Throughout Jesus’s ministry, he sought to restore relationships. Lepers were socially and religiously unclean. Jesus reached out, touched them, cleansed them, and restored them to their community, enabling them to again participate in temple worship. The lame, blind, and sick were considered not only unclean but also judged by God because of something they had done. Jesus healed them and removed the stigma of the sickness and any reason for viewing them as judged by God. Women, at the time of Jesus, were considered objects to be owned. Women who were menstruating (or hemorrhaging [Luke 8:43]) were considered unclean. Jesus treated women as equals. He had friends such as Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene. As with men, Jesus reached out to women, healed them, made them clean, and restored them to their communities and families. Of course, the greatest example of Jesus restoring relationships is his work on the cross. As John writes in his gospel, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
Christians have always understood Jesus’s actions to be demonstrative of God’s characteristics. Priest and author Richard Rohr poses the question, “Why would Jesus’s love be so unconditional while he was in this world, and suddenly become totally conditional after death” It doesn’t make sense. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:35). We are also instructed to forgive others. Jesus, in a conversation with Peter, responded to Peter’s question of how many times he should forgive others. Jesus answered Peter by telling him to forgive seventy times seven or, in other words, don’t stop forgiving (Matt 18:22). Again, Richard Rohr poses the question, “How could Jesus ask us to bless, forgive, and heal our enemies, which he clearly does (Matthew 5:43-48), unless God is doing it first and always.
From the moment of humankind’s rebellion against God (Adam and Eve), God’s goal has been to restore the relationship God had with God’s creation. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowds, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). This is a poor translation that has caused immense grief in the lives of millions of Christians who have tried unsuccessfully to be perfect. The Greek word is telos, which can be (better) translated as “complete,” or “finished”. When an artist is finished with the painting or sculpture, that work of art can be described as telos, or complete. It has reached its finished state. In his letter, James writes about the complete or finished state of the followers of Jesus. He states, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2-4). James sees the Holy Spirit using the trials and struggles of the early Christians to draw them “closer” in their relationship with God. As the early Christians lived in the reality of God’s relationship with them and rested more and more in God’s embrace, they were telos—complete people. Their completeness was in God. Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, sums it up in this manner: “Jesus was clear that when he is raised up, he will draw all people to himself. Ever since we got booted out of the garden, it has been God’s relentless pursuit to bring his people to God.”
For over fifteen hundred years, the church has gotten the message of the Bible wrong. It is not “in hell,” but rather, “in me.” One of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. Jesus replied that the criminal would be with him that day in paradise. The emphasis of the statement was not the word “paradise” but rather “with me.” Paul writes to the Philippians that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). “…Instead of speculating about life after death, Paul puts the emphasis on being ‘with Christ.’ Thus, Jesus’s promise to the thief and Paul’s yearning remind us of the single most important thing about life after death and about the resurrection of the dead: We will be with Christ.”
In answer to our opening question “What happens to bad people?”, we can answer with certainty that they will not be condemned and exiled to hell for an eternity of punishment. Rather, in some way, shape, and form they will be “with God.” This is good news for all the people of the world who have been deemed bad people by the world’s other occupants. It is also good news for the rest of us. For we, like them, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)
We may get angry at the people who cut in front of us in traffic, but we have done this, too. Bullying may anger us, yet we have used our power over others in a wrongful manner. We have also stood by, in a cowardly fashion, while others have been bullied, marginalized, or neglected. It is easy for us to condemn evil people like Hitler and Stalin, while we live lives of conspicuous consumers and neglect the hungry and the homeless. Terrorists are vilified because they have killed innocent people. We have done this, too. As nations at war, we have killed innocent bystanders and have labeled them “collateral damage.” We hate those who are different than ourselves. We do not forgive those who have hurt us. To only those who first love us do we return love.
The good news of Jesus Christ and the message of the Bible is not that the evil people are going to be judged, found lacking, and condemned. The good news is that God is moving in our lives and in all of creation to bring all people to be with God.
Praise for Awakened By Grace
“Kevin Ruffcorn adds another thoughtful and solid questioning of the existence of hell to the collection of books considering that issue. Deftly, he educates about church history and doctrine and biblical interpretation while nurturing the human spirit. His poignant, real-life anecdotes incarnate how people of faith have been and continue to be affected by the doctrine of eternal damnation. Because his approach and conclusions are grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I am strengthened by this book to live in the truth of God’s love rather than the lie of God’s wrath.”
—Cristy Fossum, author of the Sunday by Sunday series, a trilogy of church fiction based in the Revised Common Lectionary
“Kevin Ruffcorn traces the roots of fear-based dualism and the evolving understanding of God throughout church history. He exposes hell’s unbiblical sources and the motivation for its creation: religious control. Nowhere to Go But Up is a beautiful narrative that reminds us what matters most in Jesus’ love ethic and how paramount universalism was in the early church.”
—Michael Camp, spiritual coach, purveyor of historical spirituality, and author of Craft Brewed Jesus
“Do you believe in hell? If so, this book will turn your thinking upside down about God’s plans for your future! Kevin Ruffcorn takes readers through a systematic journey of Christian theology, biblical exegesis, and ecclesiastical machinations to a liberating understanding of God’s overarching love for all people. …This is a must-read for Christian leaders who care about representing the Almighty accurately and well to those unfamiliar with the God of the Bible.”
—Marta Poling Schmitt, retired ELCA pastor, church planter, and evangelist
About the Author
Kevin E. Ruffcorn retired after serving over forty years as a parish pastor in the Lutheran church. He is the author of six books including Rural Evangelism: Catching the Vision. He has also written religious curriculum for adults, several magazine and journal articles, and numerous devotionals.