Do any of these sound familiar?
- Every Sunday the preacher shouted from the pulpit that you’re a terrible sinner. God is angry at you. Because of God’s wrath, you’re going to burn in hell for all eternity.
- Your parents drilled it into you that you’re just no good. And they’re probably right. You just can’t feel good about anything you do.
- You’ve done terrible things . . . horrible things. What you’ve done is so bad that you deserve to be in hell. There is no hope for you. You’re a goner.
- No matter how hard you try, you just can’t be good. You know what you should do, but you just keep on doing the things you shouldn’t do.
If any of these are much too familiar for you, I’ll be straight: There are no easy answers. Besides, you’ve probably tried the easy answers already, and learned the hard way that they don’t work.
I’m also not going to tell you that all you have to do is believe in Jesus. Believing in Jesus is great. I highly recommend it! Being born again is wonderful! But for Christians, believing in Jesus is only the start. Then come the many years of growing from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity.
The fact is, if any of the things on this list describe your experience, then no matter how you slice it, you’ve got some hard work to do. And it may take years to fully recover, even with God’s help.
What I can offer you is new light and a new understanding of your situation. Nothing I say will snap you right out of it and instantly make your life a bed of roses. But it will give you hope that there is a path out. And it might help you take your next steps on that path toward the life of heaven God has in mind for you.
No matter what that preacher or your parents or anyone else has said, God created you for heaven, not for hell. And there is no reason on earth that you can’t find your way to heaven . . . no matter what your history.
So let’s straighten a few things out.
Is a wrathful God angry at you?
The short answer is: No.
Then what about all those Bible passages the preacher quoted about God’s wrath and fury?
Doesn’t the Bible say, “God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11, King James Version)?
Well, there’s a funny story about that verse . . .
First, the word for “the wicked” came from an ancient Aramaic (or “Chaldee”) version. It is not in the original Hebrew text, nor is it in the other ancient translations. Even in the King James Version, the words “with the wicked” are in italics, meaning they are not in the original. So it should read, “God judges the righteous, and God is angry every day.”
But wait, there’s more!
You see, the Hebrew word for “God” in the second half of the verse could also mean “not,” depending on how the Hebrew is interpreted. And that’s exactly what most of ancient translations, including the well-known Septuagint Greek translation, have in that verse. The first half of the verse is also a little off in some of the older English translations.
What does this all mean?
The verse almost certainly should read, “God is a righteous judge, and is not angry all day.” (Compare Young’s Literal Translation for this verse.)
Picture a judge taking hundreds of cases, one after another, pronouncing just judgments all day without ever getting angry, even at the worst evildoers. That’s the picture the Psalmist is painting. And it’s just the opposite of what that old fire and brimstone preacher said!
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are lots of other verses in the Bible that talk about God’s anger and wrath. But as I pointed out in the article, “If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?” that’s just how God’s love looks to us when we’re bent on an evil and destructive path that’s opposed to God’s love.
God’s love is like the warmth of the sun. But what if you’re a snowman? What if you want to be cold and unloving? If you’re a snowman, God’s love looks wrathful and destructive. It’s a horrible, destructive heat that melts and destroys you.
When the Bible talks about God’s wrath, it’s talking about the effect God’s love has on everything that’s evil and false in us and in our world. It’s only when we identify with the evil and cling to it as our own that we feel God’s love as anger and wrath. And the Bible often speaks to us according to the way things seem to us, even if the reality is different from God’s perspective.
Did you know that the Bible talks about God’s love far more often than it talks about God’s wrath? Here is a beautiful passage assuring us that God feels only love toward us, whether we are evil or good:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43–45)
And the famous verses from the Gospel of John:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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 3:16–17)
Notice that it doesn’t say God was so angry with the world, but God so loved the world.
So here’s the first ray of new light, and the most important new information about your situation: No matter what you may have been told, God is not angry at you. It’s just the opposite. No matter what you have done, and no matter how horrible or worthless a person you think you are, God loves you.
God sends you the sun of divine love, and the rain of divine truth, whether you are evil or good, and whether you are righteous or unrighteous.
There is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you. As the Psalm says:
O Lord, you have examined me, and you know me. . . .
