Saturday, May 7, 2016

Eternal Hell: God’s Justice and Love

If you and I were to poll adults on what is the most emotionally terrifying thing for them the answers would vary a lot. People have phobias about dentists, dogs, enclosed spaces, lightning, heights, public speaking, spiders, snakes and a whole lot more. And for the people with true phobias they can reach a point of panic dealing with these things.

When I was a child my father took care of what would be the most terrifying thing for me. And that was the subject of hell. For me it was the most emotionally charged subject on earth. And that came about because my father believed hell was very real. And in his twisted way of looking at life he believed that only by bludgeoning people with fear tactics would he be able to produce compliant people who would turn to God to avoid hell. My father was Fred W. Phelps, Sr. the head of a cult in Topeka, Kansas called Westboro Baptist Church, commonly referred to as WBC. My father never understood how important it was to respect people enough to let them know the facts about something and let them deal with those facts as the free agents and adults they were.

Beliefs and feelings about hell range from one extreme to the other on a long continuum. Recently I spent 45 minutes doing an interview with a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University on the subject of the afterlife, specifically hell. His goal is to create a tool to measure people's concerns about hell.

He asked me a lot of questions. About my life. About my religious background. About my beliefs about hell. He wanted to interview me and several of my family members who have left our family cult because he wants to include people who have had exposure to more strident teachings about hell to insure that his tool works for people with a variety of religious backgrounds.

I described the first 19 years of my life and what I was taught about hell. I referred him to five of my blog writings: “God Is Not Good”, “Abusing People with Religion”, “Assailed to the Breaking Point – Part 1”, “The Language of Love” and ‘My Brother Nate.” I told him this would be an efficient way to get an overview on the reality of the religious abuse our family experienced as a result of my father’s toxic pathology. I mentioned that as far as I was concerned I lived in a kind of hell for the first 19 ½ years of my life, right here on earth.

I stated clearly and forthrightly that today, as a man in my 60’s, I believe in a literal and eternal hell. And not because of my father’s fear tactics in my life but because of my own personal study and convictions.

I also described the stark reality of the psychological damage of having hell and the threat of hell used to control and hurt and damage me and its effects on my heart and my life. I told my young interviewer it took me 20 years after leaving my family’s cult to overcome the damage done to my heart and psyche by my father’s use of repeated threats of eternal hell to terrify me and manipulate me. My healing from this damage would include years of intentional work with professional counselors. Many of my siblings have not had the benefit of this type of restorative, healing work and remain trapped in the devastation of my father’s torturous words inflicted on their childlike souls as young children.

I explained in that interview my belief that the teaching of hell to children is inappropriate for where almost all children are both emotionally and developmentally. I told him I believe the love of God should be taught to little children and that little children should have free access to the truth of God and His love. Children need repeated affirmations of their worth and value to God during their young lives to grow up as spiritually healthy young ones. I told him my strong belief that only when a child is of appropriate age is it even responsible to tell them the truth about hell as Christ told all of us in His word. As we mature, each of us needs to know what is true if we are to ever be free. We need to hear and understand truth, but this needs to happen at a time when we are ready to absorb it and understand it.

I liken what the children in my family went through hearing about hell repeatedly and in such graphic and cruel terms to children who grow up in the midst of a war. Children will try various ways to cope with bombs dropping around their heads but when you talk to them as adults there are many scars in their souls having had to go through those things at such a young age. That would be true for all of my siblings and me who experienced “hell abuse” at too young an age.

I described to my interviewer the experiences I had as a child and how opposite they were of what I now believe is appropriate for young, tender minds and hearts. Instead of being told the truth about hell so I could have knowledge and be free to respond to the truth about my eternal consequences as a person, the threat of hell was used to hurt me and unnecessarily terrorize me. My father lied to me and my brothers and sisters about hell and about God. He lied by leaving out the amazing truth of God’s profound love for each of us. And that God had every intention of rescuing each of us from hell. If we wanted to be rescued. And that God gave each person that free will choice that he respectfully offered to them. With no bludgeoning!

I made clear that terror – stark raving terror - was the dominant emotion that described my childhood. Fear and anxiety and turmoil, a sense of worthlessness, hopelessness and the complete inability to sit still in my own skin were some of the ways I described what it was like to be threatened with eternal hell as a child, by my father. This wrong teaching was reinforced by my father’s own rage, violence, hatefulness and physical, mental, emotional and religious abuse of our entire family.

