I was raised by a Southern Baptist pastor who could spin some dramatic sermons about hell. He often used illustrations from people he was trying to detour from their road to perdition.
I remember how he’d lean his 6-foot frame over the pulpit and smooth the air with the dismissive gesture of downturned palms. “People often tell me, ‘Preacher, I want to go to hell, because that’s where my beer-drinking friends will be.’”
Then my father cued his congregation with a headshake until rippling chuckles announced that parishioners were ready to hear how he’d outsmarted his skeptics.
“I tell them, ‘When you get to hell, your friends will desert you.’” Then, mixing bass into his punch-line logic, he said “And that’ll be your hell.”
During my 30 years of ministry, I’ve encountered similar logic, but I believe my father’s stories illustrated people’s misunderstanding of heaven more than they did their understanding of hell.
They saw heaven as a place where they’d be forced to behave. It then became a simple choice. They’d rather ditch the saints in heaven and go to hell with “a better class of losers” – as Randy Travis says.
That kind of thinking reminds me of a disheveled man who recently came into my office.
“I’m dying,” he told me. “I have cancer throughout my body.”
“I’m sorry,” I managed to say.
“Don’t be,” he said. “Just pray that I’ll make better choices during my last months.”
“OK,” I said, accepting the hand he offered. “I’ll pray.”
I prayed for everything he’d requested: forgiveness for his rough life and a chance to reconcile with his family.
When I finished, I heard him clear his throat. “Lord! You know me.” I wasn’t expecting the addendum, but I bowed my head again.
“I know that I can’t have sex or alcohol in heaven,” he said. I opened one eye to see if this man was just having fun with his chaplain, but I knew he was serious. “And Lord, that’s going to suck big time! But I still want to go.”
I was impressed. I wasn’t sure I’d ever met a man who was willing to give up so much to see God.
Now I’m not a theologian. I’m not even on the Celestial Entertainment Committee, but whoever taught this man that following God is about giving up his joy was dead wrong.
The good news is that God created all of us, and we will return to him one day. Heaven will become this man’s repatriation where he will be restored to his country of origin. He will shed his notions of what he has to give up and will encounter a being much more loving and accepting than anyone had ever dared to tell him about.
My father always preached that most eternal questions would have to be answered in the “sweet by-and-by” – which I know is a major disappointment to those of you still wondering whether there’ll be sex in heaven or beer in hell.