GCI Update

How big is hell?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

joeandtammyUnless Tammy is travelling with me, I never know whom I’ll be sitting next to when I fly. Most seatmates don’t seem to want much conversation, especially after they ask me, “What do you do?” If I reply, “I’m a pastor,” there is often a polite comment made as they put on their headphones and/or open a book to read. If I say “I supervise missionary work,” a bit more conversation ensues. On a recent flight, after the initial courteous exchanges, my seatmate paused, then  asked, “How big do you think hell is?”

As we talked, it became clear that he was wondering how many people are now in hell and will go there. Will hell be larger than we imagine and heaven smaller? It’s interesting he didn’t ask about my definition of hell, or what the Bible says about hell. He just wanted to know how big it is.

I joked with him and asked if he was familiar with the pictures of Dante’s Inferno. He said no, and I said, “Well, he makes it look as though hell is already full.” I went on to explain that this topic seems to suffer from more misinformation circulating about hell than is realized.

Bartolomeo_Di_Fruosino_-_Inferno,_from_the_Divine_Comedy_by_Dante_(Folio_1v)_-_WGA01339
Dante’s Inferno by Bartolomeo Di Fruosino (Wikimedia Commons)

Most are surprised to learn that the early church did not dogmatize the topic of hell, nor was there a singular view of the subject. In fact, hell is not mentioned in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Perhaps this was because the early church fathers realized humans aren’t qualified to judge such matters of eternal consequence—only Jesus Christ is (a good realization, indeed!)
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If we take Jesus seriously when he teaches about mercy, we should also take him seriously when he teaches about punishment. After all, mercy only has meaning if we are escaping a real punishment. Jesus used a variety of word-pictures for the punishment of those who refuse the loving mercy of God: fire, darkness, pain and destruction. Jesus is describing the result of a life of perpetual resistance to God’s love. Whatever hell is, it is a state of alienation from God for those who refuse his unconditional love, grace and mercy. However, this does not mean that God is the one who dispenses the pain and anguish. It is not the equivalent of parents who spank or abuse their children.

Tragically, the all-too-common misperception of God dispensing pain arises from a faulty view of God’s nature. It ignores the eternal relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit, which is lived out in the life of Jesus. It misses the point of God’s kind of humility, which is expressed in mutual self-deference to the other. We should always bear in mind that Jesus said he came to reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27; John 17:25-26). And the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal Jesus’ mission (Hebrews 10:15-16). Jesus taught that when the Spirit comes, he’ll not bear witness to himself but to Jesus (John 15:26). We see that mutual, reciprocal love in Jesus’ teaching about his purpose for coming to earth, saying he did not come to condemn the world but to save or rescue it (John 3:17).

Even more tragically, many people view God as if he suffers from manic depression or a multiple personality disorder. They struggle with the idea that on the one side, God is a being of wrath and then on the other he is a God of love. Some go so far as saying the Father has wrath, but Jesus came to bring love. But if Jesus is the “exact representation” of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) we cannot separate the Father’s nature from the Son’s nature or the Son’s nature from the Father’s. The same is true of the Spirit. Rather than seeing God in such an inconsistent and dissected manner, it is vital to realize that wrath and love are two aspects of a single attribute that is the fundamental character of God. Our talk about God is only accurate when based on the reality of Jesus Christ. He came from the Father to reveal the Father. And what we see in his life and ministry, including at the cross, is that God’s love and God’s wrath are not finally separate.

At the cross, God’s love in Christ is patently real, but so is God’s hatred toward sin. It isn’t that God loves the elect and hates the reprobate—rather, he loves us all, but hates the sin in our lives. Therefore we should think of hell in the same framework as we think of heaven by relating both to the love of God in Christ. God tells us to love our enemies and does no less himself. Because he loves us, he must be against whatever is against us—whatever damages us, harms us and ruins our relationships with God and with others. Anything less would not be loving. The sin in us is the object of God’s wrath because we are objects of his love.

