The Gospel reading this week in church is John 15:1-8. This contains wonderful imagery of the Father as the vine-grower and us as the branch. Being a part of the vine we, as branches can bear good fruit. By the vine-grower pruning (best interpreted as cleansing) the branches the branches can produce even more fruit. Abiding in Jesus is to be a part of the vine that allows us to bear much fruit and apart from Jesus we can do nothing. This is the part of this passage that most preachers choose to focus on.
However, there is the unsettling verse 6 “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”. This clearly gives rise to images of hell and the fires of damnation. This is the view of damnation that is embraced by many, even self-identified Christians. This is not the only place that Jesus references what seems to be the fires of damnation. This seems to be the case in Matthew 5; 22, 29-30 and Matthew 13: 36-43.
It is not so clear upon deeper study, especially by those experts in this subject, that this is actually what Jesus means. It is more likely that Jesus is referring to a complete and total death (annihilation if you will). A complete loss of existence for those not abiding in the Father. This stands as quite a bit different than the notion of a place of eternal torture. Eternal punishment to Jesus means non-existence and a cutoff from God. A good summary of this position can be found here. This should make the faithful recognize that the worst thing that could happen to us as believers is a lack of an eternal relationship with God. That, for us, truly would be Hell.
As believers, this is not a thing that should concern us greatly. If we abide in God through Jesus, then we are confident that we will have an eternal relationship with God. Even though we will screw up repeatedly and badly we trust that the faith that God has placed in us will be enough for God to not throw us away. It is God’s mercy that we depend upon and that requires faith as much as anything.
This does not directly answer the original question but points us in the right direction. If “hell” is complete annihilation and no eternal relationship with God (as opposed to eternal torture), then it is not God who sends anyone to hell. People place themselves in “hell” rather than God sending them there (or to complete non-existence). God seeks a relationship with everyone, as I pointed out previously. God is in hot pursuit of us all and invites everyone to His table. This invitation is all up to God, but rest assured it is an open invite to the greatest party ever. There is nothing we can do to “get” God to invite us, He already has. There is nothing we can do to generate our faith; God has given us that as well. This is all a part of the Grace upon Grace that God has offered to humanity. The “only” thing we can do is to say yes or no. From the very beginning God has given humanity free will and the ability to choose. It is up to us whether to accept the invitation.
It is a good time to reflect upon what a priest taught me years ago. Namely that a non-believer would not likely be comfortable in heaven (defined as in the presence of God) because they never wanted a relationship with God to begin with. It has also always struck me as odd that non-believers would get offended at the prospect of being sent (or going voluntarily) to a place they ostensibly do not believe in in the first place.
Therefore, a break in this relationship comes not from God but from us. If we have no relationship with God here and now, then we will continue to have no relationship with God going forward past our earthly lives. Our eternal lives have already begun, first here then continuing in the next age. We get to choose now to accept God’s invitation and/or remain in relationship with Him.
In the end we really have no exact idea of what the next age will look like. We faithfully trust that it will be amazing as any close contact with God would be. All of the standard imagery of Peter at the gates and sitting on fluffy clouds with harps, etc are only conventional reference points needed because of the limited vision of humans. All of this is God’s business; let God do His business and we should focus on getting about ours, loving God and one another.
Also, God’s business is who gets to keep a relationship with God or not. Even those who have no relationship with God now may yet be granted a relationship with God for eternity. There is a strain of Christian thought that suggests that some passages in Scripture point toward universal salvation. Passages such as Lamentations 3:31-33 and 1Timothy 4:10 certainly suggest this. There is a great deal of debate by people of faith on both sides of this issue. Suffice it to say that we do not know. As in all these matters it is best to remember that God is God, and we are not. We faithfully believe that God will bring us home for accepting the invitation He made to us and accepting the gift of faith in His son Jesus the Christ. As for everyone else, that depends upon God and His mercy, which is infinitely wider than ours.
Our only task is to as best we feebly can, live out the faith that God has given us. Ours is to praise and worship God in all that we think, say and do. To do our level best to make a positive impact upon those God has placed in our lives and to bear true witness to God’s amazingly Good News. Live every day as it is your last here on earth (it just might be) and faithfully stand ready to spend the rest of eternity in God’s almighty presence. In short, just say YES LORD YES!!!
Praise Be to God