I teach 13 year olds catechism class every Sunday. One day, I told them that God loves them and that God doesn’t want anybody to be in hell. I talked to them about living in love rather than in fear of damnation. After some animated discussion on salvation, grace, and hell, one of the boys asked, “But if we aren’t afraid of going to hell, then why would anyone behave?” That is a very good question to ponder and reflect upon, for it is not merely 13 year olds who have the presupposition that our primary motivation for believing in Christ and living a good life is the fear of hell.
But what is ‘hell’? Most of us grew up thinking of hell as a terrible place where bad people are put after death and where they are tortured for eternity. As a counterpart to this belief, most of us believe that salvation means we are saved from that terrible place of eternal suffering and that instead we will be in a paradise after death where we enjoy all kinds of good things. Over-simplistic my representation might be, but that’s the gist, isn’t it? I think that such a perspective detracts from the fullness of Christian life, for it takes us away from experiencing the joy of salvation or to perceive the painful suffering of hell in the present moment.
What do I mean? I believe that Christ came to give us fullness of life – not in some distant future after our physical death, but now. His Kingdom is here and now. The abundance of life that Christ gives does not refer to material or physical abundance, for these are but a pale shade of the spiritual life that comes with liberation from our slavery to fear and sin. The joy and peace of such an abundant life only happens when we live in communion and union with God who is pure love. Salvation, from this perspective, means to live in the awareness that we are the beloved of God and that he, our Beloved, is always present among us.
Just as we can be fully alive in the Spirit, so too can we be spiritually dead even as we are physically alive. When we are enslaved to approval or to the need to accumulate wealth; when we live for our own indulgence at the expense of others, we may feel that we are trying to have a fuller life. Sadly, living thus is not living at all – for we live with a desperate grasping, driven by a fear that we will never have sufficient food, wealth, or love. Without realizing it, we build walls around our hearts even from those closest to us. In this state, even belief in God does not liberate us because we have reduced God to a concept instead of a living being with whom we are in a loving relationship. Such ‘faith’ does not bring peace because we do not know God, and because we do not know God, we cannot trust him. To the extent that we do not experience God’s unconditional love, to the extent that we lose the capacity to give and receive unconditional love, we are already in hell.
Those who love God and who are living in the Spirit learn to see the world through God’s eyes. The more they live in the Kingdom of God, the more aware they become of the reality of hell in the lives of their brothers and sisters. Those who know Christ intimately share and participate in Christ’s love – how could they bear to stand by passively and watch God’s children suffer in hell? They will be moved by compassion to action – to bring the Good News of salvation to those in suffering.
The Good News is not made up of words. Neither is it a theory or a concept. The Good News is the Living Word. The Good News is Love Incarnate. The Good News is a person – it is Jesus Christ. To bring Good News is to bring Christ to others by radiating Christ’s love to them.
No one can bring the Good News to others without first hearing it for himself every day. This goes beyond reading God’s Word – it requires a deep, personal experience of Jesus Christ who is the Living Word. If we create a sacred space in our busy lives every day, a space in which we wait quietly and longingly for our Beloved, our Lord will come and pour himself into our hearts until we are overflowing with his love.
The urgency for us to experience the Good News ourselves everyday is greater than the urgency for us to preach the Good News to others. Without life, we have no life to give. Without love alive in our hearts, we will only bring fear and death to others when we try to ‘preach’ the Good News to them. So let us ask God for the grace to be filled with the Good News of Jesus Christ so that we might love as he does!