At the cross, we see that the wrath of God has been meted out against human sin, guilt and alienation. Sin was literally put to death there. And it is of paramount importance to see that Christ assumed our broken, diseased humanity, turned it back to God and took on himself the judgment against our sin and guilt. As a result, we have been rescued from our sin, while our sin is condemned and sent away. The punishment due sin was (note the past tense) endured on the cross and does not take place in hell.

Systematic theologian Colin Gunton uses an interesting analogy to understand the love of God on the cross. He equates it to the cosmos suffering from cancer and Jesus taking all of that cancer into his being to heal it. His point is this: at the cross we see both God’s judgment against evil and God’s love for sinners. Since God loves sinners, our understanding of hell must account for both the judgment and the love of God that takes place at the cross.

A person who rejects God’s love is not going to enjoy heaven, and God is not going to force them to be part of the heavenly celebration. Even if he did, they would not enjoy it or experience its benefits. Instead, he permits those who repudiate his mercy to follow their own direction—one decisively shaped by their rejection of God’s love and their perpetual choosing of evil. They cannot see love and mercy as a good choice since they insist on having their own way, saving their pride, no matter what the consequences. Hell is therefore created by those who eternally resist God’s love—it is for those who will not and thus cannot be in the presence of God’s holy love. C.S. Lewis describes this understanding well in his novella, The Great Divorce:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose to be there. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

When we talk about the glories of heaven compared to the agonies of hell, we should bear in mind that we really cannot conceive the reality of either. It is, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard and what no mind has conceived. The best way to contrast heaven and hell is the way C.S. Lewis described it:

And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies, and itchings that it [hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good.

We’ve all experienced loneliness in feeling separate from God and we’ve all experienced joy in understand that we are loved, forgiven, adopted and included by God in the love and life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. One simply cannot compare one experience with the other.

Here is a final thought to bear in mind when we think of hell as the culmination of judgment: Not only should we see that hell is related to the love of God, but that heaven is also part of the judgment of God. Those who turn to Christ are overjoyed and overwhelmed in realizing that Jesus is the real Judge, a judge who died for the people he judges. “The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Jesus, our Judge, has paid the penalty for the sin of all. Being in heaven means being in fellowship and communion with the Judge who saves by means of his judgment.

The one who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and the wicked, is the one who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ already has taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. Therefore judgment should signal a time of joy for everyone, as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where evil is banished forever and nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity. Those who want to live with Christ in that goodness will be able to; those who do not want to will not be forced to.

Our hope is in God who sent his Son who ministered to the cosmos through the Spirit to make hell a smaller, rather than a larger place. The real answer to my seatmate’s question is this: Only God knows how big hell will be. And he has done everything he can to make it as small as possible. Given who God is in Jesus Christ, there is no good reason for anyone to go to hell—only the foolish “reason” of repudiating God’s love and forgiveness in order to keep one’s pride.

Trusting Jesus,
Joseph Tkach

Festival in Spain

150 GCI members, family and friends from 12 countries gathered recently in Majorca, Spain, for a worship festival with the theme, A Celebration of God’s Love and Grace in Jesus Christ. The messages were Christ-centered and practical. Members gave personal testimonies about what God is doing in their lives and churches. Festival activities included tours of Bellver Castle, Palma city’s historical quarters, an olive-wood craft factory and a pearls factory. The group also enjoyed a talent show where a good number of members performed followed by a family dance. Some hotel clients and personnel attended some of the services and the talent show. The bonds of love experienced by the group were enhanced by all staying in the same hotel.

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GCI youth camps

Youth camps are a vital way that GCI participates with Jesus in advancing the Father’s mission to the world. Below are reports from some recent camps, beginning with a video in which GCI pastor Mike Swagerty appeals to other pastors to get involved in camp ministry.

On YouTube at http://youtu.be/kr7_BDXJ9f8.

 YEP camp, Ghana 

GCI Ghana conducted its first YEP (Youth Education Program) camp in August. Eight youths came from the community, bringing the total number of campers to 21. Activities included Bible study, Christian living, morning devotions, soccer, initiative training, music appreciation (see picture below left), computer appreciation, swimming, softball, hiking, camp services and kitchen services.

