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Am I going to hell?

I led a workshop at a retreat this weekend. It was awesome. I want to do this again. Several times a year, ideally.
I had someone in my workshop ask a question. A really good question. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “I’m divorced. If I remarry, I’m committing adultery?”

Well, a seminary student and I disagreed on that point. I have a book by a scholar who understands Jesus’ words in the original Greek a whole lot better than I ever will who says the original speaks of implied adultery. Don’t divorce for no good reason, because it makes your former spouse look like he or she’s committing adultery when she or he remarries. So he or she appears guilty but isn’t actually guilty, I argued.

He argued that if you’re divorced and remarry, you are guilty of adultery, period.

He won the argument for the same reason I’d have won the argument if the question was about computers. Though I still know I’m right. Just ask me.

What’s inarguable is that the cause of the sin lies with the one who initiates the divorce, and Jesus had pretty stern words for those who cause others to sin.

“So if I remarry, I’m going to hell? I have a hard time believing that,” she said.

As she should.

The last two years my dad was alive, he never went to church, largely because he’d spent the prior ten years hearing from church people that he was going to hell for one reason or another, whether it was because he believed the wrong thing about one doctrine or another, or because of something I did or my sister did. (I never did figure out what the things I did or my sister did had to do with Dad–you can raise your kids right and they’ll still do stupid things. If Dad went to hell because of the things I did or my sister did, then I don’t want to think about how many pastors are in hell.)

Here’s Christianity’s dirty little secret, and it seems to be a really well-kept one: Christianity, when you boil it down, is just the answer to one question: Why are we worthy to spend eternity with God? And the answer to that question is one word: Jesus.

Charlie Sebold and I don’t agree on much. We probably differ more than any other Christian I’ve ever met. But we agree on that point. Either I’m wrong about 98% of Christianity or he is. All that means is that one or the other of us could be a lot healthier on this earth than we are. But we’re going the same place, because we both know the answer to the question.

Now, I know in the United States, everyone thinks the unforgivable sin is committing adultery. Or something resembling adultery. I think some people think if you’ve ever seen a copy of Penthouse you’re going to hell. I’m sure if you told those same people that you’ve actually bought a copy, they’ll tell you God will find a way to send you to hell twice. That Puritanical belief is a lie from hell. (So are a lot of their other beliefs, but we won’t get into that. They knew the answer to the question too, so a lot of them are in heaven even though they spread a lot of lies.)

The only unforgivable sin is unbelief. The thief on the cross did nothing worthwhile with his life, that we know of. He knew that. That was why he was crucified. But in his final hours of life, he realized there was something to this Jesus who was dying next to him. For all we know, he broke all 10 commandments every day in his life. But in the end he believed. And Jesus told him explicitly he’d be in heaven. If He ever told any of the 11 surviving disciples that explicitly that they’d be in heaven, His four biographers didn’t see fit to record it. (John did see fit to tell you and me that explicitly though: Check out 1 John 5:13.)

Aside from unbelief, sin is sin. Some sins hurt more people than others or lead to more sins than others. But some sins lie along the path of most resistance. Being divorced and remarrying can prevent future sins. It can improve your life. So if you go into it asking God to help you get it right this time and sin against this person just as little as possible, no, God won’t send you to hell for it.

So while we need to consider our actions and ask whether they hurt God and others, we also need to consider what lies down the alternate road.

And we need to realize that in the case of believers, hell rarely lies down the alternate road.

And for pity’s sake, never, ever tell another believer he or she is going to hell. I’ll hit you with a broom if you do. Unless you’re a girl. In which case I’ll get another girl to hit you with a broom.

12 thoughts on “Am I going to hell?”

  1. I LIKE being hit with a broom.

    I suppose I’m going to hell in a hand-cart then.

    I tend to aggree that you dont go to hell for specific “sins” but how you live your life in total is the key.

    Even as a lapsed catholic I still believe in the matra, “do unto others as you’d have them do to you”

    IMHO, if i can follow this i am going to heaven.


  2. Without getting involved in theology and doctrine to the point of confusion, sin could be understood as anything that breaks your relationship with God, and by extension with other people. The reason why Adam and Eve began to die first spiritually was that their relationship was broken with God the Father through disobedience. My understanding of “the unforgiveable sin” is more in line with the usual Pentecostal view: it is attributing the Holy Spirit’s work and actions to the devil. Jesus was accused of “having a devil” and casting demons out by Satan’s power. His reply was full of common sense – if I use Satan’s power to cast demons out, then Satan’s kingdom is divided and it will not stand. I have married again, but I believe God’s grace and mercy to be just as effective as ever. It isn’t for nothing that the Word says that “Love covers a multitude of sins”.
    What I think you may be saying about “the alternate road” could be an example like this: no one expects a wife to continue to be married to an abusive husband. Such a relationship could be dangerous to her health (and their children’s health). Please clarify this for me…

