Another great night of discussion last night at HSM Sunday Nights! Below is a brief outline of our discussion and the topics discussed. The discussion was lively and we covered a lot of information over the hour of discussion!
We all have experienced loss in some way. Some of us have experienced loss in the death of a loved one. We opened the night following the story of Gina, a teenager whose grandmother just passed away. While at the funeral the Pastor talked about how her grandmother would be in heaven with God. While feeling comforted by the Pastor’s words, Gina wondered whether or not those words were true, knowing her grandmother did not consider herself a Christian.
Gina’s cousin, Bridgette, overheard their uncle Chad make a statement at the reception that her grandmother would not be in heaven because she didn’t believe in God and that she would be in hell. This upset Bridgette and started to make a scene at the funeral reception. So her other uncle, Max, whispered to her that her uncle Chad didn’t know what he was talking about and that there was no hell.
This made Gina wonder: “Who’s right? Is hell real? And if it is, how could a good God send Grandma to hell?”
We started the discussion with what we thought of when we hear the word hell. Some thought of a physical place somewhere in the depths of the earth with fire, suffering and burning. Other spoke of how hell is more of a state of our being, when we choose to love something on earth more than we love God. (See C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce) Hell is the separation of human beings from God. It is not simply God’s torture chamber for people God doesn’t like.
Another term we looked at was Gehenna: the word more often translated “hell” in the New Testament. It was the name of an actual valley near the city of Jerusalem where some ancient (and very evil) kings performed child sacrifices to a different god. It was a hated place and its name was synonymous with somewhere God would judge. After child sacrifices were banned, Gehenna became the trash dump of the town. Fires continually burned there as a way of getting rid of the trash, dead animals, and other refuse that were put there. A key to understand why Jesus would use Gehenna as a reference needs to be put into context. Jesus was the master of using concrete things to express abstract realities. Jesus specifically chose objects he knew his audience would understand well. In his day, everyone in Palestine knew about Gehenna. Here are some places where Jesus used this reference in the New Testament.
From there we took a look at a few ideas and words surrounding the afterlife and how/who goes where/when.
Choice: We took some time to understand how God gives us a choice or maybe doesn’t depending on where you land on how God gave us “free will”, that ultimately we are able to choose to believe or not to believe in God. Others believe that God chooses our eternal destiny and we simply live out what God has already chosen. So, then we must ask, Do we direct our futures or does God? If God truly allows us to choose either to follow Jesus or turn away from him during our lifetimes on earth, why wouldn’t God honor that choice after death? Why would a person who doesn’t want to follow God on earth want to spend eternity with God? We didn’t land on one understanding of this but had some good discussion on the different thoughts about how God interacts with us!
Universalism: Some believe God will save all people. No one has to experience hell, because God’s love—the love that resurrected Christ from eternal punishment—overcame death and hell for all of us.
Annihilationism: Some people believe that God will not send people to a place of eternal punishment but, instead, will annihilate their souls so they cease to exist.
In ending the evening, we stressed the importance that God is the only judge of humanity. It is never our job to say about a specific person, “That person is going to hell.” We also discussed how Jesus spoke very directly about the existence of an afterlife. His words need to be considered.