It’s Halloween, but I promise you that’s not why we skipped church this morning.
The sun was shining, Lola was at a sleepover, and we were still in bed hours after waking, not being lazy (as Christian pointed out) but reading together. We are going through the bible as a family, and talking about our takeaways is my favorite way to start the day. So we lingered, and it was lovely.
Finally roused by our hunger, we layered up and ventured out to the new best bakery in the old neighborhood: Cafe Ceres. The place is equal parts hip and delicious which is the criteria for me – a coffee shop can’t just be cute. Equipped with a seasonal Danish and a Turkish bagel, plus coffee and tea, we headed to the lake with every intention of streaming church down by the water…until we realized it was a guest speaker this weekend, and no longer wanted to tune in!
Our pastor is really great, and one of the things he’s taught us is to be aware of God in every situation; to observe God’s creation and to be in awe of what God is doing, not just at church but everywhere. And so that is what we did instead. We put my Jesus jams on the stereo and opened the roof and let the sun shine in on us as we ate breakfast and talked about God.
It was so nice.
Then I asked Christian to drive me over to the Halloween installation everyone is talking about: a yard full of skeletons arranged in a party scene like it’s prom, elegant dresses and formalwear for all. One skeleton is the DJ, surrounded by several skeleton couples arranged in romantic embraces, so perfectly posed and seeming as if I stayed staring long enough they’d start to slow dance. A bone man in the corner spikes the punch. There are even skeleton chaperones, overseeing the festivities of the damned. I can see why the news crews came out to cover this art installation; it’s pretty epic. The homeowners even strung stars between the trees to emphasize the disco ball effect at night.
We got out of the car, taking it all in. One skeleton in the foreground of the scene caught my eye: a disappointed damsel, apparently stood up by her date.
Her loneliness got me thinking about a conversation I had two days ago with my dear friend Tammy, who lives just a block from the skeleton prom. Our daughters had run off together to check out the prom at night, when they shine spotlights on the skeletons, making everything twinkly. We were crafting beaded bracelets at Tammy’s kitchen table when we started talking about one of my favorite topics: how we understand God, and what happens after we die.
Perhaps inspired by the skeleton prom, our conversation drifted into hell.
As Christians, my family believes that “death is just a change of address” (to quote Anne Lamott), but Tammy had some questions about that.
If Christians believe that death means the end of this life on earth and the beginning of a life with God, what happens to everyone else?
Does hell, as it’s been preached in scary terms of fire and brimstone, really exist?
I told her what I know – what I believe – is this: the people who wrote the Bible were inspired by God to write what they did, but to read the Bible literally often means missing the point. And perhaps the people so obsessed with preaching fire and brimstone have their own violent tendencies, I’m not sure. What I am sure about is Jesus.
The cornerstone of Christianity is Jesus Christ, God’s son who wore a skin suit and who became fully human to show us how to live a perfect, sinless, Godlike life – something we could never do on our own. He died and rose again, effectively defeating death. And so will we who believe in him, following his example for our lives.
Jesus came to be a bridge between humanity and divinity, this transcendental God who is present in the face of every person on planet earth and yet also resides in the heavens where the order of all things first began.
We are now, at any time, able to access the divine nature of Jesus and commune directly with God, in Jesus’ name. How awesome is this? It’s a choice anyone can make on earth, moment by moment and up until the minute we die – that’s the final separation.
But what about people who don’t believe, who choose separation instead of a life aligned with God?
Do people who reject Jesus really go to a place with literal worms crawling in and out, or gnashing of teeth and constant pain, the fiery place called hell? Is it this serious?
In a way, yes. It is the most serious imagery the people who penned the Bible could conceive to convey the reality of being separated from God. To be separated from God, with no option to turn to Jesus, that is hell.
That’s the worst thing. I don’t know what it looks like, practically speaking of hell. But when I’ve wandered and been separated from God, my life hasn’t gotten on too well.
Because choosing Jesus isn’t fire insurance. It’s not a foolproof plan to get a plot of land in heaven, assigned to you along with your harp. Choosing Jesus is for the here and now, a way of living in the world that abstains from sin and attains the heart of God.
But what is sin? In simple terms, it’s the elevation of anything we put in the place that belongs to God in our lives. It’s whatever is the opposite of love. When I treat others as I deem they deserve to be treated, vs. how God says I am to treat them – that is sin. Seeking the comfort of culture instead of leaning into my calling – that is sin. Ignoring the biblical mandates to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) – that is sin. Putting social media over time in solitude with the one who made me – that is sin. And let me tell you, whenever I muscle through my own strength on any issue, without allowing God to lead me, that’s sin – in addition to the moral sins we all know to destroy the mortal soul, like lying, cheating, stealing, etc. These are all just examples of how sin shows up in my life – I’m sure you have your own laundry list of faults that plague the conscience.
The problem is, I can’t stop sinning on my own, my selfishness being the root of this concern: I am incapable of surrendering my life to God and loving others the way God loves me, without God’s help in doing so.
This is THE reason we need Jesus, as he’s the only man who ever lived to do this part perfectly! He helps us along, like a faithful guide and friend.
Before Jesus came, Israel was in a cycle of sin-repercussion-repent-repeat. They might have been God’s chosen people, but they were wayward wanderers for most of the Old Testament, returning to God only when the consequences of their sin were too much to bear. When they didn’t choose God, life went terribly for them; when they aligned their lives with God’s plan, they prospered. We can learn from their example.
This is not to say God is a formula to be figured out, but rather a demonstration of simple cause and effect: we come from God, and we’re wired for a life wrapped up in God, prioritizing his purposes for our life. When we stop living a life aligned with God, we waste our lives away. It’s like if I stop watering my plants and put them in a dark room, they will wither away and eventually die; we need God like my plants need sunshine and water.
From my devotional today on being a disciple, or follower, of Jesus: “Because a disciple recognizes, first, his or her own need for Jesus and his goodness, a disciple should long for Jesus’ perfect record. The world tells us to desire happiness and pleasure. As a result, people try to fill their lives with entertainment, food, or relationships that can fill the sense of purpose.
But Jesus is the only one who can forgive sins, heal spiritual brokenness, and give eternal purpose.”
Jesus, who conquered the grave with love and said by believing in him we can do the same. We’ll never live up to his perfect example, but where we fall short there is grace.
Now, because of Jesus we can come boldly before God, and even though we sin we stand blameless in God’s sight. What a gift! Heaven is direct access to the goodness of God at all times, which none of us can even fathom. We’ll be able to fuse with God like muscle meets bone, so close we will be; THAT is what heaven will be, like seeing for the first time…and staring eye to eye with God.
Hell is the opposite of this.
Earth-side, we all have the option to turn our ear to what God is saying. We were given free will, and we can choose Jesus over everything else. But when that option ceases, as in death…then we will experience hell. I don’t know what that looks like, but I don’t want any part of it. I imagine hell would feel as despairing as worms crawling in and out of my skin, as punishing as fire and brimstone, and as lonely as being stood up at prom for all of eternity.
Hell is ultimate separation from God.
I think that’s the spookiest thing I can think of, how about you?
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” — 2 Corinthians 5:20