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“Would you follow God if there was no hell?”
Someone asked me that a few years ago and my immediate reaction was, “Of course, I would.”
If they’d asked me that forty years before, however, I doubt I would have answered with such certainty. Back then, my relationship with God was more confusing. We talked about God being a loving Father, but only for those who did everything he wanted. His holiness was his most terrifying feature, and the best reason I was given to follow him was my fear of the consequences if I didn’t. Threatened with eternity in flames was all the motivation I needed to try and do everything I thought he required to stay in his good graces.
I wanted more than anything for God to like me and bless me by keeping me from harm. Looking back now, I realize I was not in an endearing relationship with my Creator as a beloved child; I was caught in the Stockholm Syndrome with God. Like the victim of a kidnapping, I sought to ingratiate myself to the one I feared more than I loved.
Even worse, I could never be sure if I’d done enough. Fear and shame were constant if unwelcome companions. I was always aware of my shortcomings and failures, and everyone else’s around me since the standard he commanded is that we would be as holy as he was. If that’s who he is, who wants to be like that?
That, however, is not the relationship God had in mind for us, and it is not the relationship that will transform us into his image.
Jesus didn’t seem to live with his Father that way, but he was perfect. And he did call his Father, “our Father,” and told us these things so that our joy might be in him and that would make his joy complete. No one I knew, however, lived that way. To us, God was a demanding deity, and we lived every day under threats, obligations, and a constant demand for perfect performance.
People who live with God this way cannot experience the fullness of life in him and cannot effectively share his love in the world. Fear cannot produce it. Jesus showed us he was not the most terrifying presence in the world, but the most endearing. Love was the capital of his kingdom, not obligation and guilt.
So, back to our original question. Would you follow God if there were no hell? Fear of hell was just about the only reason people got saved when I was young. No one wants to jump through all those religious hoops unless the consequences of not doing so are dire. Whatever hell is, I don’t doubt its existence, where finally sin devours its prey. I’m just not convinced fearing will be enough to save you.
Receiving his love is salvation from all sin wrecks in this world, and in the one to come.
We need a more compelling reason to invite our children, friends, and even strangers to consider God’s reality better than, “You’re a horrible person and God is out to get you if you don’t repent.”
God is not the executioner in the redemption story; he’s the rescuer. Sin is leading us to destruction. Our self-preferring natures pull us into the darkness. But salvation, according to the new covenant, does not come to people looking to appease an angry deity, but to those who engage an affectionate relationship with the Creator of all.
Unfortunately, many people have confused God himself with the religion we’ve created in his name, and that makes it difficult to let God into their lives. People in relative ease often keep God at a distance. They take in just enough Christianity to soothe their conscience, and to satisfy their fears of the afterlife but don’t want too much of him because he might intrude on their pleasures.
People caught in tragic circumstances, or deep pain often call out to him, seeking relief by promising God they will do anything he wants if he’ll just help them. Especially when he doesn’t answer them the way they hoped, they begin to doubt his existence or doubt his love.
Neither of these leads to a satisfying connection with him. That’s why only a few people engage God regularly, making him part of the decisions they make and how they treat the people around them.
I sat on a deck in the high Sierras surrounded by pine and cedar trees with a young man who did not grow up with any spiritual influence at all. “What if there is a God who made all of this, who loves you more than anyone else you’ve ever known, and he wants to walk with you as you explore your life in his Creation?”
He looked up at me and smiled, his eyes misted with tears. “I would love that.”
So, why God? Why follow him instead of just living life the best we can and doing what makes us happy?
Here are five great reasons for wanting to know God that have nothing to do with fearing hell:
First, because God himself is the most engaging presence in the universe, full of life, laughter, joy, and wisdom more precious than wealth or any other friendship. If you haven’t experienced him this way, I’m sure I got a bit of an eye roll there, but honestly the things he adds to my life fill it with wonder.
Second, because this world makes no sense without him. All that is real is not visible. I have sensed his fingerprints in the Creation and his presence in the seeming coincidences of life—meeting a person at just the right time or having wisdom drop in my heart from a conversation, sentence in a book, or a song lyric. I’ve sensed his calling to me from a very young age, and inside him, I find the courage and meaning that makes my life complete.
