There was once a regular gathering of Christian university students. These young Christians would come from their respective classes and huddle together into a hired-out library room that they rented for their fortnightly gatherings. There, in this space suited for tutorial presentations, they would come together to discuss about how their faith could impact their lives and also strategies about different ways to share their faith with their friends.
One week, they decided to learn about apologetics, and so one of the young enthusiastic men (an avid reader in all things to do with defending the faith) volunteered to lead the session on apologetics. He got up to the front desk, with a PowerPoint ready to go, and begun his presentation. “Tonight” he announced, “I would like to share with the group an analogy on how Jesus is the only way to God, and how to convince people of this one and only truth”. Just as he was about to continue with his message, the back door to the large room quietly opened, and an old man came quietly in. The young man- already on a roll- continued to speak as this stranger came in. The old wise man, fitted with a priestly clerical collar, sat quietly in the back row of the fitted-out room, and listened to the young man speak, looking on and listening intently.
“Have you ever heard the fire analogy before?” said the young man enthusiastically to he group. Most of them shook their heads and begun to listen more closely. “Well” he continued, “There was once three people who awoke to find themselves in the middle of a beautiful and yet mysterious maze-like forest. It was a late night, and they thought it would be better to find the way out of the maze in the morning. As it was a cold evening, they used some of the loose timber around them- and a lighter one of the people had- and made a camp fire. After they had huddled around the camp fire, each weary person went to sleep. As they slept, the camp fire went beyond its bounds and lit a nearby bush on fire. Suddenly, all three of the people woke up to a blazing fire that had now started too spread to the maze’s forest walls. In a dash, these three people started to run through the maze. Thankfully, the maze turned out to be more like a labyrinth and so they became confident that they would all get out alive. All three of them were running through the maze together, but eventually they hit a cross road. There were two ways to go, but now they had to make a decision as to which way was the right way out of the maze. The first person said “Well, I don’t think there is a way out. This is all a sick joke. This is all we have got, so we might as well settle in and face our fate”. The second person pointed to the first path and said, “I believe this is the way out”. And the third person said, “Hey guys, I believe all paths lead to the way out”. But then, out of the blue, came a person out from the second path and said “I am the maker of the maze and sit on top of a tower with a bird eye view of the maze, I know this is the way out, so follow me””.
The young man telling his parable paused from speaking- as if to force a dramatic moment- and then continued, saying, “This is what we can say to people who think there are either no God and so no ways to God, or to people who believe their faith is right but have no proof of it, or to those who think it’s narrow minded to say that there is one way to God. We can say that Jesus, like the creator and bird-eye-viewer of the maze, has stepped down into human history and has shown us the way out. How can the atheist argue with God who has shown that he is real and has a way out? How can someone of a different faith say that their way is right when we have Jesus who has stepped in to show us the way. And to those new age people who think it’s narrow minded to say that there is only one way to God, we can say to them “who are you to say that your view of reality is correct?! We have Jesus who shows us that there is a God and therefore there is only one way”. If God Himself has become a person, and this God says He is the way, the truth, and the life, well, how can you argue with that!? We have the very creator become man and shown everyone He is legit!”. As the young enthusiastic man explained his parable, the young Christian students started to yell “Amen!” and “Yeah! That’s right!” and clapped away. But there was one person in the room whose demeanour was different. In the back corner sat the old man, looking gently forward, and only smiling- though not smiling in approval or disapproval- just smiling. The young man begun to conclude his speech, saying, “And so, with all these differing religions saying that their way to God and Heaven is right, or that they are all correct, or that there isn’t any. We can show them Jesus, who shows us how to get to God in heaven”. The young man said “thank you” to the crowd and sat down appeased.
