I was the last person sitting in the bathroom of the city pool when my name was called and I knew what that meant. They had chosen me to complete the most difficult exercise of all. I took a deep breath, mentally reviewed my action plan, and exited the bathroom.
As I stepped out into the blinding sun, the pool was eerily silent. My fellow trainees were huddled next to the diving boards. Face down in the deep end was my "victim." I had to act quickly.
What happened next was a muddled blur but in the midst of a tenuous situation, my tenacity won out. The "victim" was "rescued" and I passed the final piece of my examination. I would be spending the summer before my junior year of high school as a lifeguard and swimming instructor.
Truth be told, in the moment my name was called, I wasn't sure I wanted to deal the distress. It would have been much easier to discontinue the process, cut my losses, and do something much easier for the summer. I'm glad I didn't. What I learned through grappling with this demanding quagmire was a lifelong lesson: face the truth, earn the reward. Abort the mission, no reward.
We have all been confronted with the rawness of a moment, warring against the better angels of our nature to step into a needed quandary -- a conversation with a strained relationship; an interchange with an irritating neighbor; a consultation with a formidable boss. Many of us wilt in the midst of these plights. When we wither, we lose the potential dividends.
Over the past few weeks, we have looked at some complex questions about the transcendent. Is there an afterlife? If so, is there a heaven? What does that look like? I have personally answered the first two questions in the affirmative and contested that heaven will actually be God's kingdom on earth one day.
If the discussion was halted after these two topics, one might be left with the comfort that even if they didn't concede that there is an afterlife but there happens to be a heaven waiting on the other side of your last breath, it will be a most welcome surprise. In other words, if we all end up in heaven regardless of what we trust in the here and now, why worry about the great beyond in the present tense?
The short answer is this: the great beyond is only one of two post-mortem destinations.
This brings us to a critical slice of narrative that makes up the last leg of our "trilogy" on the hereafter and it is a somber one.
In 2003, a research group discovered 64 percent of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die but less than 1 percent think they might go to hell. In a society of instant gratification and microwave dreams, this should come as no surprise. In fact, there seems to be accepted escapes for almost all of our deepest consequences: bankruptcy, abortion, community service. Why should it be any different with the afterlife?
The most famous depiction of hell in our cultural conscience is probably found in the first part of Dante's 14th-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Here we discover his infamous portrayal of hell called the Inferno which represents the soul experiencing sin and describing in acute detail what the rejection of sin look likes. For example, fortune-tellers are forced to walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what lies ahead, because they spent their lives forecasting the future.
Though Dante's hell is not the Biblical hell, it sketches a similar place of utter condemnation for those who have rejected the reality of their sin.
What may complicate the issue of the afterlife in the context of society is not Dante's hell but rather his inclusion of Purgatorio in The Divine Comedy. Dante is not alone. The Roman Catholic church continues to teach that there is a purgatory -- an "in-between place" -- that one can work themselves out of into heaven. But can we work ourselves out of limbo and into a heavenly eternity?
Unfortunately, wishful thinking does not trump Biblical reality. The Christian Scriptures teach that after the grave, heaven awaits for those who have given up on their attempts to save themselves and place their faith in the One who can. Hell waits for those who have not. There is no in-between. There are no second chances.
The Bible teaches those who concede to sin will be in danger of the "fire of hell" (Matthew 5:22). In fact, Jesus taught on the issue of hell more than all the other Biblical authors put together. Why? Author, Tim Keller believes it is because God cares passionately about being with us for eternity. He says, "The ultimate condemnation from the mouth of God is 'depart from me'...to simply be away from God is the worst thing that can happen to us!"
So how does one find themselves in hell in the hereafter? J.I. Packer writes, "Scripture sees hell as self-chosen... (H)ell appears as God's gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves."
Keller continues, "Hell is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen. It is God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives ... If the thing you most want is to be your own master, then the holiness of God will become an agony, and the presence of God, a terror you will flee forever."
In other words, if you want to be your own god, you can. It just won't be the eternal party you've been led to believe it will be.
The doctrine of hell actually reminds how much Jesus loved us. Matthew 27:46 shows us that the Christ was "forsaken" by his heavenly Father. In essence, when he cried out that his Father had deserted him, he was experiencing our description of hell above: total separation from God. But why did he do it? Keller concludes, "The Savior presented in the gospel waded through hell itself rather than lose us, and no other savior ever depicted has loved us at such a cost."
The gods of this world -- money, power and sex -- give us the allusion of what will truly satisfy us but they will never die for us to be made right with the God of the universe. It breaks my heart to think that many will choose temporal saviors rather than an eternal Redeemer.
I entreat you: don't opt for transient loves. Take a deep breath, step out of the room of security that confines you, and let the brightness of the truth that God loves you and wants to be with you forever, wash over you. The reward of heaven awaits you.
-(Brad Andrews is lead pastor at Mercyview)
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