Oh, Hell.

In the early days of my walk with Jesus, I did not believe in Hell. Or at least, I did not want to acknowledge the reality of Hell. I had heard about Hell and even prayed a prayer to Jesus to be saved from Hell as a child. But by the time I began to live seriously for Christ in my early 20’s, I had pushed that aspect of the gospel to the margins of my thinking. I was more interested in knowing whether God existed. I was attracted to Jesus because of the message of God’s love. I came to Him for the relationship.

I knew about the cross, of course. I understood that it as the preeminent proof of Christ’s love. I knew that it was the remedy for my sin and I did believe in sin. How could I not? The evidence was right in front of me. Indeed, it was in me. Like the apostle Paul, I was unable to do the good that I wanted to do (Romans 7:19-21).  I suppose the experience of my own sinfulness combined with the stark reality of Christ’s death should have made ask whether the cross even made sense if the threat of Hell did not exist. But somehow, I was able to ignore the question.

Except, I kept coming across Hell in the Bible. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that Jesus spoke about Hell in the Scriptures in a way that suggested that it was more than a metaphor. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” Jesus says in Luke 12:4-5, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Jesus, it turned out, had more to say about Hell than anyone else.

If I was serious about following Jesus, I couldn’t affirm those aspects of His teaching that I liked and ignore those that made me uncomfortable. I realized that the same was true of the rest of the Bible. If I was going to accept it as God’s truth, I had to accept it all. There was no room to cherry-pick, holding on to the truths I liked and setting aside those I didn’t.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis suggested that those who find themselves in Hell choose to be there. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” One of the most insidious effects of sin is that it compels us to flee from the lover of our souls. Without the grace of God bestowed upon us in Christ, we would do so forever.

The cross is a symbol, but it is more than a symbol. I was right to see it as evidence of God’s love. But it is also a blunt reminder of the penalty that sin requires. The cross is proof of our need to take sin more seriously than we do. Only a grave condition could warrant such an extreme remedy. The cross is a warning. Jesus’ cry from the cross foreshadows the agony of all who will experience separation from God for eternity because of their sin (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

It is almost impossible to speak about the reality of Hell without seeming glib. I think this reflects a kind of denial. If it is hard for us to fathom heavenly things, it is even more difficult for us to grasp the danger of Hell. For one thing, we do not want to think about it. It is all too easy to put any thought of it out of our mind. We do not really believe that we deserve it. Most of us harbor a secret hope that in the end, God will change the standard, the way our teachers sometimes did when everyone flunked the exam in school.

The reason so many of us do not believe in hell is that we do not believe in righteousness. Despite all our contemporary talk about “justice,” we have no real conception of justice, at least where God is concerned. We still believe in evil. But only as a hyperbole. Evil is an unrealistic extreme that we see in a handful of others. We do not think of evil in reference to ourselves. Ironically, was true for me, we are happy to claim the cross for our own benefit. But deep inside we can’t help wondering if all the blood and brutality of the thing was really necessary. We chalk it up to the meanness of human beings. Such thinking sentimentalizes the cross, reducing it to a mere symbol. The cross has become a meme for us. We certainly do not see what it has to do with Hell. Or with justice, for that matter.

In the end, the cross and Hell are inevitably related to one another. Hell is the ultimate exercise of divine judgment. Hell is proof that our sin ultimately has reference to God. It is to Him that we must answer. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” David declared after his sin with Bathsheba (Psalm 51:4). Sin is more than selfish petulance. It is more than a moral offense against our neighbor. Whether we are willing to recognize it or not, sin is an offense against God, and He will call everyone to account.

This may be the most disturbing aspect of the cross for those who reject its message. It is a picture of what is owed. The cross is an emblem of God’s love. But it is also the ultimate reminder to any who refuse to accept Christ’s payment, that their debt will one day be called in.

