I did a seminar at New Horizon this year on urban theology called ‘Signs of Hope in Urban Communities’. It seemed to be well received. Afterwards I was approached by a young woman who introduced herself as a member of a church where I have frequent opportunity to preach. She asked me, graciously, why I never preach on hell.
I was a little taken aback because it was a question from left field. She explained that she had often brought friends to hear me but I had never mentioned eternal punishment. We discussed the issue for a while.
Firstly, I explained that when I visit her church I am always given a passage or a subject to speak on and I’m not aware that any of those passages or subjects considered the issue of hell. Furthermore, I am unwilling to shoehorn in a subject that the text doesn’t consider, nor would I issue some form of an ‘altar-call’ just for the sake of it.
But as the conversation developed, I realised that I tend not to think of the gospel as a means to avoid hell or eternal damnation, at least not as its primary purpose. My starting point in any conversation with those who may be skeptical about Christian faith is not the cross, but creation and incarnation.
We are formed in the image of God, and Jesus coming in flesh describes to us what that image is. We function better as human beings if we learn the habit of loving enemies, extending hospitality to the excluded and so on. Not only is it ultimately a healthier way of living for me as an individual, it also makes for a healthier social order if we can all do this towards one another.
The reverse side is that if I refuse to do this, and my neighbour also refuses, I begin living in hell now. It’s not something that is postponed to ‘the end’.
Where John 3:16 is concerned I guess I land on the earlier clauses of the verse: ‘God so LOVED the world, that he gave his son’. The incarnation is a form of anointing of the created order and human existence. God blesses his creation by participation in it. This is far from the idea that this world is to be shrugged off like an old garment as soon as possible.
It strikes me that many Christians, perhaps like this young woman, are living with a very defensive stance towards the world. Avoid the world’s music and literature, create our own; abstain from the world’s activities, and establish a viable, private sub-culture. Grow our own language, styles of dress, lest we are infected by the world’s virus.
Rather than live out Gospel life in the context of the world. Enjoy it’s blessings, live in such light as it provides whilst being conscious of it’s darkness. Embrace the world as Jesus himself did when he was enfleshed in it’s atmosphere.