For several years now, I’ve seen churches hosting a dramatic presentation called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. The one I went to focused on the horrors of hell, the uncertainty of life – we could die any moment, and the necessity to get right with God RIGHT NOW!
One of the difficulties contemporary United Methodists face is a propensity toward soteriological universalism. Our obsession with the love of God – surely a good thing to be obsessed about – leads us to believe that everyone will be saved because a loving God would never send anyone to hell. Of course, when we make this move we have to throw out the biblical imagery about a negative end-state (whether that be called “hell” or not) for humans. On the other side, we could argue that a loving God (that God is love is a root conviction of Christianity, after all) would not compel people to spend eternity with God.
Either way, we UMs are usually not very comfortable talking about hell. But what if it’s a real possibility for some people? What if eternal separation from God, however visualized, is a possible outcome? If we love God and love our neighbors, what would we do in light of such a possibility? It’s in this context that I can understand why some churches put on plays like this. They love God and love people and desperately want people to choose eternity with God rather than eternal separation from God.
My hold up is that the main motivation appears to be fear. Hell is gruesome and horrible; we should fear going there. Heaven is the obvious better alternative. I don’t like motivating people with fear – even when I think the context justifies fear (one’s eternal destiny, wearing a seat belt, avoiding smoking, etc.). Fear is a much better motivator in the short term than the long term.
When we use fear in the context of eternal life, the act of becoming a Christian too easily reduces to getting an eternal fire insurance policy. “I’ve walked the aisle, I’ve prayed the prayer, I’ve joined the church.” I have my eternal destiny settled, so now I can get on with life. I just don’t see that perspective in the Bible.
Consider for a moment the possibility of Heaven’s flames. Such an odd idea, isn’t it, since we usually associate flames with hell – the abode of God’s enemy, the devil. We’ve seen the cartoons of the guy with horns, tail, and pitchfork, torturing people among the flames. That’s hell. Hell has flames. Surely heaven doesn’t have flames.
But what do we make of Hebrews 12:29 – “Our God is a consuming fire.” Is God starting to sound dangerous? What about Isaiah’s vision in Isa. 6? He sees God high and lifted up. How’s he respond? “Hey God, good buddy! Good to see you?” No. He falls down like he’s dead. Knowing the depth of his sin, he knows he’s in serious trouble.
Or what about Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 3:9-15?
9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Paul’s talking to Christians here. Christians, according to this passage, go through the judgment. Flames are involved! Are we preparing for God’s judgment, or are we resting on a decision (a GOOD decision!) we made at some point in the past to follow Jesus? Will we be ready for heaven’s flames?
Or what about hell’s gates? Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 16. He’s asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They give a variety of answers. He then asks them who THEY think he is:
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.
Jesus is assuming that our warfare will take us to the very gates of hell – and they will not stand against us. Why on earth would we want to even approach the gates of hell? Surely we want to be safe and secure from the devil and his minions, separated from all the unholy and godless people flocking there through the wide gate?
But, no, that is not the Jesus way. In his incarnation, in becoming one of us, Jesus himself charged the gates of hell. He did so to rescue those running headlong trying to enter. He calls us to do the same. Instead of separating ourselves from the world, so that we will be unsullied by its sin, we take up our crosses – as Jesus commanded – and follow him into the fray. His love for (us) sinners was so great, he gave his very life for us. He calls us to embody that same kind of love and to go after sinners as well. There’s no superiority involved here: our motivation is love, our attitude, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We’ve been there – we’ve done that – we know the pain and don’t want anyone, even our enemies to go that way.
C.T Studd, a British missionary of a hundred years ago, put it this way:
Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.
When we recognize the reality of Heaven’s Flames, when we charge Hell’s Gates to deter or rescue those trying to go in, our lives will be anything but escapist. Sure the world is sinful, broken, hurting. But our allegiance to Jesus means that we follow him wherever he goes, loving him, loving the people he died to save.