I described how my father manipulated my siblings and me by using the threat of eternal hell to control us from leaving his cult. Sadly, I had to set out in detail how constantly my father would verbally condemn anyone to eternal hell whenever he disagreed with or was upset with anybody at any time. He was very verbally free with these condemnations. My father told all of his children that if we ever left his church (his cult) we were going to hell. Period! The very thing he was so fearful of for his children was used by him to attempt to get and maintain complete compliance out of his children. My father had no respect for us as free willed beings who had to come to grips with our relationship with God on our own. He respected us far less than God did and yet never told us of God’s strong desire to rescue us from all that fear and condemnation of us as little precious people.

But in spite of all the wretched abuse we suffered as children growing up with my father I also said the solution to the question of hell was not to deny the truth of hell. I said there was one person who loved us enough to tell us the truth about the spiritual realm; the invisible realm of the spirit world; and that person was Jesus Christ. That Jesus came to earth just as He and his Father had decided he would, for the purpose of saving mankind. Jesus had an amazing and daring rescue mission to do for planet Earth and when He had accomplished His rescuing work after 33 brief years here He returned to the Father. He was faithful to tell us the truth about what we need to know.

1. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God they experienced exactly what God had told them would happen. They died spiritually. Spiritual death meant separation from God. Separation from God is Hell!

2. Hell is also described in the Bible as being a fire that is never quenched, outer darkness, a bottomless pit, wailing, gnashing of teeth, a worm that eats on you and never dies and never ending torment. Bottom line, I said that hell is literal and it will include the experience of pain and anguish and it is the complete absence of goodness and the complete absence of God. And hell will never end.

3. I said that God had solved the problem of this spiritual death and separation from Him before the problem had ever even occurred. He had a plan in place ready to solve this problem before any of us ever were aware we had a problem.

After having read all this you may still have a pit in your stomach or a brain that keeps saying back to you “but why hell at all? What is the point? Why can’t God forgive us for our wrongdoing without some punishment?”

That is how a lot of us feel when we first encounter hell. What has helped me in looking at this issue is to realize that we here on this earth have a strong need for justice to happen when others are wrongdoers against us. I recently watched a special on television about death row inmates in the weeks up to their executions. What was fascinating was not just the defendants understanding that they indeed had done a heinous crime in murdering people, often who were innocent bystanders, but the victims’ families’ responses. Even if the victims knew that the defendant had come to a place of repentance and understanding that the murder was wrong the victims still believed the inmate must suffer death.

I pondered where that need for justice comes from. I think it is from God. I think we have a built in system in our beings that knows when a wrong is committed and cries out for justice. I think it is built in by God. And honestly when I look at how we hurt each other on this planet, I realize that a lot of the perpetration of our wrongs is because we don’t see justice happening here so we take things into our own hands.

Back to hell. Hell is a judicial punishment for wrongdoing. It is a perfectly logical response by a just God toward our sin. God considers sin worthy of death. He made the planet and he gets to set up the justice rules. But God is not just perfectly just but He is perfectly merciful. So in his perfect mercy, He and His Son Jesus came up with a plan to deal with both issues. God and His Son came up with a plan to fulfill justice and mercy at the same time.

Oddly the whole thing was going to happen in Christ’s physical body. God was going to dump all of mankinds’ sin and crimes against humanity and God into one moment in history. And that moment was Christ hanging on a cross to pay for humanity’s sins. It met God’s justice requirements because Christ’s death was big enough to cover all of humanity’s sins. And He was allowed to do it because He never sinned himself. I know, wrap your mind around that! But that same act met God’s mercy requirements in that God and Jesus took the “hit” on themselves. And paid the price for sin so no one ever had to go to hell. Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine being Jesus and knowing that your purpose in life was to pay for all the rape, and murder and kidnapping and wrongdoing the human race could ever think to perpetrate on each other and you yourself having done none of that sinning? Amazing Jesus.

So this week on Friday as you go about your day, just ponder the fact that Friday represents “good Friday” in our spiritual history. As the day God provided justice here on earth by Christ’s dying on that piece of wood in the Middle East. Sin had been paid for. And God also provided mercy. If someone wanted to accept the gift Christ provided by paying for our sin, we never had to experience hell.

