REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 71: Heaven, Hell and the pandemic.
Gordon, my good friend of over 50 years, in responding to a previous Reflection, shared his difficulty in encouraging friends to consider heaven as a place worthy of their consideration. What was there about heaven that he could say which would give them a reason to want to be there?
As we were chatting we agreed that a healthy explanation of the alternative [and there is only one] might be a good place to start. Today, and God-willing, next week, I will attempt to outline some of the joyful and attractive prospects of heaven, and the new heaven and the new earth. This is the way things work for us now: I light my fire inside the fire-box, because I fear the consequences of lighting a fire on the lounge room floor. This enables me to enjoy the gift of warmth. The terrible danger of falling over a cliff prompts me to keep within the railed fence. This enables me to enjoy the view. The horror of spending eternity separated from God ought to be sufficient encouragement to enjoy God’s good gifts now in ever-increasing ways.
I used to work with Paul. We often spoke about Jesus. On one occasion he thanked me for caring enough to share the gospel with him, explaining that he was probably going to hell and that his mates would likely be there with him! I said, ‘Paul I pray that you won’t go to hell, but if you and your mates do, it won’t be like Friday night’s pub-crawl since you will hate each other’s guts!’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Hell will be a place where everything of God, which is entirely good, will be removed, whereas Heaven is where everything bad will be withdrawn forever’.
Take the pandemic for example. Though I can understand people in countries where there has been great distress saying, ‘It’s been hell going through what we have experienced’, it is in reality nothing like hell at all. The awful, indeed for many, horrendous experience has been tempered by help from others – medical personnel risking their lives, help from other nations, hope of a vaccine, help from families, strangers and, in most cases, governments displays the love of God through others. It is very difficult for us to imagine bushfires without fire-fighters, cancer without hospitals and COVID-19 without governmental risk-management. Living in a community that has imbibed a belief in a loving God and has largely taken for granted the common-grace gifts of seeking the welfare of others, has made it difficult for us to persuade unbelievers that we will be held accountable by a holy Creator God.
The pandemic helps us to see how inconsistent we are in our thinking. The initial joint efforts have long been replaced with political point-scoring and self-centred jockeying for personal gain. In other words, we all expect justice, but especially for us. We easily spot the other person’s selfishness but are slow to own our own. This innate desire for justice, even though often horribly skewed, may be a way of persuading our friends that there is a heaven [described as the home of righteousness/justice in 2 Peter 3:5] and a hell [where injustices of every kind will find their match before the throne of the holy God as Hebrews 12:28-29 suggests]. A good question to ask friends who say; ‘Where is the justice in this or that?’ or cry out ‘It’s not fair!’ or ‘Why doesn’t God do something about it?’ is ‘He will, but supposing He starts with you?’ One aspect of the cross is that God takes our injustices very seriously. Indeed, Jesus deals with them on our behalf and calls upon each one of us to own up to them in repentance and to trust Jesus to help us by his Spirit to live justly in every aspect of our lives.
In this way, we see that hell takes seriously our call for justice, but in a way which excuses none of us [Rom 3:21-26]. Hell, suggested C S Lewis, is God’s compliment to humankind. He takes us seriously, treating us as morally accountable men and women made in His image. If God takes us seriously then we ought to take each other seriously [in respect, sacrificial service and thoughtfulness] and in our own need for pardon and reconciliation, on His terms not our own [by repentance, reliance and reformation]. 1 John 1:8-9 help us see the place of justice: ‘…if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ The aged apostle of love does not say ‘faithful and loving’, but ‘faithful and just’. None can approach the God who is love [1 Jn 4:8] until they have reckoned with the God who is light [1:5-7], noted Marcus Loane. Those who do will never be content with pardon alone, but with an ongoing purification from all unrighteousness.
The pandemic is not hell, but it gives us a small glimpse into what hell will be like. If we live for the minute, we become minute! Small thoughts about God mean we easily settle for far less than God has made us for, diminishing and demeaning ourselves and others in the process. An unrestrained pandemical world is what we all deserve, but mercifully, primarily through Christ, and through the help of others, we catch a glimpse of better things. Things that need to be received before they can be enjoyed. Though difficult, and often thankless, in helping others increase their horizons to embrace reality, we can be sure that we are sharing in His great purpose [Ez 18:23/32; Luke 19:10].
Peter Brain 13th April, 2021