Perhaps we have; the question is often asked, “How could a God of love allow…?” But I think it’s more likely that the scientific world view makes the idea of an afterlife comprising the extremes of a restful heaven and a fiery hell less certain and less obvious to the modern mind.
I’m also not sure that fear of hell was indeed what drove people to John the Baptist. In any case we need to remember two things. First, not everyone felt driven; not everyone flocked to John or to Jesus. The majority (probably) continued on their merry way, convinced that their future was secured through their own religious observances–much as people who are on the fringes of our churches today probably believe.
We must also remember that not everyone, even within the Jewish faith, believed in an afterlife. The Sadducees comprised a significant body in Jesus’ day which did not believe in a resurrection whether to heaven or to hell (forgive me for this: that’s why, some have suggested, that they were sad you see).
We should also acknowledge that fear of God’s wrath was not the primary focus of Jesus. He emphasised it to the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day precisely because of the fear and legal prescriptions with which they oppressed ordinary people. The image Jesus used more often (both in his teaching and his actions) was of a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd for a lost sheep, and, most memorable of all, a father for his lost son. Matthew and Luke associate Jesus with Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”
The message of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4) also focused on the coming Kingdom, as did that of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15). The message about escaping “the wrath of God that is to come” was addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7). John’s was a ministry of preparation, a call to get ready, to prepare the way. And if one goes back to Isaiah 61, it is a message rooted not in fear but in joy and delight. It was a welcoming of the king who would take them from the hell of exile into a rebuilt Jerusalem.
I often suspect that our problem with the Gospel, and its portrayal of a loving God, is that the idea of God’s love really appalls us. Surely God doesn’t love that much: so extravagantly, with so much abandon? Phillip Yancey suggests as much in his book, What’s so amazing about Grace?.
The parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful story. We especially love to tell it to those who are ready to repent and to turn back to the Father, but who are afraid of his wrath. But the scandal of the story is that the father ran to his son and threw his arms around him in welcome and love before he heard (and brushed aside) the son’s confession. The scandal of the cross is that God loves sinners; not just sinners who are about to repent, but sinners. And Jesus died in the hope that the worst of us might be brought to the Father. The horror (for me) of his death was that it happened in the midst of a scornful, doubting world and a group of fearful followers who still didn’t understand. What if they missed it? What if they failed to be ignited?
The scandal goes right back to Abraham when God chose to work in and through frail humans to achieve his purposes for the world. We still struggle with that scandal. God cannot possibly have left himself so vulnerable. Yet that vulnerability is at the heart of the Christmas story. The Omnipotent Father has become the intimate Immanuel, and the Spirit of God chooses to work in and through us, in whom his power is made perfect in weakness.
I would suggest that the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house who wept at Jesus feet was overwhelmed not by fear of hell and the wrath of God, but by the love of God she saw in Jesus. That seems to be how Jesus saw it.
What about you? How do you see it?
- Choose To Love (pastorht.wordpress.com)
- Rescue from Sinners (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- Tears, Greace and an Alabaster Jar (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)