest for salvation. In this time, we are reminded, vast amounts of Westerners were actually were willing to pay money to have their sins forgiven – there was an environment in which a fear of God and His judgment was keenly felt and nurtured.
A rightful fear of God is a good thing indeed – the beginning of wisdom. That said, it appears that these men’s fear of God often did not lead to where it should have: hope in Christ and His work on the cross alone for their salvation…
In the N.T. we are told that the cross is an offense to the world and so is God’s words taken as a whole. We recall that among world religions only Christianity has a place for, and in fact is all about, radical grace. This includes the idea not only that we do not “deserve mercy” (an oxymoronic phrase) but that all is a gift, and faith is willing to be nothing but given to. Like infants receiving milk from their mother, we can only say “what do we have that we have not received?” That is the message of Christ’s Gospel for us and all persons. The perfect son of God lives the perfect life and dies the innocent death for us – doing what we could never do – that we may have forgiveness, life and salvation from sin, death, and the devil.
Human nature rebels even against that Good News – and even we Christians ourselves have not been fully freed from our “old Adam”. Our default mode is to want to be justified by our deeds (as well as to live as we see fit!), even as the Scriptures use disparaging words for human efforts – calling them “filthy rags” (menstrual rags actually) and the like. To seek to be justified in this way is, in truth, to declare war against the true glory of God: He alone is the Source of all love, light, and life in the world.
In truth, there should be nothing more exhilarating for us then to know God through Jesus Christ – and to grow in the knowledge of what He is like and how He would include us in His desires, joys, and goals. And yet, in the Last Days – which we most certainly are in – Jesus said the love of many would grow cold. “Would the Son of Man”, he further asked, “find faith on earth when He returned”? Are these not terrible and terrifying words?
In the end, the Christian mourns to conclude: it appears that the vast majority of the world’s population is on the road to hell.*** Jesus said that He was the way, the truth, and the life and that no one came to the Father except through Him. He also said that those who rejected Him would be cast into outer darkness forever (Matt. 8:12).
But even with such warnings ringing in our ears – perhaps particularly with such warnings ringing in our ears – He would certainly (no talk of “seems to” or “appears to” here!) have the whole world – as many as possible – to be saved. He call each one of us – even now – to Him. There is still room for us at the glorious banquet table that He has prepared for us – there is still a spot for us in His house to partake of His joy and the delights He offers.
Yes, that is the message: Come. To. Jesus (truly the source of all joy: whatever is good, true and beautiful).
Not the fake “Jesus” (see 2 Cor. 11) so many, apart from the Scriptures, have concocted after their own image. No. The real deal.
Mocked such a statement as “come to Jesus” may be – even made a joke – but there is nothing that is truer than this. He will judge the whole world and deliver His children from this evil age, even as His blood avails for the whole world – even for you.
Come to His side (yes, even the greatest enemies of God! – heard of Saul of Tarsus?). Next to Him and apart from this world that is passing away. This fellow beggar will save you a seat.
* God, whom Christians are to imitate, is eager to love and save – not condemn. So much so that in Christ’s life and death He was reconciling the world to Himself. The hesitation in this relationship does not come from Him, but from us.
** As far as I am concerned, unsurprising, given that Plato portrays Socrates in his dialogues as being interested in the proper nature and goals of pederastic relationships (given the current state of affairs, I think it is highly naïve, in spite of Jerry Sandusky, to think that these will not be come to be acceptable once again – in a “highly sophisticated form” of course – among Western society’s elites [see here] – and beyond [see here]). Again unsurprising, because I note that Socrates, for all the wisdom he was said to have, also seems to have been a less than exemplary husband and father, to say the least.
*** The Lord declares war on the sin we coddle. As He appoints even non-Christians in this world to judge – either in greater or lesser accordance with His own laws – He too administers judgment of all persons, and will do so particularly in the life to come. He puts the enemy down, and yet always does so not with pleasure, but with sorrow. For He not only desires that none would thirst for blood but that all – like Him – would long for the salvation of even their greatest earthly enemies.
But in many a case, following the sweet proclamation of His salvation for all – His deliverance from sin, from death, and from the devil – the treason persists. And there, literally, will be hell to pay. The suffering in this life will not begin to approximate the next.
All of us must look at how we have treated the Son of God who has come to call us from darkness to light. Those who will not allow themselves to be forgiven and made new by the Son of God retain the guilt they inherited from Adam that releases all manner of evil. And again, it is not only these who do not believe: all of us, with our first parents, have all continually committed High Treason against the only King of Heaven and earth.
I am not excluded – for my neighbor has often not seen the love of God in me. Yes, this may be human blindness on their part, but I dare not think this is the only cause: when I stand naked in the midst of a holy God I know that I am undone. I have denied him before men, and in the name of “justice” refused to turn my cheek, refused to forgive from the heart 70 x 7, constantly mixed dung with precious perfume, ignored the unfortunate and outcasts who sense their need for Him more than most, and hated my enemies for whom Christ bled. I have refused to recognize marriage – my own marriage and resultant family – as a crucial sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world. While God has been patient and kind with me, granting me repentant faith time and again, I have not always been so kind and patient with my precious children. My actions – or inactions – have served as an acid that dissolve the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. In short, how little I must know my God! Because of my lack of trust, confidence, and reliance on God – and hence, love – I have caused my neighbor to perish.