Fear of Hell or Fear of Heaven?

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Once a reporter shouted to the 33rd President, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” Truman replied, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think its Hell.”

Harry Truman was known for his mid-western ways with language. He never minced his words. He was direct, clear, and succinct. You knew what he said he meant, and what he meant he said. In this quick retort to a brash and apparently partisan reporter, he revealed a truth in his Missouri, folksy kind of way. He recognized something about the truth that most don’t want to contemplate.

There are a couple of phrases that we have all heard about truth. One is, “The truth hurts.” Truman’s comment comes closest to this one, I think. We all know by experience that there is such a thing as truth. How do we know this? Because we all know how to lie. The truth about things, means that they have to be taken seriously, or there will be consequences. That’s reality. That’s our problem; we fear reality, the truth, precisely because we must be responsible for it and to it. That often hurts.

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Now consider the other phrase. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “If you follow my teachings you will be my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) What is the truth then? It is every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus. He is the source and the goal of truth. Jesus gives all of us the possibility of Heaven itself. Though it seems strange to us, that possibility frightens some. For them, because of their deceitfulness, Heaven looks more like hell.

For a Christian it is a deceit to think oneself free of the demands of the Christian life. The truth is that if you choose to live as Jesus did in this world you will suffer. Why? Jesus said, Whoever wishes to be my disciple must deny himself, pick up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

This truth puts the fear of Heaven into some. They want only their own truths. They wish not to bend to the will of anyone or anything else. They wish not to suffer, anything, for anyone. They can not bear to deny themselves the pleasures of immediate gratification and power, even if doing so might make them freer than they’d ever dreamed of being. Because of this they fear Heaven and, ironically, find themselves in a Hell of their own making, and blaming everyone else for it.

Jesus is the truth that sets us free. The truth is that humanity needed the Incarnation of Jesus to be set free, for we had gone astray, and we still go astray, following our selfish desires. Jesus came to teach us that the way to heaven is a narrow path, not a wide highway. The narrow path is the Christian life, well lived. The truth is that in following Jesus, by imitating Him, we may suffer, but we will also find our way to Heaven. By His love and His grace we will be set free. In submitting to the will of God, which is nothing less than the will of Love, we will be made free. The truth is, for those who choose willfully not to bend to anything but their own selfish desires, life is Hell.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.