Third, because navigating successfully through a broken creation is beyond our best resources and wisdom. Self-indulgence leads to the corruption and injustice that stains our world and harms people I love. How do you navigate circumstances you can’t control that seem unjust? How do sickness and tragedy make sense inside God’s love and his ultimate purpose to redeem the world back to himself? Without his active input in my life, I only consider how things affect me, and that’s a painful way to live in this universe. He has a way of causing the sufferings of this world to fold into a plan of our transformation and his redemption that is spectacular. I wouldn’t want to live without it.
Fourth, I am powerless to resist my unseemlier appetites and desires, if he does not give me the wisdom to untangle them, the strength to refuse them, and the fullness to disarm what they prey on in me. Without him, I’m adrift in a world of indulgence, with him I can learn to say no to those things that add more pain in the world and yes to a path that leaves more grace in it.
Fifth, because I want to be part of something bigger than myself and my own existence. God not only Created this planet but now moves it to its ultimate redemption. By showing us what it truly means to be loved and to love, I can become part of that unfolding purpose and encourage others on that path as well.
Far from being the kill-joy religion makes God out to be, or the excuse for our injustices to others, God becomes a valued companion in this journey called life. When you know who this amazing God is, “Be holy as I am holy,” is not the most fearsome command in Scripture, but the most engaging invitation. When you know him, you will want to be like him.
And if you want to be like him, it’s great to know he has provided everything for that to happen. All I have to do is learn to live in his love, and he’s the one who teaches us that, too.
Now, I know people will read this, frustrated that their relationship with God doesn’t feel like that. Despite their prayers, Bible reading, church attendance, and trying to be good, God still feels like a distant deity rarely involved in real circumstances of their daily existence. I lived a long time there myself, so I understand. The five things I’ve described above are the fruit of a long trajectory in learning how to live in his love. It doesn’t happen overnight, with a snap of the fingers or an ecstatic Jesus encounter.
Learning how to lean into his reality and recognize his fingerprints about us is a lifelong quest, perhaps the greatest adventure our humanity offers. Our appetites can betray us, our intellect often deceives us, and the world so easily distracts us with its amusements and its fears. Cultivating the inner life to become increasingly sensitive to the ways Jesus makes himself known does take some focus and participation from us.
If you don’t know how to do that, find someone who does and ask if he or she will help you. Don’t look for a miracle cure, but someone who can help you see God’s fingerprints in your own journey and the realities his Spirit is offering you to take you further down that path.
Try not to get discouraged when it doesn’t happen quickly or as easily as you might hope. Ask God to connect you to a person or two with a similar hunger. Please don’t give up, because it does take a while. This life is not like going to Disneyland; it is a real engagement with the Maker of heaven and earth.
Knowing him starts in small ways and over time grows to become the most valuable part of your life.
If you want some resources for this journey, check out He Loves Me, Transitions, and Engage.
My planned trip to Kenya this July had to be postponed due to road construction in the areas I needed to visit. So, I’m getting extra time this summer to be home, give attention to the projects God has put before me, and to take some vacation. This fall I am contemplating trips to Atlanta, GA, Damascus, VA, Michigan, and Florida may be on tap for this fall. You can keep checking my Travel Schedule, or if you’d like to be notified if I’m planning to visit your area, you can sign up on our email list and include your address.
In Case You Missed it…
Here are some of the podcasts and blogs that have generated the most interest over the last couple of months.
Podcasts at TheGodJourney.com:
Wayne’s blog at Lifestream.org
Water In the Desert
We are so grateful for those of you who joined us in helping out our Kenyan friends this spring. First, a school for orphans and impoverished children that we support had their water cistern compromised during a flood where their sewage spilled into their water supply. This cistern not only served the school but the nearby community that has no source of water. The government was ready to close down the school. Thanks to many of you, we were able to help them drill a new well. And even that turned out better than we hoped. During drilling, they tapped into an unknown water source with water so plentiful and pure that government inspectors recommended they bottle and sell it. So, we also helped them build a bottling plant, and soon the future needs of the school will be met by their own enterprise.
Also, our friends in Pokot suddenly were confronted with a new tribe of people that heard about their food and water and came a long way to seek help. Enough of you gave to help them bridge the four months they needed to until a future harvest. They were effusively grateful for the generosity, so many of you showed to help them at such a critical time. I’m continually amazed by the impact this website and podcast have had on a desperate corner of the world.