Ghana music appreciation classGhana initiative training clasGhana bible study

Camp Oasis, Tennessee (report from camp leader Carrie Smith)

This year the camp was changed to a day camp designed to connect with children residing in a nearby housing complex. The kids participated eagerly in the many activities, with most staying all day. We were blessed to partner with a local organization called The Learning Center and to have assistance from Wane Creager who has conducted a similar day camp for several years in Cincinnati. During the camp we shared the gospel a couple times with the kids. Each child went home with a water bottle, which had our church name, address and time of service and an invitation to join us for our potluck and service the next day. Though we didn’t see any of the kids or their families the next day, we have their contact information and will follow up as we continue developing a relationship with them. We plan to conduct similar camps in the future. We are excited to see where God leads! For pictures of the camp, go to https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.713317982085845&type=1.

SEP So Cal (report from camp directors Mark and Anne Stapleton)

SoCalThis summer, we celebrated SEP So Cal’s 13th year of operation. God has done amazing things. We’ve seen campers come in as atheists and leave knowing that God loves them. We’ve seen young staffers pick up the mantle of leadership and soar. We’ve seen grandparents use their maturity, wisdom and life experience to encourage campers and staff. This year we had 162 campers, 90 staffers and 4 guests–it was a multi-generational and multi-ethnic group. 44% of the campers were first-timers with most receiving financial assistance.

Our “Hero” curriculum was provided by Generations Ministries. It was both fun and powerful—we used capes, masks, stories, analogies, movies and scriptures to talk about everyday heroes and to reveal the true Super Hero, Jesus Christ.

Once again we conducted a Knights & Daughters of the King purity session. This year it coincided with our 25th wedding anniversary, so we decided to renew our vows at the end of the session (see picture at right) as a vivid picture of the coming wedding banquet of Jesus with his bride, the church. At the end of the session, each participant received a hand-crafted ring to show God’s invitation and inclusion into a love relationship with himself.

This year was our fourth time to provide ministry equipping tracks for older campers. Participants spent two hours on each of five days learning new skills, discovering a lot about themselves, making friends with others who enjoy the same interests and meeting instructors who will become mentors. The ministry tracks included audio/visual tech, counselor training, dance ministry, discover your strengths, drama ministry, photography, public speaking and worship ministry.

The Rock, North Carolina (report from camp director Dennis Elliott)

God provided a spectacular new location for us this year. We had 77 campers, 9 mini campers and 43 staff. Our theme was Truth Is…. We discussed how God (who is Truth) defines truth (instead of it being defined by feelings or cultural norms). We talked about how Truth is the forever Incarnate Son of God, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We talked about how Truth is unchanging—despite changes around us, God’s love, passion and existence are unchanging. We then applied this understanding of Truth to everyday life, noting that the Truth remains when the lights go out. We then acted out difficult life-situations many kids experience then discussed how the Truth is still with us when life gets tough. And then we talked about how the Truth is worth sharing with others.

Camp activities included paintball, dodgeball, 9-square, blacksmithing, arts and crafts, and zip lines. We also had a dance, a hostage rescue night (campers rescuing counselors in the dark, dodging staffers with flashlights), a talent show, a banquet and the Night of the Spear (where male and female campers were given challenges related to the analogy of a spear). There was amazing willingness on the part of campers and staffers to share their joys, sufferings and struggles. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully to strengthen relationships and promote healing. Here is a short video showing this year’s The Rock camp:

On YouTube at http://youtu.be/F_VgaXUDEyI.

SEP Tahoe, Northern California (report from camp director Susan McKie)

Last August a team of members from several GCI congregations in Northern California started a brand-spanking-new youth camp at Lake Tahoe. It seems that God had been setting the stage for a while. He brought pastor Mel Dahlgren and me together at Converge West in 2013 to set his plan in motion. A team formed, and plans to find the perfect spot were laid out. After a lot of searching and praying, the idea of Lake Tahoe surfaced and everything seemed to fall into place. We found a breathtaking location on the shores of Lake Tahoe at an affordable cost. The accommodations at this 4-H camp were exactly what we needed. So I arranged for our newly formed team to visit for a weekend last October to check out the facilities and brainstorm. To my amazement, 28 people signed up to pay their own way, drive several hours and give up an entire weekend to help make this new SEP camp a reality. Truly a God-inspired commitment! Over the winter, the team met monthly to fine-tune plans. We then rolled out registration, utilizing new software (with help from Pam Morgan at GCI’s home office). We were ready to open our doors to campers and staff!

