Good Friday morning ...
She was bright and young, full of energy and a bubbling personality. She was my seat mate in 42B on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. I was returning from a two-and-a-half week visit to bush churches in Tanzania. I was tired from a six-hour layover in Schiphol International and wanted desperately to be home. But since these flights last about nine hours ... it's good to get to know your seat mate ... at least a little bit.
Her name was Anna. She was German hailing from northern Germany ... a professional singer and dancer … returning to the States to celebrate her ten-year high school class reunion. She had been a Rotarian exchange student. Her English was impeccable. My German was a disaster. But we got along … until she asked, “the question.”
“The question” is quite simple and under normal circumstances causes no problems … but in this instance it opened a “bag of worms” that I really wasn’t up to facing at that particular time. Remember, I was exhausted. The question: “What do you do?”
Knowing that Anna was German and quite likely Lutheran by birth, I was very up front and said, “I am a Lutheran pastor.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m a Lutheran … but my family just pays the church tax and we don’t have to go to church.” Knowing this was how it was in Germany where Lutheranism is all but the national religion, I said, “I understand.”
“But,” she added, “my not going to church is deeper than that. Since you are a pastor, I have a question for you.”
“Uh-oh,” I thought, here it comes.” And indeed, it did … smack dab in the head, straight on, frontal lobe, near-concussion force: “What kind of a God would send people to hell?”
I suddenly became desperate to sink into a hole, if only I could find one. I needed sleep … some quiet solitude … a peaceful few hours … anything but a deep theological question to answer. But there it was right out in the open and it was as if the tracking information on my personal video screen in front of me was not going to show the progress of flight 5079 until I answered.
The question is not uncommon … but it portrays a caricature of God … not the reality. In fact, it conveys a widely-held misrepresentation of who God really is.
The God of the Bible does not send anyone to hell! What you find in the Bible is a picture of a man on a cross ... Jesus, the Son of God … stretched over the gate to hell … sent by God to prevent people from going there! In other words … to get into hell one must ignore that Man … one must squeeze past Him!
God has done everything in His power to keep us out of hell. It would have been immoral for God not to prepare a place for those who refused His grace. Eternity in the City of God is for all people … but only those who in faith and by grace believe in the Gift of Jesus as the Savior of all mankind will actually live there in eternity.
Simply put … hell is for those who deny the Gift. One goes to hell by choice. I attain heaven by grace … a free gift of God. But I end up in hell by choice … my own!
Explaining this in the confinement of two economy seats of a commercial airliner is a challenge. It is better suited for a time when, with Bible in hand, references can be researched and Scriptures read. But Anna seemed to be okay with my cursory answer … explaining she didn’t know much about the Bible anyway. But, obviously, there was some clutter behind her question … and she was unwilling or unable to express it.
I suspect there was another question in her mind … perhaps many … but she never posed it. Instead, she turned to her video screen, viewed the current offerings, and pressed the Select button. Our conversation was over … until we bid each other farewell as we prepared to deplane.
I suspect Anna returned to her home in Germany after her reunion … perhaps never again thinking of our brief theological conversation. But I did notice her careful observation of my silent mealtime prayers, my periodic journal entries, and the titles of the books I was reading. Perhaps … just perhaps …a seed was panted … a spark was lit … a crack was opened … in what may have been a very troubled young woman. I pray it is so … and that the Holy Spirit used the opening to plant a seed. Then we could meet again where it doesn’t matter if you’re Lutheran or not.
“God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” [II Corinthians 5:21]
“For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
Have a blessed weekend in the lord …