One of the biggest issues I have been wrestling with in recent weeks through all of the debates on heaven, hell and eternity has come from one of Jesus’ sayings in Matthew 7. In verses 7-11 he takes our normal human love, marred by sin as it is, and then uses that as a starting point for understanding God’s love for us.
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
I have always loved these verses for how they draw us into relationship with our loving, heavenly Father. What a beautiful way to think of our relationship with God--as children running to our Father with all of our needs. And yet I also find these verses problematic in that Jesus not only shows us a specific application of truth but also shows us a way in which to think about God—if you being evil are capable of love then how much more your heavenly Father who is love personified?
Shortly after the birth of our first child Tevia I became aware of a kind of love that I had never experienced before. The first time I remember experiencing this love in a profound way was about 1 month after she was born. I had been gone for a few days leading worship at a youth retreat and when I returned I found that she was sick. This was the first time in her life that she had been sick. Something came over me in that moment and I picked her up and took her into a room away from everyone else and began to pray for her. Immediately God healed her. While I was thankful that God healed her I was even more in awe of how I felt about her in that moment. Up to that point in my life every one else I had ever loved had required an act of my will but in that moment the love I had for her was instinctual, a part of my being. It wasn’t something I could turn off any more than I could make my own heart stop beating. I just loved her and couldn’t imagine that she could ever do anything that would make me not love her. It was in that moment that I remembered the words of Jesus from Matthew 7:7-11. I realized that as intense as the love was that I was feeling for my daughter it was nothing compared to the love God has for me and all of his children.
The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-11 starts with our human understanding of love on such a basic level (children with their father) and works its way out from there. In a way it would be much easier if Jesus had never said things like this, if Jesus had never encouraged us to run to God for whatever we need just like children to a loving father. Without these words of Jesus we might not have such a clear picture of how much God truly loves us. And if we didn’t realize how much God loves us, then we would never even bother grappling with issues of whether or not there is a literal hell and just who might end up there. I have really been enjoying the lively theological debate that has sprung up in the last few weeks over universalism, inclusivism, heaven, hell, eternity, predestiniation, free-will etc. but in the end I don’t blame Rob Bell for this conversation... I blame Jesus!
I blame Jesus for not only teaching us about love but actually showing us what love looked like—a love that entered into the world in which we live, a love that welcomed outsiders and that challenged the institutions of the day, a love that was demonstrated in laying his life down for his friends and forgiving his enemies even as he hung dying upon the cross. Is it any wonder why we have difficulty with reconciling certain aspects of truth in the scriptures? We wouldn’t have these problems if we just cut the gospels (and Jesus) out of the Bible. But I am a big fan of keeping both in!
I have read some wonderfully insightful and well thought out posts on heaven, hell, and eternity in the last few weeks by folks like Scot McKnight, Tim Keller, and Rachel Held Evans as well as a host of other lesser known bloggers and I still am not quite sure where I land on all of these issues (the wrestling continues). But at the end of the day I am confident that God is love... beyond all comprehension, beyond anything we can even imagine. My hope is that in all of our wrestling with these theological issues that we will allow our lives to be ever filled and shaped by God’s love and that we wouldn’t become so distracted by debates over the hereafter that we fail to truly love God and others in this moment.
I want to close this with a prayer from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:14-19
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.