Does God punish us for our sins?

I don't imagine God as a cosmic Santa making a list and checking it twice.

From Your Spiritual Coach

- Fear of God's Judgment

If Jesus and God are the essence of love, why does the Bible threaten us with hell and damnation?

Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.
—Matthew 22:13-14

Hell, again?

Oh, stop it, for heaven's sake—if Jesus makes one more offhanded remark about throwing people into the fires of hell, I'm tossing my WWJD bracelet.

Actually, I don't have a WWJD bracelet. I so seldom know What Jesus Would Do, and don't wish to insult him by assuming he'll rubber-stamp whatever action I might be leaning toward.

Jesus is near to me. I feel his presence many times a day, talk to him frequently, read about him in scripture every morning. I'm expecting to be with him eternally when I'm finished here, and I think that eternal life with him has already begun for me, only I'm too dim to experience it fully now, distracted as I am by everything being alive in the world involves. Jesus and I have a relationship, and I don't have a relationship more important than the one I have with him.

But I don't always know what he thinks. He has surprised me too many times for me to assume anything. I try to follow him, but his way is sometimes a mystery, and I stumble frequently. I'm in the dark a lot.

The people in the story Jesus tells about the wedding feast are as clueless as I am. Their priorities and obsessions get in their way as much as mine get in my way. They don't know what's expected of them, like the one who came to the wedding in his jogging suit, and so they take a guess and get it all wrong. This guy's fashion mistake had really bad consequences, but most of our mistakes get us into some kind of trouble, and some of it is pretty serious. We raise plenty of Hell right here, without anybody needing to toss us anywhere fiery.

I read and wonder, puzzle over his words, look to see what others have thought about them over the centuries. I absorb arguments about whether all the words we think are his really are, and what it would mean if some of them were not. I don't feel guilty about any of these explorations: we're supposed to explore and wonder about things, including the things of God. We have a relationship with Jesus, and we can trust him to correct the errors we will certainly make and help us to grow into him.

—Barbara Crafton

The Bible actually says little about hell. I find only a handful of references in each of the two testaments; nothing approaching the vivid depictions of hell in the Middle Ages by the Church and its artists. Hell was thought of as a place where one didn't want to remain after death, and God was seen as able to rescue someone from there. But the concept of hell isn't highly developed and doesn't play a large role in the teachings of Jesus or of Paul.

The Bible's words about heaven are more numerous, but, interestingly, they don't lead to images of golden streets, clouds, angels, or happy arrivals getting rewarded after death. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, heaven is where God lives. From heaven God “comes down” to interact with creation. Heaven was “up there,” in the vastness of sky and space. In other words, heaven was about God, not about humanity.

The Church made much more of both heaven and hell, largely as a way of compelling obedience. Scripture does speak of eternal life, or a life with God that doesn't end. It isn't portrayed as spatial or as a reward for anything we do, but rather as a continuation of God's love for all that God has made.

As Paul said, nothing can separate us from that love—not even our behavior, choices, or death. The assurance for you, as for all of us, is that we cannot cause God's love to cease, not even by denying God

—Tom Ehrich