  3. comment
    A quick read of the Sermon on the Mount tells us a few things regarding the divorce / adultery passage. Number one: Jesus seems to have known what we would do with his words – we love to point our fingers at people who commit the sins we think we will never commit, so he included a definition of adultery immediately preceding the divorce passage that includes most red blooded guys (come on, let’s be honest now)! The other aspect to note is the organization of this section of Matthew: there is a “You’ve heard it said…” line, followed by a “…but I tell you…” line, ending with a clear instruction how to live in every instance in this section… every instance except the divorce section which leaves out the instruction! Seems clear to me: most of us have committed adultery anyway (by Jesus’ standard even if not by our own), and there is not the clear instruction we would expect to “not divorce”. Maybe Jesus is simply trying to get us to accept the seriousness of divorce in a society that then (and now) too often treats divorce as an “easy option”? Course, that’s not as much fun as having “ammo” to shoot someone down with!

  4. Well, Karl, if spousal abuse or child abuse isn’t unfaithfulness, then I don’t know what is. Once again, when Americans read “unfaithfulness,” they think of sex and nothing else. If you are putting yourself or your children in harm’s way by remaining married to somebody, then by all means at least seperate. I’ll have to go look up the original Greek word that we translate “unfaithfulness” and see if there’s any insight there.

    There’s no question that divorce is sin, the real question is who’s guilty. But I look at it this way: I don’t want to know how many times I sin, intentionally or unintentionally, in a given day. As Tim said, if you can perfectly follow Jesus’ order to love your neighbor as yourself, you’ll get to heaven just fine because you’ll never sin.

    That’s something I fail to do, intentionally or unintentionally, every single day.

    So counting sins and determining guilt is a lot like counting the hairs on your head. Does it really matter how many hairs you have to have on your head to not be bald? I know a bald guy when I see one.

    So what I meant by alternate road is this: We should strive to sin as little as possible, yes. That’s the standard reaction to love. And if you’re divorced and you remarry a Godly person, your chances of sinning less than you would by remaining alone are pretty good.

    But we’ll never earn our way into heaven by sinning less. Just one sin back when we were two years old is enough to keep us out. That’s why we need Jesus. So, Tim, even though you’re right, I’m not sure that it matters because I know good and well that neither one of us is going to succeed in perfectly doing unto others as we’d have done to us today.

    Karl, as for the Pentecostal explanation, they’re looking at symptoms. No believer would ever ascribe God’s work to Satan. It’s not the blasphemy that keeps you from God, it’s the unbelief that allowed you to blaspheme. Blasphemy is just a symptom.

    Believe in Jesus and your sins are forgiven and you’re going to heaven, no matter how heinous those sins might be. It’s what He said in His own words. You can take Him at His word, or you can leave Him.

    Unfortunately, a lot of believers seem willing to let other believers worry about where they’re going.

    Which results in a lot of bumper stickers that say, “Jesus, please protect me from Your followers.”

  5. I don’t normally get into these discussions, but having been raised in a conservative Catholic family, I’ll guess I can add that perspective on a few things.

    Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic church. That means it is a gift from God, and something that only God can “undo”. It is – presumably – a solemn promise before God and man. However, the Church has traditionally granted anulments in cases where one spouse is deceived (“oh, forgot to tell you about my wife and kids in Guatemala and those axe murders”), or there is another serious situation (abuse, etc.). In more modern times, though, it’s much easier to obtain an anulment for more marginal reasons.

    I believe that the reason the divorce rate stands around 50% is precisely *because* divorce is such an easy path. People don’t take marriage seriously in a secular sense, much less in a spiritual sense. The time to figure out if a marriage will work is *before* you get married (sorry, six weeks of courtship ain’t enough). It avoids a lot of heartache later. In a pragmatic sense, the Church’s stance is fairly sound. There’s an out if there’s truly an issue, but the Rent-A-Spouse idea is nixed.

    As far as salvation goes, the Catholic and Protestant views obviously differ. Dave has mentioned the word “grace” previously. I don’t believe a Christian “earns” salvation, but can only lose it through serious sin – what Catholics call “mortal” sin. This means you’re not in God’s grace, and – for Catholics at least – your train isn’t heaven-bound. I can’t reconcile a belief in Jesus as the sole criteria for salvation, since one can certainly *believe* in God and still offend him. Of course, there’s reconciliation. Catholics have a sacrament for that, but I can see how one could count a prayer with a contrite heart as the same thing. But I don’t think that someone who believes in God one day and unremorsefully commits some heinous sin the next is “in”. That’d also mean that those who do evil deeds in the name of God are also “in”. They’re fervent “believers”, too.

