It’s not uncommon for our family to feel the earth move under our feet. Yet we don’t live in California. Our home is in Maryland. The tremors emanate from our pedal-to-the-medal son Stephen. He’s a college sophomore and when Stephen is home on the weekends, we’re entertained at dinnertime by an inaudible rhythm driving his right leg up and down. It makes us crazy.
We can’t stand it. He can’t stop it. And since it’s a habit, he’s unaware of it. But Stephen’s routine paints a picture for reframing a familiar rant against Christianity. It goes like this: God says Eenie, meenie, miney, mo – I pick these people and send the rest to hell. Stephen’s pulsating piston illustrates that God doesn’t send people to hell; he spares every individual from whatever eternity they could never stand. At least that seems to be Jesus’ point in one of the last stories he told while on earth.1
It’s a surprising story with an unusual twist. Jesus forecasts a day when everyone will face a fork in the road and head toward two very different destinations; heaven or hell. The surprising element is not where people end up. The bombshell is that everyone is caught unaware – irrespective of what they profess to believe. Those headed for heaven will query: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink?”2 when did we see you hungry, or thirsty…?”3 unconscious of their good works. The same goes for those who do not follow him – they’ll be unaware of lost opportunities.
This idea of being ‘caught unaware’ raises one question: When are people oblivious? Answer: When their actions become a habit. Stephen, for example, is unmindful of his rumbling routine. It’s a habit, which can be good or bad. Picking one’s nose is generally considered bad form. Yet people do it – oblivious to those around them. Habits, according to Jesus, are windows into our deepest beliefs. That’s why, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged his followers “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.”4 In his kingdom, people are supposed to give unaware. I doubt Jesus is telling the right hand to hide from the left any generous acts (that would alert the left hand and make it more aware). Rather, Jesus is urging his followers to adopt the kind of life that would give generously out of habit, so that we’re not even cognizant of being bighearted.
This is why Christ’s followers will be surprised to learn of their service. Jesus is saying those who enter the new heavens and earth habitually take up the kind of life he would – if he was in our place. Those who do not enter do not have a habit of serving as he would. This means heaven is for those who can stand it. Eternity with Christ is like a custom tailored suit – for those best fitted for it.
And so is hell. The truth is God is terribly fair. This saw cuts both ways. Each destination is best suited for only one type of person. We can only stand one destination. It’s our habits – especially how we treat others – that indicate which one we can stand. Heaven is for those, who by dint of habit, can stand to feed the poor, pray at all times, and love their neighbor and enemies. They make it a habit to give generously, clean up messes (even if they didn’t make them), serve others, reconcile broken friendships, offer hope to downtrodden people, clothe the homeless, care for the vulnerable, and believe the best in others. Because it’s an enjoyable habit, these people will be unaware of their goodness when they depart from this lifetime.
The same goes for those who have a habit of not following God. The idea of serving, giving, and believing the best is hellish to them. It’s not a habit. This kind of a charitable, humble, and selfless heaven – going on forever and ever – is hell. They couldn’t stand an eternity where there is no gossip, cynicism, revenge, ignoring seemingly inferior people, nursing wounds, or flicking the bird with delight.
Habits reveal that Christianity does not tout a God who says Eenie, meenie, miney, mo – I pick only these people. Rather, the gospel is a story of a gracious Father saving some for an eternity they are already in the habit of enjoying – and saving others from an eternity they are profoundly unsuited for and could never stand anyway.
1 The entire story can be found in the Book of Matthew 25:31-46.
2 Matthew 25:37ff [italics mine]
3 Matthew 25:44 [italics mine]
4 Matthew 6:3