As the formalities of the evening died down, and the meeting came to a formal close, the students went to shake the hand of their speaker, each one paying a compliment for the parable he had told. Once all the students had left, the old man came up to the young man. The old man took the young man’s hand warmly, looked gently into his eyes, and said in a wise, peaceful, and honest voice, “You have a gift for speaking young man, and I am thankful for such energy and enthusiasm”. The young man, aware of the sincerity of this old man, said “thank you” in response. “May I offer you though, something to reflect on?” said the wise old man. Curious, the young man consented to the wise man’s sharing; “Of course- what would like me to reflect on?”. “Well…Whilst there are some good truths that your parable touches on” the wise man said, “maybe there’s an even better way of looking at the deep truths of our faith”. He paused, as if to allow the reflection to already take root, and then continued. “Suppose we start the story the same way, three people in this beautiful maze-like forest, making a campfire, and then the fire gets out of hand. They are running through what appears to be more of a labyrinth, and then they hit this cross-road. And indeed, there might be sincere confusion as to where to go now- that would indeed be a big decision! A very hard one to make indeed” he paused again, and then continued to speak. “And yet, what if now, instead of this Jesus figure coming down and offering a way out, instead he brings with him a hose, a shovel, and a bag. And what if… Instead of offering a way out, this Jesus figure starts to put out the whole forest fire with his hose that he has. He turns on the hose, and, magic! The water spreads throughout the whole forest and puts out the fire. He then turns to the fellow maze dwellers, and says to them “Well, we got a whole forest to grow and make beautiful! I would like you to partner with me in doing this”. Then this Jesus figure offers them a bag filled with seeds, and a shovel for digging and says to the maze dwellers “Will you join me in making this maze beautiful again?”. The old man pauses again, smiles, warmly holds the young man’s hands, and says “My dear friend, you are right to say that Jesus shows us who God truly is, and this is indeed an eye-opening reality against the backdrop of many theories and faiths about God or the Gods. And yes, if there is a God, and only one God, revealed in a person called Jesus, then that is indeed a scandal to the modern mind… But my friend, I wonder what it would mean to see that Jesus has already put out the fire? To see that this broken world- this world burnt out by the flames of evil, injustices, sin, death, corruption- has a healer, a gardener, who wants us to sow the seeds of a new world right in the middle of this burnt one, and is actually calling all people to follow Him in partnering with that healing project in the world- would that not be a better story to be told?”.
The young man- feeling slightly perplexed and feeling somewhat affronted- said “But that makes it sound like it doesn’t matter what other people from other faiths believe, or lack of faith all together! Are you saying we shouldn’t worry about those things at all?? That it’s all leading to Heaven anyway?!”. The old man gently smiled. “My friend” responded the old man gently, “The story of this world that Jesus is telling… It’s even better than we have first thought. It’s not about going somewhere else after you die- though that might be part of it- rather… It’s about Heaven coming to Earth and God making this place His home. And if that’s what it’s about, then living a new life that’s aligned with Jesus’ future for this world is indeed a big shift for someone…For if you are going to trust that Jesus is making this world new, that’s a whole paradigm shift!… And if you’re going to partner with Jesus in doing this, that will indeed start a newfound relationship with Jesus…But don’t you see? Such a trust in a better vision for this world- a better vision launched in Jesus- is much more about being part of a revolution then it is about joining a religious club- or evening having some abstract doctrines neatly articulated- that gives you the ticket out of the maze, or perhaps into the sky… The Good News is, God loves this world, and loves you too, and wants everyone to be excited with this world-wide project and partner with what Jesus wants done in making this maze alive again, or, should we say, the world beautiful again”.
The young man, still somewhat startled, had a confused look on his face. He paused, then, more calmly this time, said “And what about hell? This talk about the fire being put out removes any real sense of urgency. Surely we need to be worried about hell, right?” “Well” responded the old man, “When Jesus talks about hell, he is talking about a real place- although the real place he was speaking about was Jerusalem’s local garbage dump called Gehenna, or what we translate in English called hell”. The old man smiled and gave a friendly chuckle. “Their local garbage dump certainly had bad vibes to it, a bit like a haunted house, because many years before Jesus was on the scene people did used to sacrifice children there to these other deities, and so by Jesus’ time, the place had, shall we say, a spookiness to it. Not to mention, with the wider Greek & Roman culture starting to come into Jerusalem, the locals, including even the religious elite of Jesus’ day started to use the local mythology of an underworld called Hades. And some people, maybe dovetailing from the spookiness of their local garbage dump called Gehenna- or hell- started to say things like that the garbage dump was a gateway to the underworld. It also didn’t help that their garbage dump was used to burn a lot of things. Some people even theorise that maybe this garbage dump had dogs go to it, who would fight over scraps, causing gnashing of teeth. Some others even say that the oil run off from the garbage would pile down into little ponds that would be lit up creating almost a lake of fire…So you could Imagine that with all this rich imagery, that Jesus would of course use some of the local language and rhetoric to make some serious points- and some pretty eye opening parables- about what happens when you live against the grain of God’s way of being human and against the grain of how God wants to run the world… To live like this might produce a garbage of a life! And of course, on a wider societal level, not living the ways Jesus commanded could lead to all sorts of hells breaking loose. Imagine being told to live non-violently, and then you had a whole people do the exact opposite! Or if you are told to live generously, but then they all live selfishly. That will ripple out and create whole societal unrest! Some scholars even say that’s what happened literally when Jerusalem didn’t follow in the ways of Jesus…Jerusalem, who had been under the occupation of the Roman Empire, revolted against Rome in 70 A.D by the ways of the sword rather than by Jesus’ way of love, and the city becomes an extension of their own lit up garbage dump. So sure, Jesus talks about hell a lot, but maybe not in the way we think- I think he has it more focused on this world then on something next. And yep, Jesus does indeed talk about final judgement, but even there we gotta remember that- like any good Jewish prophet- it’s about God judging the world in order to make something new on the far side of the judgement. So even his judgement, even when it appears harsh in scripture, is just a classic Jewish move about God fixing up this broken messy world. And yeah, there is even harsh language about final judgement as someone not living with the grain of being the human God wants to make us to be, but even that’s about God wanting us to become a better human rather than a human turned inward towards oneself- I think a loving God would want the best for us, don’t you think?”