If I go up to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in hell, you are there.
(Psalm 139:1, 8)
Are you condemned because of what your parents did?
Our parents were responsible for bringing us into this world. They are supposed to love us, care for us, teach us right from wrong, and guide us toward a healthy and responsible adulthood. And some of us were fortunate enough to have parents who did a fine job.
Unfortunately, some of us were born of parents who fell far short of the mark. Maybe they just weren’t ready to have children. Maybe they were too focused on money or power or pleasure to really care about their children. Maybe they were just plain evil and destructive types who used and abused their children at will. Bad parents can cause great damage to their children.
If you were one of those unfortunate children, does this mean your life is ruined from the start, and you might as well just throw in the towel?
In ancient times, it was common for whole families to be condemned and executed for the offenses of the head of the household. For example, when three men named Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled against God’s commandments to the ancient Hebrews about the priesthood, not only they, but their wives and children died as a result of their disobedience. You can read the story in Numbers 16.
However, in course of time, God pronounced an end to the practice of children being judged guilty for the crimes of their parents. This pronouncement comes in Ezekiel 18—one of the most beautiful chapters in the Hebrew Bible. Here’s how the chapter begins:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:1–4)
The chapter then goes on to explain in detail that if a father is good, but his son evil, then only the son shall be held guilty; and if that son has a son who sees how his father lived, and resolves not to live that way, but to live a good life instead, then only the father, not the son, shall be held guilty.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
To us today, yes. Our justice system is based on individual innocence and guilt. To the ancient Israelites, though, this seemed quite unjust. They thought it was right and proper that if a man sins, his whole family should be punished!
God was quite clear, though, that this was not to be our practice anymore:
When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own. (Ezekiel 18:19–20)
However, when it comes to our spiritual and emotional life, sometimes we haven’t gotten the message. We think that because our parents were evil, and neglected or mistreated us, that means we, too, are doomed, and headed toward hell.
It’s not true.
Yes, we may have a long, hard road undoing the damage that our parents did to us. It might take much prayer, counseling, and much difficult and painful introspection and rearranging of our emotional and social life.
But God does not hold us responsible for the errors and sins of our parents. And neither should we. If our parents drilled into us that we’re just no good, they were lying to us. And if they used and abused us, they were perpetrating evil on us.
That lying and that evil was theirs, not ours. And though it did have a profound effect on us, there is a pathway out of the damage our parents did to us. It is the path of recognizing that what our parents did to us had nothing to do with us. It was their own immaturity, neglect, and evil, not ours, that damaged us. As we recognize that what they said was not true, and what they did was just plain wrong, we can gradually recognize that we ourselves are not what they said we were, nor did we deserve what they did to us.
If you were neglected or abused verbally or physically by your parents, it is not going to be an easy path out of what they did to you. But there is a path. And it starts with recognizing that you are not condemned for the sins of your parents. God created you for a reason. God loves you, and has prepared a place for you in heaven (see John 14:1–3, 1 Corinthians 2:9).
You have the rest of your life to leave behind the lies and the wrongs that were inflicted on you when you were young. You have the rest of your life to walk, even if painfully sometimes, the path toward the life of heaven that God has prepared for you.
Have you committed terrible sins?
What if it wasn’t your parents who did a number on you? What if you yourself have done terrible, horrible things? What if you don’t deserve to go to heaven because of what you’ve done?
If that’s the state of mind you’re in, then Ezekiel 18 has a message for you as well:
But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:21–23, emphasis added)
No one suffers any punishment for evil things done in the world, only for current evil deeds. . . . Good spirits are never punished, though, even though they have done bad things in the world. This is because their evils do not come back.
Swedenborg is simply affirming what God tells us in Ezekiel 18: We are not held responsible for things we have done in the past. Only for things we keep doing in the present. If we have done something terrible in the past, but have repented of it, have reformed our character, and no longer do things like that, then none of the transgressions we have committed will be remembered against us.
If you have done something terrible, there is no way to undo it. You and those you hurt will still have to live with the repercussions of your actions. But one of those repercussions is not that you must go to hell for it.
