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Through Lattice Windows: Going To Hell

"Why is there so much fear in Christian circles about going to hell after you die?'' muses author and columnist Leanne Hunt.

Recently, I heard a lovely, soft-spoken woman say, "My friend never knew Jesus. I tried to broach the topic before she died but she wasn't interested. I'm afraid she's gone to hell because of her unbelief."

I was reminded of the evangelism courses I did as a young adult. We learnt the four spiritual laws and memorised all the scripture verses pertinent to salvation. At the core of these was the idea that you get a chance to receive Christ as Saviour and Lord while you are living, and this dictates whether you rejoice in heaven for eternity or suffer unending torment in the lake of fire.

Today I'm not so sure about this doctrine. To me, it doesn't sound like good news. Rather, it sounds like a threat: Get your act together now or else! Besides, people are less and less concerned about the afterlife. With daily troubles surrounding them - the pain of chronic illness, the scourge of crime, the struggle for survival in an ailing economy, the continual exposure to war and natural disasters through the media - they might well agree with Jesus when he says, "Why worry about tomorrow? Today has enough worries of its own."

Staying with Jesus' words, didn't he also say, "The kingdom of God is within you"? Also, "The kingdom of God is among you." He was not talking about a future time but a present reality. This was good news. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men had come, thanks to the Spirit operating in their midst through Christ, and this was what had delivered the people from hell - that is, hell on earth.

If Jesus came to deliver people from sickness, poverty, slavery and imprisonment surely this should be the focus of our ministry too? Converting people so that they will not go to hell after they die seems a little far-off and insensitive. What good is it to convert a person with cancer and leave them isolated in their loneliness and pain when you could be saving them from that hell by your mere presence?

This is a rhetorical question and one which I ask myself. What can I do today to save someone from hell? Surely, not preach a message about the judgement of God and the damnation of souls who would not bow down in worship while they had the chance. Salvation is not so much a prize to be won as a state of being to be enjoyed. We experience salvation when we live above and beyond the misery of our circumstances. This is why bringing salvation is an ongoing work; even people who are mature Christians can plunge into a hell of doubt or despair, and they, as much as non-Christians, need compassionate witnesses to relieve them of their burden.

If the focus of Christian ministry was less on what happened to people after they die and more on relieving their present suffering, we would see less of hell and more of heaven on earth. Now is the day of salvation, not some distant point in the future. Yes, the coming of the Lord is to be anticipated with hope and faith, but so is the coming of "he who comes in the name of the Lord", to quote the words of the liturgy, which may as well be a present-day minister, neighbour or friend. It is time we thought less about "going to hell" and more about "freedom from hell" don't you agree?

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