“You know” the old man continued, “There is a lot of hell already around us, and sometimes inside of us in how we live and prioritise our life- after all, money, for example, being the reason for living won’t make a person feel good in the long-run, and such a life will just bring more hell out into the people around him or her. Imagine it: living life for money but it never fulfilling, and then, in living life for money, only seeing people in terms of how you can best “profit”- you might start using people for monetary gains, or cutting corners on a big business. I think of big companies who have slave labour to cut the cost of their goods and I think, surely, that’s the love of money causing such evil there! So there’s already hell around us, and little hell’s in us. And if people don’t want to turn away from that, that can indeed eat us up on the inside, in the here and in the now. And when Jesus appears again one day fully fill this world with God’s love everywhere- where this world is fully healed and evil is no more, when all the hells around us are fully extinguished- then it will be pretty hard for someone who still seeks to live their life against the grain of how God wants them to live their life when there will only be this new Jesus-shaped world. That would be like swimming upstream! I’m not sure what it means for them, but if there is only one new creation, and there ain’t room for evil anywhere in it, I can’t see how there would be a torture chamber. And I can’t fathom a reason why God would want one in the first place! I once sat in a sauna for 30 minutes as a dare- and it was very hot after a while; now imagine God doing that to people for not 30 minutes, or 30 days, or 30 years, or 300 years…But forever. I wonder what purpose or pleasure God would get out of that? If hell is anything for anyone, it’s something that they are making in their resistance against God’s love- not something God is actively wishing upon people. But it certainly ain’t a torture chamber that God makes- I can’t square that with a God we call love. God loves all people, and wants everyone to be part of God’s new world. So, I think, God isn’t sending people to this place called hell, but instead God is sending heaven to people, and maybe God will somehow create space within God’s all-in-all creation in order to make space for those who want to live their own way- but I’m not sure what that looks like exactly. Some even say that hell is the love of God badly received on their end- like, God’s love is all around them, but they stubbornly refuse it, and so it feels just like a nagging presence to them, whereas it’s actually God’s love not giving up. Who knows! But one thing I know for sure is this: God wants even them to join God in God’s New World, and God won’t stop wooing people into a better world, and with it, a better way to be human- not now, and surely not later? But that’s up to us to want that. I certainly know people in some rough spots who want someone to rescue them, and I trust that God can be what they have always wanted, even if they didn’t know how to articulate the faith we are so blessed to have a clear picture of- maybe the Spirit can move in the wilderness of the world, and show grace and mercy to many. And equally, I do know people who are terribly resistant to love, grace, peace, kindness, and all the goodies that come with being a person re-made by Love. But, maybe instead of being concerned how God is going to sort that out, we can instead partner with God with being concerned about the only hells we know for sure: that which is currently around us, and sometimes the ones within our own hearts. We got some mighty logs in our own eyes! And there are some heavy timber that’s crushing others that we are supposed to lift off our brothers and sister who are in pain”
The young man paused reflectively. “I see” the young man said. “There’s a lot in what you say, and honestly there’s a lot to think about”. The old man smiled. “Well, I hope I haven’t startled you too much with this different way of looking at faith” the old man chuckled. He put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said, “Keep up the good work, my friend”. The old man begun to leave, and as he was just about to exit the room, he turned to the young man and said, “And don’t forget to help Jesus plant those new seeds for his new maze!…Or perhaps, don’t worry about the maze bit. Just plant a beautiful forest”. The old man smiled, and close the door behind him. The young man sat leaning against the table, attempting to comprehend what he had just heard. Quickly, he stood up and raced to the door, and walked briskly through the library. The young man saw the old man about to leave the building, and so he quickly caught up to him and asked, “Where do you pastor?”. The old stopped, turned to the young man smiled as he gently lifted his finger and pointed into the distance. Over, across the road, stood and old church quaint church building surrounded by trees. “I pastor there” he said. “And you are welcome anytime”.