Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

The Lost Sheep: More Questions Than Answers

I need serious help! You see, I’ve done it again folks. I’ve forced myself to sit through another one of my former pastor’s sermons. But I had to, as I caught wind that for this entire month, the topic du jour is going to be “hell”—as eternal conscious torment of course! God wouldn’t have it any other way (and the Bible clearly states!). So I had to give at least one of the sermons a listen. And I think I will stick to just one, as this one was harder to follow than a Dennis Miller analogy (which, if you don’t know, is a terribly difficult task indeed).

The pastor starts out by recounting a very moving story about how his five year old was abducted and, for a time, lost. As the father of a five year old girl myself, it was very heartbreaking to listen to him, holding back the tears, and detailing the event. That being said, once he moved into the meat of the sermon, my empathy quickly gave way to confusion. Let me explain.

Here’s how it went: after the pastor finished his introductory story, he quickly tied that into the parable of the lost sheep, and then into what people in this world are “truly” saved from, namely, eternal torment, separation from God for time-everlasting. Consider me perplexed! I must pause and, of this analogy, ask: if the lost sheep is the daughter from the story and Jesus is no doubt the searching pastor, then who is God the Father, the abductor? I’m really failing to see any other possibility, and because this pastor affirms a substitutionary atonement theory (saying the Lord laid the sins of humankind upon Jesus), perhaps this analogy is right on point and fits the pastor’s theology like a glove.

(Deep breath)

Moving on . . .

Now, the next portion of the talk actually gets quite hilarious. After flippantly saying how it doesn’t make logical sense not to believe in eternal hell—don’t even get me started on this nonsense!—the pastor adds another barnburner of an analogy. Are you ready for this one?

Here is the gist of it: if there is north/south, and west/east, then there must be heaven/hell (hell as eternal torment). Oh? How so?

I suppose, if you believe heaven is “up there” and hell is “down there,” then perhaps a north/south analogy would be a decent one. That is to say, we would be dealing with like things, locales or directions in this instance. When discussing any notion of heaven and hell though, north and south analogies don’t seem to work, as heaven and hell are not simply different and opposite locales, or something remotely similar even, but are so weighted, that they carry with them ethical, theological, philosophical, Christological, soteriological, eschatological, anthropological, and psychological ramifications. So this subject simply cannot be properly analogized by opposite directions. And even if we wanted to, in this model, it seems to be a glaring non-sequitur to suggest that because the opposite direction of north is south, then the opposite of everlasting life in heaven is everlasting life in spiritual and/or physical torment. That is to say, we would be making an illogical jump from one thing to the other, and thus our analogy falls apart. Why is the opposite of everlasting life in heaven not simply death? It seems that would be a closer and more fitting comparison to make. North is to south as life is to death. It’s still not perfect because just as sin and death entered into the world through Adam and spread to all people, so too will grace and life enter through Christ and spread to all people. (Romans 5:12–19) So, in this way, life can destroy death, whereas north cannot do likewise to south.

The other problem I have with the worldview this pastor holds is that it’s a highly dualistic (so perhaps childish?) way of thinking about things!

Here’s what I mean by this.

First concede and say that we indeed use our dualistic mind to traverse the world around us. For example, in order to make it safely to my friend’s house for our Thursday night chats, I need to make the correct combination of left and right turns, and in order for my child to understand tall she needs to conceptualize short. But when we start getting dualistic about our ultimate destinations, things start making very little sense to me.

First, how does this even work? If God is One and holds the uni-verse together, how can one be eternally separated from God in the way most Christians contend? We are talking about God as that which holds all of creation together, aren’t we? And not God as a deity like Zeus or Odin even. So how does the true God, in order for people to live in perpetual torment, separate God’s self from them? What, then, holds this space together if not the One God? Could this not be considered, then, polytheism, as hell would either have to hold itself together, and thus be in and of itself a god, or be held together by yet another god. I suppose that God himself could hold hell together but aren’t we then at a different definition for hell, since it is no longer eternal separation from God?

Second, where does this belief in hell as eternal separation come from? Certainly not Judaism!

The psalmist, in Psalm 139:7–12, writes:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

It seems that for the psalmist there is no “eternal separation from God.” Not even Sheol, or, the “abode of the dead,” could separate a person from God. Now, Sheol could be thought of as a place where people do in fact receive punishment, but to suggest one can either remove himself or be removed by God from God’s presence, doesn’t seem to be an option according to this passage. And if we take a look at when Jesus talks about “hell,” or Gehenna, we would be hard pressed to make the case that he even hints at the fact that all those who are there are metaphysically removed from God’s presence, yet still continue to exist. But this seems to be what this pastor, as well as countless other Christians, believes about hell.

Now, the last thing that I’ll say is the pastor did in fact mention how this “justification by contract,” if you will, is in fact “good news.” Frankly, I’m not sure how the news that Jesus saves us from a place God designed—or, didn’t design since it exists apart from him?—can be called euangelion, or “good news/gospel.” That doesn’t actually sound like gospel. I’m sorry, but the better news is that Jesus Christ saved us, not that we have to enter into an economy of exchange model of soteriology so that we don’t go to a place of metaphysical separation from an “omnipresent” God.

Think about the absurdity of that!

Anyway, that was about the gist of the talk. It of course concluded with a call to go out and preach the Gospel (that people are going to hell unless they do something). Sorry, but again, that’s not quite Christocentric for my liking. I say we go preach the Gospel that Jesus Christ saved us and that we are free from ourselves and our death-dealing power systems.

Have peace!
Shalom and salaam

Matthew J. Distefano is a regular contributor for The Raven Foundation. He is an outspoken advocate for global peace and non-violence. Matthew is married with one daughter and enjoys the great outdoors. Click Here to see his newest book All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News

Review & Commentary