    To the contrary, I think we work on “salvation maintenance” daily. When we offend God, we can ask contritely for forgiveness and He’ll give it freely. While an individual may not agree with the “bureaucratic” Catholic pathway for doing that, I think that reconciliation (or the old term “confession”) is a healthy exercise. It forces you to examine your conscience – yes, contemplate your sins. This is the lightning rod for the traditional Catholic “guilt trip” comment. And I agree that it shouldn’t be the primary focus of spiritual life. It’s better to focus on what God would *want* you to do rather than what He *doesn’t*. But it’s also healthy to see how one has offended God. To put it in baseball terms, it’s like looking at tape to see how your batting stance is off, or how your delivery needs adjustment. See where your problem areas are, and resolve to fix them. I guess it’s a balance: learn how to avoid the negative, but always focus on enhancing the positive. The latter tends to make the former moot.

    I guess I’ll quit blabbering now before I get labeled a zealot or something. 🙂

  6. Here is the problem we have as humans, we have absolutely no way to comprehend God’s grace and forgiveness. We so often like to play god and dictate who is in and who is out. Our desire to play god goes back to the very beginning, indeed you might say our desire to play god is “the original sin.”

    God’s forgiveness is reserved for him, and he alone decides when he wants to forgive. Unlike us humans, God spends a great deal more time, an eternity actually, trying to find ways to forgive us and to bring us home. This is fortunate for us, as we spend too much of our time determining who shouldn’t be forgiven and who shouldn’t make it to heaven.

  7. Well, I’ve been divorced. Note passive tense: I wasn’t the one who did it. Marriage lasted twenty years: most of the time it wasn’t much of a marriage, but I was intent on maintaining my marriage vows, and did so. In my cynical moments, I’ve summed it up as “my wife went mad and left me – unfortunately, there were about a dozen years between the two events”. Literally true. Congenital fault in her family. This really wasn’t a good time: neither of us handled it well, and it wasn’t good for the children either. In all honesty, everyone would have been better off if the marriage had ended earlier.

    So – I wasn’t real competent in handling extraordinary strains in my marriage. Does that mean that a compassionate God would forbid me from ever having a happy marriage, if in the future I met a goodly (and sane) woman?

    I don’t think so either. I think your fellow, Dave, is lacking in compassion, charity (caritas, or love in that sense), a feeling for the love of God and Jesus Christ, commonsense, and many other things that a human being and a disciple of Christ ought to have.

  8. God’s kind of love is not a warm fuzzy feeling.
    It’s choices. It’s actions. Choosing to place God’s
    will above our own. To many of us, myself included,
    try to get around the will of God by saying things
    like, ” a loving and compassionate God wouldn’t think
    like, or do anything like that.” God’s thinking is
    perfect. He doesn’t use commonsense (man’s kind of
    reasoning). Our compassionate God has forbidded many things, regardless of how we think or feel about them. By the way Don, where’s your compassion for Dave.
    Jesus is Lord.

  9. Dave knows me – more or less. We’ve been corresponding for a while. As you might have noticed, I didn’t criticise Dave. I commend to you for your consideration the Beatitudes. If you don’t know how to find them, try hard – they’re worth it.

  10. Yep, Don’s been hanging out here a good long while. If there was any offense directed at me in Don’s first response here, I didn’t see it. It sounded to me like he was telling me the seminary student was wrong.

    And I hope Charlie didn’t take offense at my “we disagree 98% of the time” comment. I’m in a church body whose teachings I agree with a good 90% of the time, if not more. I can count the number of people in that church body I respect as much as Charlie on one hand. For one thing, Charlie’s put a whole lot more thought and research into what he believes than I have.

    If I’m the one who’s right (and I usually find myself questioning that), it’s not on any merit of my own, that’s for certain.

  11. When the religious leaders asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the Law, He replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37–39).

    He then shocked them by saying, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). (“Law” refers to the five books of Moses, and “Prophets” to the other books written by the prophets of the Old Testament.) There were many hundreds of complicated, ritualistic, restrictive religious laws, but Jesus told them that they now only needed two: Love God, and love others. That’s it! He said that was all the law they needed—love! And that’s just as true today as it was then. If we truly love God and others, we’re not going to be selfish, act irresponsibly, or do anything else that will hurt anybody.

    Therefore Jesus’ Law of Love frees us from the old Mosaic Law. God’s only law is love, and as long as something is done in real, unselfish, sacrificial love—God’s love—then it’s lawful in God’s eyes. The Bible says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love. … Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). Against pure love, unselfish sacrificial love for God and our fellow man, there is no law of God.

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