Its words haunt me. They remind me how tragically broken our world continues to be. Last week, Shawn McCreesh wrote an essay, remembering his very first friend, David. Growing up, Shawn and David’s families had been so close that they each called the other cousin, and each other’s moms aunt. Shawn had last talked with David last fall. He called because he was writing an article about growing up in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, and how drugs had played so powerfully into their youth.
Now, when Shawn and David talked, it looked as if his friend, David had conquered his own problems with drugs. He had almost two years of sobriety. He had a wife and family with two young kids. He had built a solid career as a lead technician for a HVAC company. But even he knew how easily he could fall. David put it to Shawn this way: “You cross the line, and you never know when or where it is. It’s cunning, and it’s baffling, but once you’re over that line, it’s a battle between you and you. You have to defeat yourself if you want to get out of it and not die. It’s almost good versus evil in your brain.”
And three days before Thanksgiving, Shawn learned that evil had won. David, his oldest friend, had been found, slumped against a tree in the neighborhood where they had both grown up, another overdose. His wife had become a widow. His children would grow up without their dad. His parents would carry a profound wound in their hearts for the rest of their lives. And Shawn McCreesh had lost his oldest friend.
Shawn went home to mourn with David’s mom, or as he called her, his Aunt Tammy. As they gathered in the small family kitchen with other mourners, he realized that, just in that kitchen, five moms were standing there who had lost their children in the same way.
And as I read the story, how the pastor who led the service was a recovering addict himself, I wondered. What did that pastor say about where David was? After all, by David’s own admission, evil had won. He had chosen a drug over his wife, over his own children, over his friends and family. How much more lost can you be than that?
And if the traditional Christian understanding of hell were true, David’s torment in life could very well now be continuing forever in the agonies of hell. But what if David’s journeying to hell could be the best news forever? What if, only through that journey, could God free him for the joy of heaven. What if only hell could provide the healing that did not come this side of heaven? How can hell give you the freedom to finally choose what you most deeply wanted your entire life but for all sorts of tragic reasons you didn’t? In these words from Jesus, God shows you the way, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Last week, I began sharing an understanding of hell that was commonly held among many Christians during the first five centuries of Christian faith. These Christians, based on their reading of scripture like this one from I Corinthians: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” had concluded. Hell could not be forever. They proclaimed. In the ultimate end of all things, God will bring everyone home. All will be made alive in Christ. But hold on a second.
What if everyone doesn’t want to go home? What if folks want to stay in Hell? Is God going to force them into heaven, no matter what they want? Don’t we have freedom to choose? And here Jesus gives you a stunning answer. Jesus tells you. The only true freedom comes when a person finds the freedom to choose God. And here’s the problem. No one, no one this side of heaven, is completely free.
Think about it. Does anyone believe that Shawn’s oldest friend, David, was completely free? Would any person, in their right mind, leave behind the wife and sons they love, their own parents, their friends for a chemical high? Yet, that’s exactly what David did. No one pushed the drug into his veins. No one even gave it to him for free. At some point, he went and looked for it. He used his own money to buy it. Then he carefully prepared it, knowing in doing so, he was risking everything for the sake of a few hours of fleeting and false escape. And yet he did it. In fact, millions in our own nation are taking those same risks right now even as I speak.
But those addicted to drugs are just pointing to a problem every person has, the problem to which Jesus points. Jesus says. Every human being finds themselves trapped in a lie, a lie that keeps leading them to make wrong choice after wrong choice, a lie that leaves them caught up in fears and insecurities that wreck their lives, a lie that even wrecks the entire planet. And how do you become free. Jesus tells you. The truth will make you free.
But what the heck is the truth Jesus is talking about. Sure, it’s nice to say. The truth shall make you free. But what is truth? And here, if you look carefully, Jesus is telling you. But before we can get there, we first need to understand what it truly means to be free.
Freedom isn’t simply being able to do whatever you want to do. And if you think about it, you’d see how that definition doesn’t really make any sense. If that were true, then a fish should have the freedom to fly like a bird. But fishes don’t want that freedom at all. No what makes for freedom for that fish is having the freedom to be the fishiest fish possible. freedom simply means having the power to become more fully who you truly are. If you’re an oak seed, it means having the freedom to grow into the oakiest oak tree possible. And if you are a human being, it means having the freedom to grow into the most human human being possible.