Of course, if there is any way you can make amends for what you have done, you should certainly do so. However, when your time on this earth comes to an end, you will find your place in heaven or in hell depending on the person you have become in the present, and the way you are living now, not based on any wrongs you have done in the past.
As the old saying goes, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future.”
So please don’t worry about the terrible things you have done in the past. God has already forgiven you for them. God has no pleasure in your eternal death. No matter what you’ve done, God wants you to turn from your old ways and live! Now it’s time to build a new life for yourself, so that you won’t do things like that anymore. For more on how to do this, see the article, “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?”
What if you keep doing things you shouldn’t?
It sounds like you’re in the same boat as the apostle Paul when he wrote:
I know that my selfish desires won’t let me do anything that is good. Even when I want to do right, I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong. . . . In every part of me I discover something fighting against my mind, and it makes me a prisoner of sin that controls everything I do. What a miserable person I am! (Romans 7:18–19, 23–24)
As he went on to say, Paul found a rescue from this situation in Jesus Christ. However, as I said earlier, for Christians, believing in Jesus Christ is just the first step. After that comes the more challenging steps of living according to Christ’s teachings.
And for many of us who are very sensitive about our own wrongs and our own bad habits, one of the ways we don’t follow Christ’s teachings is to lay burdens on ourselves that are much too heavy—and are sometimes completely unnecessary.
In a recent article titled, “Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?” I expanded on this saying of Jesus:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)
I invite you to read that article if you feel you just can’t live up to what you know is right.
Here’s another thought that might help:
Have you considered that even though you have some bad habits, and do some things that really aren’t good, maybe they aren’t really evil either?
Let’s face it: neither you nor I nor anyone else is ever going to be perfect. Each one of us will die as an imperfect human being, still thinking, feeling, saying, and doing some things that we really shouldn’t.
What we need is some standard by which to decide just how serious our bad habits and wrong actions are.
There are many possible standards. In case you don’t have one that works for you, may I suggest something really simple? The Ten Commandments. Especially the second part of the Ten Commandments, which is about how we humans are supposed to behave toward one another. I’m talking especially about these commandments (in their short versions):
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet.
“Covet” is an old-fashioned word meaning wanting something that belongs to someone else. The problem with coveting is that it tends to lead to the other offenses: murder, adultery, stealing, and lying.
And about honoring your father and your mother, if the parents who raised you abdicated their parental responsibilities and did a number on you, feel free to think of God as your father and your mother instead. (For more on this, see “The Mother of All the Living.”)
Now here’s the question: Are the things you’re currently doing that are wrong actually against any of these commandments? Are you killing people, committing adultery, stealing, lying about other people, and so on?
But if you’re not actually breaking any of these commandments, it’s quite possible that you’re laying too heavy a burden on yourself. Do you think you have to be perfect in order to get to heaven?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t continue to work on yourself. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep taking steps to give up your bad habits and stop doing hurtful and destructive things. There is always room for improvement.
But are the wrong things you say and do really bad enough that you should go to hell for them? Chances are, they are not. They are simply areas where you still have work to do.
So go a little easy on yourself. The very fact that you’re concerned about your eternal state, and want to become a better person, suggests that you are on the path to heaven, not on that slippery slope to hell.
God wants YOU in heaven
Maybe you’ve given up on yourself. But God hasn’t given up on you. If God had given up on you, you would no longer be alive on this earth. In fact, here’s a thought to take home with you:
As long as you are alive and breathing on this earth, you can still find your way to heaven.
God has given us a lifetime here on earth because God knows that it takes some of us many years to whip ourselves into shape—with God’s help, of course. So use your time here well. Then you will not be disappointed when your time on earth is finished, and you move on to the next life.
If you still think you’re going to hell, consider these final words from Ezekiel 18:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live! (Ezekiel 18:30–32)
Why would God say these words to us if God did not know and expect that we can leave our past behind, and live a new life?
Heaven is possible for you! The choice is yours. God will be with you, guiding and strengthening you every step of the way, because God loves you and cares about you. God has a job for you in heaven, and has prepared a home for you there. Do you really want to leave it vacant?
For further reading:
- Ezekiel 18: God’s Message of Hope . . . If You Think there’s No Hope for You
- Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?
- How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?
- What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth