So the next question in our ‘you asked’ series was a question that landed into the hat at our last ‘Q and A’ evening service. I imagine the person who asked this question is looking for some sort of definitive response within the first few minutes so let me give one and then ask that no matter what this question stirs up in you, or what side of the fence you are on; stay with me as we unpack it.
Let me begin by saying: “No, the only person in hell is the unrepentant (unapologetic, unremorseful, unchanging) person.”
Now let me unpack all that.
1.Sin and sexuality
From my conversations with various homosexual people, I guess the real issue that many take with Christianity, is that it classifies homosexuality as a sin. I’ll be honest, there is a part of me that would love that the bible said no such thing, surely it would make some conversations easier….in the short term. However, a survey of the scriptures by any reasonable reader would reveal that yes, the bible does view homosexuality as a sin.
I cannot claim to follow Jesus and then turn around and water down his Word. I am constrained. Moreover, I sometimes wish that we would be way more honest about that as Christians. I feel that sometimes we are so busy arguing against issues like Marriage equality on the basis of ‘the natural world’ and the ‘rights of children to both a mother and father’ and ‘the necessary difference (and hence balance) in the genders’ that we forget that all these are secondary truths. The primary truth is, God’s Word names it as a sin. But we (protestant mainline Christianity) know we’ll be ‘laughed at and called nasty names’ for saying such, so we often fall to hypocritical arguments like talking about the importance of reproduction whilst allowing contraception.
The more allergic God’s people are to the word ‘sin,’ the more long-winded and confusing our arguments become.
Therefore, it is really important for us to have the conversation regarding what sin is and it’s relationship to human sexuality. The teachings of the New Testament are of course based on Jesus. Jesus of course taught from the Old Testament, with an extremely Jewish (unsurprisingly!) flavour.
So the basis of the Biblical understanding for Sin surely must be the Hebrew word for it. If you’re familiar with this word you’ll know that it’s a very ‘visual’ word that paints a picture of an arrow flying towards and into a target, only to miss the bulls-eye.’
In short, any time you see the word ‘sin’ it essentially means ‘to miss the mark or bulls-eye. What’s the bulls-eye? God and his righteousness of course. But I find it fascinating that the perfection of Jesus’ life as depicted in the Gospels is really in the context of his perfect obedience to and desire for God’s will. The bulls-eye from a human, mortal perspective then, seems to be perfect relationship with God. We of course have ALL fallen short of that, as the apostle Paul was at pains to point out. But we all have fallen short because we fall short in every facet of our being. Including our sexuality.
Sin takes our God-created sexuality, something to be explored and enjoyed and distorts it into a confused, starving shadow of itself, never satisfied. A vintage example of this process in real-time is an addiction to pornography, to the point where no sex is enjoyable anymore as it has become completely self-focused. Moreover, sin has a certain ‘disease quality’ to it, meaning that we not only commit sin, but are also victims of it as well.
Homosexuality according to the Bible is likewise the warping of God’s ideal, in this case sexual identity, where the confusion propels a person to ‘miss the mark of God’s ideal.’ As a side note; I have wrestled over the issue of intersex and other genetic mutations of what I believe God desires and have (so far) come to the conclusion that such folks are indeed victims of the degradation that has entered the natural world through sin. But I also believe that God has a special heart for these people, Just have a look at John 9:1-3.
So we all are in the same boat. We all commit sin as much as we are all victims of systemic sins. Thus when sin collides with our sexuality, enormous damage is caused to our lives.
2. God’s aim for humanity.
God knows the human heart better than anyone. Especially a lobbyist. anytime we don’t trust God it’s because we don’t trust his love. I recently came across Proverbs 15:11:
“Sheol and Abaddon (death and destruction) hold no secrets from the Lord, how much more does he know the human heart!”
Maybe the absolute hardest thing for a late-modern secular society to believe about God is that he knows our hearts (and what they need) better than we do. It’s made even harder when perhaps the church in general could be doing a far, far better job of talking about and displaying how awesome and amazing life, indeed sexuality can be, when we do it according to God’s plan instead of making stupid jokes about marriage at other people’s weddings.
But that really is the greatest leap of faith of all. It’s one thing to ‘believe in God’ but a whole other thing entirely to trust in his love. The problem is however, until we do, we’re trapped by our own fears. Jesus said: Matt 10:39 “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” Of course you’ll never hand your life over to Jesus until you really trust his love.
That’s why all of this depends on God’s role as creator and designer of our hearts and minds. Unless that’s true, there’s no reason to trust him. But because we believe it is true, we can be sure that God’s best is better than anything we could ever conceive of, because God’s best is ultimately untainted and un-distorted by sin.
God’s ultimate aim for humanity, is to save us into a perfect, restored relationship with him, where everything makes sense in a new, un-distorted creation. He restores us, through forgiveness.
3. Repentance and the last word on Sin.
Now that we have an understanding of the Biblical idea of Sin, we can say the Bible is good news precisely because it tells us that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has the last word on sin and that word is: “you are forgiven.” To know this forgiveness in the very depths in the human heart is to be, for lack of a better word; ‘intoxicated’ with a desire to act according to God’s will out of overflowing gratitude. Such a person still sins of course, but their desire is to please God because they know God’s love for them is unconditional.
Maybe this is why (not to take anything away from folks with a testimony of ‘recovery’ from homosexual urges) some of the most powerful spiritual voices that have ever spoken into my life have actually been the voices of gay friends and authors who have had the absolute courage to speak openly about their passion for Jesus to the point where they have let it cost them the opportunity to explore their homosexual desires or, their refusal to stop seeking, serving and loving Jesus in the midst of their struggle with homosexuality. Perhaps my favourite example is Henri Nouwen, who depicted the depth of God’s fatherly love like no other writer I have ever read.
Unrepentance on the other hand is ultimately a refusal to take God at his word. When he says that he is indeed there, when he says that he cares, when he says that he knows our hearts and their deepest desires and when he says; “you are forgiven,” the unrepentant heart says “yeah…but…I know better.”
This is despite the fact that the unrepentant heart struggles under a burden of ever increasing misery and the ghost of guilt that society keeps telling it “that it doesn’t exist.” This is why secularism simply adores scepticism as a mechanism for assuaging the gnawing emptiness that it feels.
God’s last word on sin is basically: “it is finished, I do not condemn you, you are included.” We have the choice to either say, “thank you”…..or “no thanks.” To take him at his Word or to flagrantly and proudly embrace all that is contrary to it.
4. The reality of Hell
Like eternal life begins not at death, but at the moment of faith in Christ, so in one sense hell begins in the now. Or to put it another way; hell (a reality completely separated from the sustaining love of God) cast’s its shadows as it were, into this world. There are of course many graphic descriptors of hell in the bible but I think they are all pointing to roughly the same truth; that existence without God is unimaginably horrible.
If he is the source of life, then to be cast out of his presence is to be cast into the never ending ‘pit’ of self-pity, confusion and despair. We all struggle with these things in some way at some point, but imagine these things being the defining traits of existence with no end. The great tragedy of course is that this is simply God saying “Ok then, if you don’t want me, then your will be done.”
There may be people out there who say; “ugh, another Christian blaming every emotional problem on this thing ‘sin’, making us feel guilty when it’s a problem of society’s view towards gay people.” Well, that’s an opinion too and no doubt, homosexual people have been terribly persecuted in that past and it pains me to say that the Christian moral majority by and large failed to do anything about it. That being said, any persecution of any minority is as much a result of abandoning a biblical ethic as much as any flagrant sexual sin may be.
When we walk away from God’s best for our lives, we end up with ‘hell on earth.’ Why should we expect any different in the eternal realm? To embrace anything but God’s best ends in disillusionment.
5. So, where does that leave us?
This is by no means a top to bottom watertight answer, but hopefully the continuation of a conversation. It reminds me that in every sphere of life, the words of Tim Keller ring true; “The reason why we ever do anything wrong at all, is because we don’t really trust God’s love.”
In the ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Henri Nouwen, (above mentioned) Nouwen talks about the indignant older brother’s reactions to the father welcoming home the son that had squandered his father’s wealth on prostitutes. As I read this it struck me; God is planning a great and wonderful celebration that is going to happen with or without us. No matter our struggle, the invitation stands but the question is, what are we going to do with it?