Nice People go to Hell
The first week of Lent has passed; six and a half more to go. Since the object of Lent is to prepare to celebrate Easter properly, it begs the question: what exactly is the proper way to celebrate? It’s not bunnies and eggs; it’s not a nice brunch after sleeping in; it’s not dressing up for your annual (or your biannual, nor even your several-times-a-week) trip to a church service. It’s about change.
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung
No offense to Dr. Jung, but it’s a safe bet he knew a bit more about psychology than me, and I know a bit more about chemistry than he. One could say that transformation is the point of chemistry, but there are reactions where one substance is transformed while the other – the agent causing the change – remains unchanged. Those of the latter group are called catalysts.
Still, Jung was writing about humans, not compounds, and he has a point. When we interact with other people at any significant level, change does take place in both parties. It may not be much, it may not be obvious, but there will be something different: perhaps a new idea will be planted, or instead, an established opinion still more deeply entrenched. It may be an opportunity to put into practice (and therefore strengthen, like exercise to a muscle) one’s values, such as patience or tolerance, or conversely a chance to hone one’s argument for or against the other person’s worldview. The possibilities of the type of change that will occur are as limitless as the human experience.
God, however, does not change. He is the catalyst of change. We can, and do, and should interact with him, but only we will come away transformed from the event. It may not be immediately visible to anyone but God, but transformation must occur. If there is no change, there has been no interaction with the divine.
Unmerited favor cannot, by definition, be earned. It is not deserved. Even believing in God or trusting God is a gift, according to Ephesians 2.8 – but such a gift, if it is unmatched with a change in character, attitude, lifestyle, and behavior, has never, in fact, been accepted by the supposed recipient. It is dead, according to St. James.
Once I was asked to minister to a man facing an emotional and existential crisis. He identifies himself as a Christian, but when encouraged to draw strength from his faith, he waved his hands dismissively saying, “I took care of that a long time ago – that’s behind me.” His profession of Christianity, evidently, was no more than something checked off his to-do list, never to be revisited again. A woman who has long enthused about her church to any who will listen recently learned of a serious, life changing event, and sought my help. In addition to pragmatic assistance, I pointed her to prayer; after all, she’s been involved in church since before I was born. “I don’t pray,” she bluntly admitted, “I don’t know how.” Another man I know, a church Elder, repeatedly lied to and about a friend, ruining their relationship. That now-former friend, who has felt compelled by Scripture to attempt reconciliation, he has repeatedly rebuffed, despite being reminded that Jesus commands reconciliation with a fellow Christian as a priority even higher than worship (Matthew 5.23-24). He stands before his congregation, Sunday after Sunday, leading them in song, and all the while is defying God. He knows this, and doesn’t care.
These are just three examples. I could provide dozens more, and undoubtedly you could, too. Are these people evil? No, except in perhaps the most banal sense. Are they going to hell? It’s easy to believe hell is populated with Hitlers and Lenins, Jeffery Dahmers and Adam Lanzas. But ordinary people go to hell. Nice people go to hell. People who go about their business, not bothering anyone, not stealing, not murdering, not engaged in wanton lasciviousness, not standing out for anything in particular except for persistently ignoring their Maker. Do not be fooled; lack of outward sin does not necessarily mean inward transformation has taken place.
“But a man must examine himself …. if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” – 1 Corinthians 11.28-31
St. Paul’s admonition is equally true when inverted. If we do not examine ourselves, if we do not judge ourselves rightly, we are in danger of judgment. That is not something to be taken lightly.
I have no idea who is or who is not hellbound. It is not mine to know. I do know that after a quarter of a century in vocational ministry this much is true: place no confidence in professions of faith, commitment cards, baptisms, or walking an aisle. Look for change. We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.
How are we to properly celebrate Easter? Be transformed. Encounter the Living God – not once, but daily.