This model of heaven and hell involves God solely as a just judge. It also suggests that we spend our lives scrambling to build an adequate moral resume. Life and afterlife, on this model, are all about measuring up.
This is the second post in a series on heaven, hell and God’s love.
We spend a great deal of time trying to measure up.
Teachers begin grading our work when we’re children. At some point we all became aware of something called a “permanent record.”
Coaches decide how much playing time we get, admissions officers determine our college acceptance, and employers hire, promote, and fire us. We strain to prove that we deserve to be on that field, on that campus, and in that office.
Standards have their place. They hold us accountable and can help us to improve our performance. There is nothing wrong with dispensing rewards for measuring up to a standard.
Love—genuine love—is not a reward for measuring up. It is a free gift freely given.
This is why so many people wonder why a loving God could condemn anyone to hell. They understand heaven and hell as reward and punishment. God measures us according to a moral standard and then dispenses judgment. Those who measure up go to heaven. God sends the misfits and slackers to hell.
It’s just one small step to saying that God love us for our moral achievement.
If you know anything about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you know that this is emphatically not the case. God loves us because of who he is, not as a result of our moral performance.
And yet, heaven and hell are clearly a part of God’s plan for us. Jesus himself talks about heaven and hell quite a bit.
This makes no sense.
And it never will so long as we think that life and our relationship with our God is basically about measuring up. We need to set aside the notion that life is principally about accumulating enough moral credits to win admission to heaven and to avoid condemnation to hell.
We got to this intellectual dead end because we started in the wrong place. Let’s try a different starting place.
God is love. He created us in his image. In other words, he created us to know the joy of being loved by him, of loving him in response to that love, and of loving each other from the depths of his love for us. God made us for relationship with him and with each other.
From the very start, God chose to involve himself in a big gamble.
Love is freely given. It cannot be coerced. The ability to love carries with it the capacity to withhold that love.
When God created us to be loving beings, he knew that we would be able to refuse to give and receive the very love that makes our lives worth living.
If we are to be truly free, hell must be at least a logical possibility for us. That’s because we can choose to reject God’s love for us and withhold our love from others. This is at the root of eternal damnation, just as accepting the love freely offered forms the foundation of heaven.
This life contains foretastes of heaven and hell alike. For the most part, the initial foretastes of hell amount to a kind of eternal false advertising.
Have you ever said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time?” Then maybe you know the sort of thing I’m talking about. That’s what we’ll explore next time: how our spiritual habits have an eternal trajectory.
In future posts we’ll look at a life based on mercy instead of moral achievement, how love and judgment are two sides of the same coin, and how heaven begins to insinuate itself into our lives every day.