I was raised by a Southern Baptist pastor who could spin some dramatic sermons about hell. In his oratories, 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,” he said in words begging to become a bad country song, “ ‘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 negative 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’ve reached a different conclusion. 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 for them. They’d rather ditch the saints in heaven and go to hell with “a better class of losers,” as the Randy Travis song says.
That kind of thinking reminds me of a man who recently came into my office with matted hair, a fermented odor and disheveled clothing that hinted at his coming confession.
“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 to my prayer, 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 when he added, “... But I still want to go.”
After his final “amen,” I remained in my office to think. 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 just a chaplain, 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. If you think it is, then it’s possible that you vastly underestimate the love of God when it comes to heaven.
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.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” He is a board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as a chaplain for both the Sacramento VA Hospital and the Air National Guard. You may leave recorded comments at 608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.
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