“I was playing golf with a friend,” the man said to me yesterday. “And he said—it must’ve been at the 14th hole, I think—he said, ‘John, do you believe in hell?”
He put the club down and asked why such a question. The friend explained that his daughter had been blessed with her first baby, and had just had the child baptized. “Good thing,” the man said, “because she’s been on edge for a month. She needed to get that baby baptized because—what would happen if it died before that, before it was baptized? She was worried that her little girl—my grandchild—might wind up in hell.”
That’s why the man wanted to know if John believed in such a thing. “I don’t,” John said. “I don’t believe in hell.”
In all the years I’ve been meeting with parents to prepare for baptism I can count on about one hand the times when that question hasn’t come up. I often ask parents why we’re baptizing these children, and after a few positive comments—“to welcome them into the family of God” or “to celebrate their birth”—someone usually says, “to, you know, to take care of them in case, you know, something should happen—God forbid—and they weren’t baptized.”
I said to John what I say to all those parents. We don’t need to protect a child from God. There are many things that we need to protect them from—but not God! If the idea of harming this little child is abhorrent to us, whose love is so finite and fickle, how could we imagine that the infinite and perfect love of God could do less?
We have to keep saying it, over and over. It’s all grace with God, it’s all mercy. It’s love, start to finish. We are the ones who took infinite, unconditional love and twisted it into a system of reward-and-punishment. We always do that because we can’t imagine living in a system where the “good” people don’t “get ahead.” If no one’s keeping score, why play the game?
We almost have to set up a world like that, as we seek to make our way in the world, make a name for ourselves, stand out from the crowd, make our mark. But then, later on, we realize (by grace) that it’s all been a big mistake. We’ve created a means test for love and approval—when God never, ever intended it like that.
It’s all grace, all mercy, all the time.