"Go on then Chris, evangelize me!"
This was the request of my old school friend Justin. We were now both in our 40s and our lives had taken different paths. He was a single pub-dweller and not a Christian and I was a married pastor. I was the ‘nominated driver’ for our evening at the pub together and on the lift home, fuelled by a few pints of Ruddle’s Best Bitter, Justin was eager for some theological argument. The subject of heaven and hell arose, and that’s when his comment shocked me:
"I really don’t want to go to heaven, Chris. It will be boring there because it will be full of Christians. I’d rather be in hell where the party is!"
My shock wasn’t the clarity of Justin’s choice. I could see his logic. My shock was that in having come along with me to several Alpha courses and visited my church on more than a handful of occasions, Justin had developed a completely upside-down theology of eternal life and eternal suffering.
In a survey released today, conducted by Resonate, it is clear that most Christians still believe in the doctrines of heaven and hell. More believe in heaven than hell, and younger Christians in the 16-24 age range seem particularly clear about the reality of both. It’s no surprise perhaps that the more Pentecostal end of the Christian world has a more universal believe in these doctrines (98% believe in hell, 100% in heaven) than the more liberal Methodists (90% believing in heaven but only 56% believing in hell).
With the overwhelming weight of such belief, it is a necessary shock to church leaders when the same survey reveals that only 8% of churches would include teaching on hell as part of their regular theological diet. Heaven fares a bit better at 43% - but then it’s a much nicer parcel to deliver.
Our culture screams ‘YOLO’ (You only live once), but our scriptures are clear. Each of us will give an account, and then we will either populate the new earth, freshly liberated from the decay of our fallen nature, or we shall experience whatever Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the destiny of the unforgiven as Gehenna – the Aramaic name for the area on the outskirts of Jerusalem littered with sewage and refuse, decaying bodies and the remnants of infants sacrificed to Moloch, or what he meant when he spoke of unforgiven lives being thrown into outer darkness in Matthew 25:30, and I don’t even want to begin to imagine what he meant by the punitive torture of an unquenchable fire in Mark 9:44.
Symbolic language it may be, but a symbol is always less than the thing it symbolises – so an orthodox biblical understanding would lead us to believe that hell is more real and more horrific than anything we can imagine.
In preaching the gospel, we must hold out both light and dark, both death and life, both heaven and hell. This news is too important not to share.
If we claim to be those who love our neighbour, but withhold from them such truth, then we are not those who love, but those who grab the life vest while others drown. In our teaching of the Church, and in particular in our preaching of the message of the gospel, we must hold out both light and dark, both death and life, both heaven and hell. This news is too important not to share.
Some years after giving Justin a lift home from the pub that evening, he recognised his brokenness, and he received God’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life. I’m glad I played a small part in correcting his wonky understanding. He is now part of God’s family forever and will be able to enjoy the real party.
Evangelist Billy Sunday once said, "If there was more hell preached in our churches, there would be less hell on our streets." Hopefully today’s survey will give us the confidence to preach the whole gospel, with love and grace as well as with warning and sometimes uncomfortable truth, and in our day see heaven increasingly breaking out on planet earth.
The afterlife survey was commissioned ahead of the release of Complete Darkness, a novel by Christian author Matt Adcock, which imagines a scenario where humanity inadvertently maps hell while investigating dark matter.
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