I’ve always “loved”, and was taught to love, those who conformed to a certain set of ideals. This was a conditional approval based on performance. In reality, this can’t even be called love because it has conditions attached to it. “We will love you if you admit that we’re right and you’re wrong,” is one of the types of messages that was portrayed. Unconditional love is a redundant phrase. If our ability to love others has any conditions attached to it, then it is no longer love.
As I’ve read more of Jesus’ stories and considered the context, I’m learning to love as he defined it. This isn’t based on how a person lives relevant to my assumptions of how they should. I’ve “loved” people in this respect most of my life. Jesus loved the Samaritans, who were one of Israel’s most hated enemies of the time, and made one the hero of his parable over both a Levite and a priest. Likewise, he loved the prostitutes and tax collectors, placing them at the head of the line for entrance into the kingdom while placing the religious elite in the back.
In all honesty, there are many things I wasn’t able to admit until now. I was racist and homophobic (in the sense I was made to be afraid of engaging LGBTQ people) most of my life. I was conditioned to dehumanize those that didn’t look or act like “we” did and shift blame to those “others” for whatever circumstances were about. Had I not left organized religion, I would still be this way. I was afraid to engage most of those who were different than me as they were upheld as “bad” and would corrupt me, causing me to backslide. This upheld the view of a small, powerless god. I was too close and conditioned to realize my own faults, though I knew deep down that I didn’t truly love others the way Jesus presented love. I didn’t openly hate anyone, but I would remain in silent agreement with the prejudices stated while being made to feel superior to others based on my compliance and association. Additionally, I went so far as to laugh at inappropriate jokes as to fit in and not be labeled as one of those “others.”
I keep praying that God would help me love everyone and over time and much pain, he has. I now find it easier to love LGBTQ people and those of other races than it is to love religious people. My definition of love has radically changed and now I have to learn to love those who only want to uphold their doctrines of exclusion. This is somewhat odd ground for me, as though I’m learning to walk for the first time.
I don’t say any of this to exalt myself or demean anyone. I still fail love daily and realize I have a very long way to go. Mostly, it saddens me that those who cry “love” the loudest are the most hateful to those that aren’t conformed to the external standards and those trying to truly love. Many problems, as I’ve come to see them, are based on a misrepresentation of what love is. This, in turn, pushes people away from believing in God because the definition of love has become so skewed. There is also a lot of pride tied to this where traditional views and the need to be “right” are held on to over love.
Perhaps in all of this God let me experience what love is not so that I could more readily accept the real thing.
If the title of this scares you, it’s probably because this term has been used to manipulate for so long by casting our all-loving Father into the role of a vengeful, almost maniacal, being. I was always made to fear this expression, most likely to uphold a conformity based religious performance.
So what can everlasting punishment mean if not what we’ve so often been told as burning forever and ever in hell?
This is something I wondered about for a very long time and God helped me understand this from his perspective of everlasting love and his will being fulfilled in the end (Col 1:19-20).
The first thing I came to better understand was the word everlasting. What could this mean other than continuing on and on without end? I pondered this for some time asking myself and God how he could be so cruel as to create humans that he knew would suffer forever. This didn’t quite jive with the claim of an all-loving Father.
As I began to research this more, I saw the word originally seemed to modify what it was explaining. In this case, the word punishment (I’ll get to that in a minute). In another case, it modifies the word life, as in everlasting life. I don’t want to go through all the iterations but I encourage looking into the original word meanings. For brevity’s sake, I’ll state that I personally came to believe the word everlasting, as it refers to punishment, means that it will last as long as we make it last. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was still presenting himself as being superior to Lazarus, who was at father Abraham’s side in paradise, by ordering him to do his bidding. Even so, it seems his heart was being changed as he was now concerned with the fate of his brothers still living.
So, if everlasting could mean “age during/age of,” or in other words, a time of punishment, then what does the word punishment mean?
The first question to ask would be: Is punishment for God’s benefit or ours? That being, is God’s punishment to sooth his anger towards us or to correct our actions? Is God so fickle that he has to torture us forever?
Any loving parent wouldn’t punish their child just to appease their own anger. God, being infinitely patient with us, his children, likewise has no need to punish us to appease his anger. Punishment is a corrective action for our benefit.
Another situation that drove this point a little further home for me is as follows:
I was at a gathering with a family who had got a new outside dog. The dog kept wanting to come in the house but wasn’t allowed. The husband stated, “If I pop him on the nose one good time, he’ll know not to try to come in again.” As I thought about this, I realized this would have been an “everlasting punishment.” Now, this isn’t exactly how I would view God’s corrective actions towards us, but the principle here is a corrective action meant to permanently end the dog’s stubborn insistence on getting his way on his terms.
Likewise, fire is presented more as a purifying means of burning away our stubbornness and anything else that would be unfit to enter into heaven.
For example, In Daniel 7:9-10, fire is explained as flowing from The Throne. If this corrective fire comes from God, and God is love, wouldn’t this be a means of purifying us? Further, we see Zechariah and Peter talking about God using fire as a purifying agent, just like it is used to burn away the impurities in silver and gold. Some may go through these fires in this life by following Jesus, others in the next.
All of these are my personal opinions and how I’ve come to experience living with God. You can take what is beneficial to your walk or throw it all out. However, is the good news really good news if it has to be sold under threat of eternal punishment?