In my previous column, I called into question the idea of God sending people to an eternity burning in hell, also known as eternal conscious torment.
As you can imagine, there were many responses and questions to the post.
There were those who asked, “What about God’s judgment?” And others who asked, “Are you saying that anything goes then?”
All great questions.
And while we will get to those questions later in the series, the most prominent and important question that will actually help us begin navigating this topic of hell is, “If there is no hell, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”
For those who asked that question, there is an inextricable connection between the cross and hell.
Within this framework, the cross is the only thing that keeps people from going to hell, because it is where God’s anger and wrath were directed on Jesus rather than us. Jesus literally absorbed all of God’s anger toward us because of our sins and, as a result saved us from God’s judgment and sentence to hell for eternity.
If you go to any church service on any given Sunday or hang out with Christians long enough, you will very likely hear something like this, “Thank you Jesus for what you did on the cross for us.”
And what that means is, “Thank you Jesus for dying on the cross to save me from my sins.”
Growing up in church, I heard all about sin. I sang all the songs about how the only thing that would “wash away my sins” was the “blood of Jesus.” And I was told that I needed to be saved from my sins so that I wouldn’t go to hell when I die.
I had this idea that there were these sins that were infecting me and I was a terrible person for letting them do their bad work in me.
And if it wasn’t the old hymns that I sang that continued to tell me how “full of sin” I was and how I needed to “be made clean,” it was the Apostle Paul writing in Romans about how sin “rules” me and “enslaves” me. That sin “seized” the opportunity and “sprang to life” in me. That sin was “living” in me and “putting (me) to death.”
The implication was that these entities, these sins, were active and alive and doing something to me. And that to be “saved” I needed to be washed of these sins that I have allowed to rule, reign, enslave, deceive and kill me.
The thing we failed to recognize was that Paul was a writer who used literary devices to teach people and help them understand difficult concepts. In fact, after the section in which he uses personification to bring the concept of sin to life, he writes, “I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations.”
Paul straight up tells the people that he is using literary language since they are having a hard time understanding sin.
Paul anthropomorphizes sin, or gives it human characteristics, as a teaching tool.
But as modern day readers, we have a real tendency to read ancient Scriptures flatly and at face-value, taking everything literally. And as a result, we have taken this literary language and created theologies and doctrines about sin as an entity that infects us and enslaves us and that needs to be cleaned, cured, washed away and put into remission.
All the while, we have been told that we are horrible wretches who deserve God’s wrath, punishment and hell because of our sins. And then, we have turned Jesus and the cross into a cosmic magic trick to take away these sins, these dark stains, these evil blemishes so that we will be saved from God’s wrath and escape the flames of hell.
But of course, I have a few questions about all of this.
What if this narrative has been wrong all along? What if our misunderstanding of Paul’s literary language led us to certain conclusions about sin that were just plain wrong? What if sin isn’t something that has to be cured or put into “remission” in order to save us from hell? What if sin is something else entirely? And what if an accurate understanding of it will help us understand what hell really is?
I don’t know about you, but I am eager to find out.
I have previously written about the original Greek word for sin, hamartia, and that it means to be without a share in, or to miss the mark, or to stray. As you have heard before, it is a Greek archery term that indicates “missing the mark.” It is a relational position. In fact, to go a bit deeper, the root words for hamartia are- a/ (not) and /meros (a part, share of), which I find absolutely fascinating.
The word hamartia indicates that in our relational disunion with God, we are not taking part in our part or share of this abundance.
That is the definition of sin.
And it sounds a whole lot different than everything we’ve been told.
When we live out of our relational disunion with that which is life and love, namely God, our lives begin to look less than life and love. And that is truly what sin is. It is living out of disunion with God.
Sin is not a thing. Nor is it an entity that infects us. It is a position of disunion out of which we begin to live our lives. And our sins are simply an outflow of this broken relationship. So when you hear a line like, “For the wages of sin is death,” it is not talking about an entity that infects us and causes us to die. Rather, it is the price we pay for living in disunion from the one who gives life.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that God’s intention for us has never been about sending us to heaven or hell because of our “sins.”
God’s intention has always been welcoming us back into a relationship, into union. It has always been about reconciliation, or bringing each of us back together with God in wholeness (shalom). It has always been about God offering us life in an abundant relationship and longing for us to enjoy our portion of this abundance.
You don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few parables and stories of Jesus. Because what you will discover is absolutely, positively mind-blowing. And I promise you have never looked at sin, the cross or the idea of hell from this perspective.
Brandon Andress of Columbus is a former local church leader, a Christian book author, a current iTunes podcast speaker and a contributor to the online Outside the Walls blog. His latest book is “Beauty in the Wreckage: Finding Peace in the Age of Outrage.” He can be reached at his website, brandonandress.com.