And if you really want to get excited about who God is, ponder with me what happened on Sunday. God raised Christ from the dead so he would be able to live forever. If you receive the gift of Christ’s death on the cross, your sins are paid for, but Sunday, oh Sunday! It represents that Christ comes to live inside us in the person of the Holy Spirit to allow us to live COMPLETELY different lives than we would have before. Because we have a brand new living spirit that is capable of being and doing good! I know. This blog is mostly about Friday. But, oh, Sunday! Sunday is wonderful too in our lives!

I explained to my interviewer that there is no behavior or action or attitude or mistake that any person could ever make that would result in them spending eternity in hell except the rejection of God’s solution to the problem. I said that ONLY the rejection of God’s provision; who so loved us that He gave His one and only Son to die and save us from hell and so He could have the relationship with us He has always wanted; would be the reason any person will ever find themselves in eternal hell separated forever from God.

I told him that every single human being has complete freedom to avoid hell. That Christ loved us enough to tell us the truth about the invisible realm that is eternal, as well as the visible realm which is temporary. And by loving us enough to tell us the truth He has given us the full opportunity to solve the problem of hell forever, personally. Each of us individually!

While I had learned from my father to be terrified and to be one hundred percent certain that I would face a personal angry God with personal accountability and punishment, I had never been told that I had the option of experiencing a personal God who loved me and who wanted a relationship with me forever.

Sometimes I liken my father’s behavior in speaking so much and so often about hell because of his fear we’d miss out on heaven like any other parent who sees their child going into a potentially risky behavior. An example might be how a parent deals with a 16 year old learning to drive. One type of “glass half full” parent might want to not focus on the fearful part and help the kid understand the fun of getting to places, the freedom and independence to travel in this wonderful country, to get around where and when you need to and what driving offers. But even the glass half full parents probably muster up the courage to say “but honey, there is a downside to driving. You will be going at high speeds in a 2 ton hunk of steel with other drivers going at high speeds and we live in a culture where people drive drunk, drive while texting and drive when the weather doesn’t really permit it.” That might be a balanced approach to include the good and the bad.

What my father did in this analogy was not only to scare us to death about possibly dying and hurting ourselves and others, he just preemptively took the keys away! And told us every day that he would control our ability to drive (and hurt ourselves) by just never giving us the keys.

It would be impossible to overestimate how messed up my siblings and I are with this attitude my father foisted on us. He scared us to death with the negatives but not once every explained or lived out the positives.

So you might be surprised, with my upbringing when asked by my interviewer if I still have a fear of hell and my answer was “No!”

I said it was not just because of knowing the truth but that it was because of a personal relationship I have developed in the intervening years with my God. I said we all understand what it can be like to have a trusting relationship with a child, a parent, a spouse, other family member or friend and that though difficult to describe in words, we all know what it is like when we can trust someone. I said the same is true of God. In the world we live in, through difficulties and joyful experiences, day by day, week by week we are able to grow in our relationship with God and we can learn to trust Him.

Brokenness and terror and fear and anxiety can be replaced by wholeness and trust . . . and peace. I told this young man that perfect love completely eliminates fear. That the difference is the difference between night and day. It is like shining a light into a dark room. When the light enters, the darkness is gone.

I discussed the dangers of avoiding the subject of hell or denying the reality of hell. I posed the questions: “Why would you avoid or deny something of such importance when all you have to do is face directly toward the truth and deal with the truth straight on?” Not only does it help you forever but it allows you to have peace and wholeness in day to day living. Why would a person live in denial or accept a lie when the simple truth can set them free?”

Emotions that destroy the heart can be replaced with emotions that restore the heart and restore the life for each person who knows the true living God and knows the truth He has given us. We have absolutely no reason to fear hell!

So hell is real and even more real is the victory over hell and the grave that God secured for everyone who believes. The healthy way to heal and put your life on a strong foundation, forever, is to listen to what our loving God has told us about what is true, and accept what He says. Place your life firmly on the foundation; The Rock: of Christ Jesus!

I ended by telling this young man that I am free in my heart today in a way I never thought possible growing up in my father’s house. I am at peace in my heart because I have come to know the love of my Creator. His love is deep and wide and it lasts forever.

I invite you to please begin a relationship with God today, if you have not already done so, and take an unbearable load off of your mind and off of your eternal soul. Don’t put it off, don’t avoid it, and don’t try to do an end run around it or break an opening through the middle of this reality. Face it, accept it and live.

Eternal hell is real because God is Just. Eternal salvation is real because God is love! Receive the gifts of Friday and Sunday! God wants to give them to you!

Mark Phelps