I’ve seen a lot of blogs, magazine articles, and other writings lately debating whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to “witness” by warning people of the dangers of Hell.
Now, whether or not you believe in Hell is a whole topic unto itself. My own vision of the afterlife is fairly vague. I think that the Bible gives us a lot of glimpses, but no real picture. It’s like if I described New York City by saying, “It’s cold in the winter and there are tall buildings.” Those are true statements, but it doesn’t give any real idea at all about what the city, in totality, looks like. I do believe that it is quite clear that there is an afterlife, and that we go on eternally. Aside from that, I fall back on a cliché when considering the Hellfire and Brimstone approach.
What would Jesus do?
After all, “Christian” means “a follower of Christ.” Church tradition, the writings of Luther and Calvin and Welsey, Papal decree and denominational doctrine all have a place, perhaps, but none of those things define Christianity. Christianity is defined, alone, by Jesus.
So what did Jesus do? Did he “witness?” How did he lead people to God? Did he warn people about Hell?
Well… first of all, he led a perfectly sinless life. We can’t do that. But we can strive for it. When people see that you are the one person in the group who isn’t gossiping, or who doesn’t speak poorly of their spouse, or who goes out of their way to care for the downtrodden, they are seeing God at work through you and that will give them the desire to seek God for themselves. We all make mistakes and fall short but people who make no effort whatsoever to hold themselves to a high moral standard have no business calling themselves Christian.
Second, he didn’t spend all of his time in the temple. He lived his life among the people who needed him. “The healthy have no need for a doctor,” he said. He dined with people who were in a life of sin and/or sick or poor or otherwise deemed undesirable by society. Yes, sometimes he went off by himself to pray or spend time with his disciples or sit in the temple. Sometimes… not all the time. If we spend all our time in church, surrounded by other believers we are doing something very wrong.
Third (and I suppose this might be a continuation of #2), he met people where they were. Jesus didn’t go to the hungry and hand them a pamphlet about the dangers of Hell. He went to the hungry and he gave them food. He didn’t make listening to his schpeal a condition of receiving the food. He just gave them food. He went to the sick and he healed them. First, he protected the woman caught in adultery from physical harm. Then, when asked, he told these folks that the way to the Father was through the Son, and they should “go and sin no more.”
Finally, Jesus held a double standard. He was consistently gentle with “sinners.” He sat with them and answered their questions. He healed their physical and mental hurts. He fed them and clothed them. He showed them love. In the society in which he lived that was radical business! I can’t think of a single instance in the Bible of Jesus telling someone, “God hates what you are.” I don’t know of anywhere that tells of him saying, “You are going to Hell.” He never told them to clean themselves up (literally or figuratively) first and then come hear the message of salvation. He just loved them. He wildly, radically, in a way that was completely unknown, loved them.
He was very harsh with the religious leaders of the day. He called them names and mocked them. He wreaked havoc in the temple. He had no patience with them whatsoever. Why? Because they were powerful and wealthy and they were holding their knowledge of God over the heads of the poor and the oppressed as a way to lord over them. They were sinners, but unforgiving of the sins of others. They preached that they had it all figured out, but they were completely missing the point. They spent all their time in the temple debating the minutia of scripture while people starved in the streets outside the building. And, of all people, they should have known better. They were the ones who had been taught. They were the ones with the ability to read the scriptures for themselves.
So what do I take away from this?
I think that it means that those of us who have had God’s Wisdom taught to us are held to a higher standard. It means that we are expected to leave our beautiful air-conditioned cathedrals full of like minded people and take care of our fellow man. Especially the men (and women!) who have not yet experienced God’s healing power. And when they are ready and willing and they seek the knowledge we have about Jesus and Heaven and salvation, we should share it with them freely and willingly. And humbly. Always humbly. Because we have done nothing to earn God’s love. He has done everything for us. And because, no matter how much we read, we do not know everything. Even the most learned among us disagree on many points – including what Hell is. Of course, if we love them, we want to care not only for their temporal body, but for their eternal soul! Of course! But, the only thing we know for sure is that “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but know eternal life. He was not sent to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17) It seems to this humble hippie that those words are the ones that people need to hear, first and foremost. Anything else can come later.