Hell and Sin
But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. Romans 6:22
The concept of hell that I carried with me from childhood was one of eternal punishment and misery. Humans were sent to hell for reasons that were not clear to me, but I understood it had to do with sin. Our sins were the bad things we did, but it was equally unclear how bad our sins could be, how often we could sin, if some sins were worse than others, and how we could know our sins had been forgiven. Getting sent to hell was a fate worse than a death of annihilation because there was no hope of getting out, and the punishment and torture lasted forever. I believe the typical questions raised about hell and sin are indicative of our collective misunderstanding of both.
First and foremost, the contemporary image of hell is completely inconsistent with the God portrayed in the Bible. Unfortunately, many churches stake their fortunes on our fear of going to that hell because of our unforgiven sin. Although the God portrayed in the Bible seemingly doled out strong punishments on a regular basis, that same God also always offered healing, redemption, and a path back into the fold. Interestingly, the very churches that lord the threat of hell over their parishioners often seem to downplay the redemption side, which God always offers without condition or price.
At its core, sin is that which separates – separates us from God and others. Whatever we do that drives or perpetuates a wedge between us and anyone else is sin. If I say something hurtful about you, I have sinned against you. If you steal something of mine, you have sinned against me. The so-called original sin, found in Genesis 3, occurred when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That sin, according to the allegorical story, got them kicked out of the Garden of Eden, separating them from God. It is the story of our earthly embodiment – that for a time, the part of us in eternal union with God takes on earthly form where God can only be known indirectly, through faith. We experience the knowledge of good and evil on earth, but we lose the conscious communion with God we had in the Garden. It is not a punishment so much as it is the nature of physical embodiment.
Our human condition is that we all sin. It is as natural to us as breathing, because sin results from self-centeredness. A large part of what makes us human is our self-centeredness, our perception of our self, separate and apart from others. It is both a blessing and a curse. Jesus summarized the law and commandments by telling us to (1) love God and (2) love others as we love ourselves. He didn’t say not to love ourselves but to extend that same love to others. Our mission in our embodied state is to find our way back to conscious union with God and others despite the appearances of separation that are inherent to our material existence. To love someone is to put ourselves back into a state of union or oneness with them. We do no harm to those we truly love because we understand that in our unity, harming others ultimately harms us.
God does not punish us for our sins; our sins punish us for our sins. It’s the law of reaping and sowing. We harvest the seeds we have planted. When we plant seeds of separation and self-interest, we reap isolation and loneliness. It cannot be otherwise. When we plant seeds of unity and harmony, we reap conscious oneness and love with and from others. As long as we continue the very human tendency to consider ourselves special, better than, and set apart from others, we find ourselves in hell, in the sense that we feel alone, insecure, and unappreciated. True, we may be physically near to many others, but we are just as isolated as if we had been cast into the outer darkness, fallen into the Pit, or thrown onto the trash heap of Gehenna.
Hell is a present state. It may also be a future state since our lives and at least some of what we are dealing with on earth will likely follow us after our death. But it is never a permanent state because God is forever reaching out to us, inviting us to reunite. The antidote to sin is reunification. It is also the exit from hell.
This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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