And in the Bible, God tells you what that looks like. For God created everyone in God’s image. To be human is to be a mirror of God, to move deeper and deeper into reflecting in your life the wondrous beauty of God’s love and goodness. Freedom means having the freedom to do just that.
But here’s the problem, human beings look to find that beauty, that love, that goodness in all the wrong places. It’s why the Scottish writer Bruce Marshall said. “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Everyone yearns for the same thing. Everyone yearns to live into who, in their deepest self, they truly want to be.
But did Shawn’s friend, David, want to be a drug addict? Is that who he truly wanted to be? No. Of course not. He wanted to love and be loved by his kids. He wanted to love and be loved by his wife. He wanted a life rich with friends, with work that blessed him and others, with all that makes for a rich and fulfilled life.
Everyone, whether they are conscious of it or not, is living life with that same goal in mind. The problem lies in that we don’t know how to get there. Evil continues to feed us the lie that we will find that fulfillment in a substance or success or the approval of others or whatever it might be. And sure those things can be good. But they cannot be the ultimate good. In fact, not only do they not bring you the ultimate good. They hold you back from getting it. And in the end, you don’t even end up owning whatever your particular desire might be. In the end, the desire ends up owning you.
Why? They drive you. And as they drive you, you live with the underlying fear that if you don’t fulfill this desire, then somehow your life will have failed at some deep level, you will never find the true fulfillment you really seek. But this desire cannot ever give you that. It is a dead end. It may be good. But it’s not the ultimate good. It’s just a means. It’s not the end.
The desires can even be religious ones. Jesus is, in fact, talking here to religious people who wanted to follow him. But Jesus told them that they had a wrong desire that drove them too, that literally made them slaves. He said. Look, in a Roman household, a slave and a son can seem in many ways the same. They live in the same house. The head of the house provides for them. They also work for and obey him. But they are very different. If the slave messes up, his status can change like that. His status depends on what he does, and how well he does it. And that makes it very uncertain. But the status of the son never changes. Whatever mistakes he makes he will always be a son, no matter what.
Jesus is saying to these folks. Yes, you follow God. You even have a relationship with God, but your god isn’t even really God. Your God only accepts you if you’ve done what He expects. And if you don’t, then you’re cast out so that the desire that drives you is to get this God to accept you. And you live every day with the fear that maybe God doesn’t. And that binds you up just as much as anyone driven by a desire for approval or success or money or whatever. That’s how people can grow up in a religious environment, even a Christian one, and instead of finding freedom get guilt and anxiety. They never experienced the truth that Jesus is talking about here, the only truth that can actually set you free.
What is that truth? Who you need is not this false God who comes to you as a boss that will boot you out of the house if you mess up. No, the God that actually exists comes to you as a father, a loving parent, who loves you period; no matter how badly you mess up. And the more you grasp that truth, the freer you become. Why? You know who you are, a beloved child, one whose place in her parents’ heart is always secure. And in that knowledge, in that truth, you become free. You become free to become the very being God created you to be, a being journeying deeper and deeper into the wondrous love and goodness of this God.
And Jesus came to set you free from the lies, to not only tell you the truth, but to actually become that truth, that truth come in flesh and blood. So, do you understand what that means? No one freely chooses evil. Evil has blinded them to the truth. Evil has bound them up with a lie. And they end up looking for the love they need in all the wrong places.
And thus, hell exists to finally free people from those lies. Hell exists to open their eyes to the truth. Now that truth will at first bring pain, pain at all the false choices they’ve made, how much hurt and pain they caused themselves and others. It will lead to weeping and gnashing of teeth. It will lead to a conscience that will burn inside them, that will burn up the delusions and misplaced desires that so wrecked their lives, their very souls. But in that burning, they will become free, free to become the very people they yearned to be all along. The truth will have set them free.
And in that freedom, they will be free to go, to go where they always yearned go anyway, to return to the source of all being and life. In fact, the very word in Hebrew for repent simply means that, return. Everyone ultimately wants to return home, to their ultimate home in the beauty and love of God. And God will not stop until God frees everyone to make that journey.
That’s why in Jesus, God came. Jesus gave up his freedom to give you freedom. Jesus gave up his home so you might have that home forever. In Jesus, God gave up who God was so that you can become who you truly are. In Jesus, God descended into death so that he might raise you into life, the life you yearn to have. And in the end, Jesus will use everything, even hell itself, to set you free. For if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.