As I read and listen, I hear people concerned about how a “good God” could send people to a place of punishment. (Clearly, they haven’t met me – my sins have more than earned me the wages of sin described in Romans 6:23! Without Jesus’ gift of salvation, I would certainly deserve death.) This is a difficult question, and I don’t judge people for asking it. Even long-time followers of Jesus have wrestled with this topic.
The only thing that I can tell for sure is that challenging questions like this take some time to answer. There is no “soundbite” response that fully explains why bad things happen to good people, for instance. There isn’t a simple infographic1 to describe why Jesus is the only way to God. I – and many others – have found answers to many challenging topics, but only through taking the time to study them, and to listen or read the findings of others who have wrestled with these same topics. This process is not an easy one, and I can attest that real battles of our mind, will, and body take place when our sinful natures ally with a cursed, fallen earth to fight against our discovery of the truth.
So, I won’t patronize you, the reader, with a trite answer. Today, I just have some food for thought.
While thinking about a parable that Jesus taught, it occurred to me that maybe our eternal destiny is more like that of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32 for the entire illustration), rather than a judgmental God who is searching for the chance to send people to hell.
This will take some explaining, so let’s start with the parable. The younger son in this parable asks for his inheritance early (as if he wished his father were already dead), and then leaves town:
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
Luke 15:13 NIV
So often, we focus on the son’s return in this parable, but let’s pause for a little while and appreciate this point in the story. The father has – for all practical purposes – lost his younger son. This son is gone: not just moved down the street, but in a far away country. It would seem that the son wants nothing to do with his father anymore. Maybe the son perceives the father as out of touch, or fears that his father will take away all his fun.
In some ways, I can relate to the son in this story, even at this point. My sinful nature wants to back up God’s blessings and go seek out entertainment and leisure. While I was in my sin, before returning to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation, I had rebelled against God and chosen to separate myself from Him. This is the path of turning against God, when we discard what we know to be right (as defined by His righteousness nature), and follow our own desires.
Yes, this particular parable has a happy ending. The son comes to his senses and eventually realizes that this lifestyle – the one he thought would be a great idea – has fallen apart. Not only did the son’s “dream life” run out when the money was spent, but he was reduced to humiliating labor. (To clarify, that’s not the happy ending part.) What is significant is that the father in this story (just like God) is excited to welcome his child home, and brings him back into the family with a celebration.
But what if the son had remained in the distant country? What if he didn’t believe that he still had a home with his family, despite understanding his father’s character? What if he was too proud to return? What if he was certain that if he just kept working at feeding pigs, he would eventually get back on his feet? What if he never came back to his father and died in that land, estranged by his own choice?
In that case, it doesn’t seem like the father would be responsible for letting his son do what the son wanted. I expect that a godly father would have warned the son about the consequences, and made clear that the son could always return home. In that case, is the father to blame for letting his son live a life that was initially – albeit superficially – happy, but then turned miserable and impoverished? Should the father have dragged the son out of that distant land, against his will? Or, was the father respectful of his son’s right to make his own choices by letting him go?
I don’t want to add too much to Jesus’ parable beyond what He actually said, though. So, I encourage you to read through the entire parable in your own Bible (or electronic equivalent) and see what you think. I wonder, though, if our eternal destiny is much less about God’s punishment, and more about whether or not we choose to keep dwelling far away from Him.
I do not wish a life away from God – neither in eternity, nor on this earth – for anyone, and I don’t believe that God does, either. However, I can understand the force of its pull, and my hope for those on that path is that they (like the son in this parable) remember that God is ready to welcome them back to the family. There is much celebration when a lost son or daughter returns, and God’s house is a lot better than a pig sty.
See also Who’s the Hero, Here?
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- There are some good illustrations about this universal truth, but they work best when accompanied by a personal explanation. ↩