Hell and the church’s mission

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.’

Mark 9:43-48

In one of our curate training days last year, we spent some time thinking about the church’s mission. What should we be spending our time doing? We had three speakers from different traditions come to talk to us, and we actually had quite an interesting discussion. One of the things which came up was – is the church’s mission simply proclaiming the gospel, or is it wider? To put the question a more practical way – does the church’s mission include practical help for people (such as food banks etc.)?

Unusually for a curate’s session we had a frank exchange of views and actually opened our Bibles and had something of a theological discussion. It seems that this is a pretty divisive issue amongst Christians: what should we as a church be doing with our time?

Over the past few months I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about hell, and I wonder whether it may actually help the discussion about the church’s mission.

Hell is not something that we spend very much time discussing – in most Christian circles, and especially within the Church of England. I’ve been on quite a few CofE training things over the past few years, and I don’t think I’ve heard hell mentioned a single time (apart from occasionally in the hymns that we sing). What’s interesting, though, is reading the gospels through: Jesus talks about hell more than anybody. The passage I started with is a case in point. Jesus consistently warns people about the dangers of hell – in this passage, saying that it is better to go through life maimed but be rid of sin than to have your limbs intact but go into hell for eternity.

This has particularly struck me about the church’s mission because the church is the only institution in the world which really has eternity in mind. Many charities exist which care about people’s needs in this life. Only the church cares about their eternal future.

This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke 12:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Jesus is saying that our lives should ultimately be controlled by the fear of Him who holds eternity in His hands. Not in the sense of being scared of God, but an appropriate reverence for Him. Jesus is now the one who holds the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). There is nothing, no hardship, no suffering, no bad thing in this life which will compare with an eternity in hell.

And that puts the church’s mission into perspective: food banks are a good thing. Looking after the poor and needy is a good thing. Of course they are. But, ultimately, if we give someone a piece of bread but don’t tell them about Jesus the bread of life then we haven’t really done anything to help that person. Jesus loved people, but he loved people enough to warn them about their eternal destiny.

This isn’t to say that the church should immediately stop doing anything which isn’t directly related to preaching the gospel! But what a church does should ultimately be controlled not by limiting its vision to temporal needs but by eternal needs. A church must always be reaching out – churches which do not reach out will die – but a church must always be reaching out with the message of reconciliation. This is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

The ministry which God gave to the apostles, and through them to the church today, is the message of reconciliation: being reconciled with God.

I believe that if the church keeps a Biblical understanding of the gospel – including hell – it will enable a healthy view of its ministry and outreach. If we forget that the gospel is all about salvation, we’ll focus our energies on trying to love people in the here and now. But if we keep our understanding of the gospel, that will control all that we do.

Let me finish with an example. At our church here in Clacton, we run a lunch cafe every Friday. The food is relatively cheap – it’s not run for profit, it simply runs to help the local community to get a decent meal at a good price. It is very much a community service – we do it because we love our community. At the same time – our aim with the cafe is not simply to provide people with food: it’s a good place to build relationships with people in the community, to advertise church events, and so on. In short, it is a part of the whole mission of the church – the ministry of reconciliation. We pray regularly for the cafe and ask for God to use it – and He has.

It’s similar with the soup run. Our church helps out with the soup run in Clacton, and – again – this is done both to help out the community, and also to get to know people, have conversations with them, and talk a little about Jesus. Apparently we’ve given out quite a few Bibles over the past few years.

To see the world in the light of eternity gives the church an appropriate perspective on ‘doing good’ and helps to maintain an evangelistic edge.

As a footnote, I found Melvin Tinker’s book Salt, Light and Cities on Hills very helpful when it came to thinking through mission – he talks about the passages often debated in these discussions and I appreciated his conclusions.

 

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