Get Out of Your Discomfort Zone

The other day a friend asked me, “What are you doing to challenge yourself?” “Nothing,” I replied. “I don’t believe in it.” He thought I was joking. If I was joking, it was only a little. I don’t believe in the theology which says that God’s chief aim for us is to move us out of our comfort zone. I think His purpose for us lies in the opposite direction.

Before I tell you what I mean by this, let me tell you what I don’t mean. I am not saying that God would never ask us to do something that is uncomfortable. Discomfort is a common feature of daily life. You don’t have to go looking for it. Sooner or later it finds you. I am not saying that God would never expect us to deny ourselves. The Christian life is one in which we must “put to death” whatever belongs to the earthly nature (Colossians 3:5).

My problem with discomfort zone theology is the way discomfort seems like an end in itself. Discomfort zone theology is just a new version of the old asceticism that prompted the monastic fathers to drink rancid water and live on moldy bread. This old asceticism was fueled by a dualistic worldview which saw the body as a liability. Holiness was equated with hardship. These factors were aggravated further by a theology of salvation which placed the stress on human effort combined with a well-meaning but misdirected spiritual ambition.

Of course, our version asceticism is not like that of the monastic fathers. We do not wear clothing that is so coarse it makes us bleed or starve ourselves in desert caves. Popular asceticism in the evangelical church is usually little more than a missed meal now and then or maybe swearing off craft beer for Lent. But the discomfort zone theology that I am talking about also involves something else. In its most common form, discomfort zone theology is a motivational tool wielded by church leaders to move their members to action. It is rhetoric used to urge worshippers to do something they would not normally do. Go on a short-term mission trip. Volunteer to teach Sunday school. Help out in the church’s mid-week children’s program. Pass out flyers. Get out of your seat and walk three rows to shake hands with someone you’ve never met. Get out of your comfort zone.

None of these practices is necessarily bad. Indeed, they are often quite helpful. But I do sometimes have reservations about the motives of those who make such appeals. I can’t help noticing how often the discomfort zone into which I am being urged to thrust myself corresponds with some ministry initiative that advances the church’s program. Why is it that my discomfort always seems to be to the church’s advantage? And why is God so eager to make me uncomfortable, to begin with?

Discomfort zone theology is also an ethos that shapes our approach to the Christian life. Being comfortable, it would seem, is a bad thing. As long as we are comfortable, we cannot pursue God’s will. Only by making ourselves uncomfortable can we please God. In this way of thinking, discomfort becomes more than an occasional side effect of obedience or an environment in which we are sometimes asked to exercise faith. It is now a destination. Discomfort is a mark of grace. It is proof of our genuine devotion. Steeped as we are in such a culture, we might be startled to discover that a theologian as eminent and ancient as Thomas Aquinas asserted the opposite. “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult” Aquinas wrote. He also noted that not everything that is difficult is necessarily more meritorious.

The trouble with discomfort zone theology is that it appeals to the worst side of our religious nature. As Theologian Josef Pieper explains, “. . . man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” Not only is this way of thinking unhealthy, but it is also a spiritual orientation which is fundamentally incompatible with the Bible’s theology of grace. I can’t help noticing that the same Jesus who tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him also seems to link that burden with the experience of rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I do not think you need to get out of your comfort zone. Life will take care of that for you. Life is challenging by its very nature. Live long enough, and you will inevitably be drawn into awkward relationships, unfamiliar territory, and unwelcome experiences. Discomfort will find you. Follow Jesus long enough, and you will discover that like Peter you are not in control of where you go. Sooner or later you have to go where you would rather not go.

 Jesus’ call is not to get out of your comfort zone but to find it. His promise assumes that we are already uncomfortable. The yoke of rest that Jesus offers can be taken, but it cannot be seized by force. We do not manage ourselves into it, acquire it by bargain or even attain it by discipline. It comes to us through an exercise of faith. It is laid upon us. Rest as Jesus defines it is something that must be done for us. So the next time someone tells you to get out of your comfort zone, you should consider moving in the opposite direction. You are uncomfortable enough. What you need is rest.

To learn more check out The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap published by InterVarsity Press.