SEP Tahoe had the huge blessing of having Mark and Anne Stapleton as our first guest speakers. We chose GenMin’s Rooted curriculum for our first camp. It meshed perfectly with our SEP Tahoe theme: “How High, How Deep” (based on Ephesians 3:16-19), reflecting the great depth of Lake Tahoe and the great height of the surrounding mountains. The kids loved it.

In addition to the usual activities such as basketball and archery we had zany games, capture the flag, an obstacle course, Bunco, a carnival, canoes, kayaks, paddle boats and inner tubes and a speed boat to pull kids on tubes and skis. We also had line-dancing one night—many said it was their favorite activity.

The work God did during this first camp was amazing. A first-time camper told me she could feel the Spirit of God. What a privilege to have 50% of our staff experience camp for the first time! One told me that both of her first-time camper children were greatly impacted and she herself was different as a result. Here is a short video showing this year’s SEP Tahoe camp:

On YouTube at http://youtu.be/ddpJu9zEWq0.

Updates from Thailand and the Philippines

Here is a link to a report on a GCI retreat in Thailand that ended with several baptisms:

Here are links to reports on recent GCI festivals held in the Philippines:

Ideas for community outreach

In the video below, GCI pastoral resident Carrie Smith shares with a GCI 2014 regional conference audience what she has learned about community outreach. To learn more about Carrie and her journey as a GCI intern and pastoral resident, see the article linked at left under “Up Close and Personal.”

On YouTube at http://youtu.be/KVd-9Sc3psM.

Carrie Smith

Carrie SmithCarrie Smith, who serves as a pastoral resident in GCI’s congregation in Clarksville, Tennessee, is a self-proclaimed “camp-a-holic.” “I’ve had the opportunity to see God’s love poured out in exciting ways at various summer camps around the world. Though I know God works everywhere and all the time, there is something special that happens at camp and getting to witness the personal, intimate ways in which God calls to his children through summer camps has been a precious blessing in my life. To be able to participate in God’s movement towards his children is incredible.”

Carrie grew up in GCI. “My parents, Tom and Pam Smith, have been members most of their lives, and my dad has been a pastor since I was born.” Even though they were transferred a couple times, Carrie said the family somehow managed to stay in Washington, Pennsylvania for 17 years. “I cherish the memories of growing up in one neighborhood.” Carrie earned a master’s degree in counseling and at one time considered teaching.

A couple of years ago, Carrie had the opportunity to teach in Africa at GCI’s primary school in Malawi. Around that time she began looking at career options. “I came to a point in 2011 where I really was wide open as to what I could/would do next in my life. I earnestly began seeking God’s direction for where he wanted me to go and what he wanted me to do. What I didn’t realize until later, was that God had already been nudging me towards the GCI Intern Program through various people since at least 2008, when I first heard about it from Greg Williams (associate director of CAD) and Anthony Mullins (national coordinator of GenMin). I remember my initial excitement was not for me personally, but simply excitement that GCI would have a program to develop leaders and pastors.

A couple years later, my dad first asked me if I had ever thought about being a pastor, leading me down a path I hadn’t considered before. As I thought about this possibility, and asked for input from those around me, the idea began to develop roots. Anthony helped bring my thoughts and wonderings to the surface in early 2011 when he asked me if I had ever considered joining the GCI Intern Program. That is when I knew God was answering my prayers and showing me the next steps in my journey with him.”

Carrie’s willingness to move and go where God leads her opened an opportunity for her to intern in Southern California with Mark and Anne Stapleton. “My internship with them began in April 2012, in San Diego. My experience with Cornerstone Community Church and my previous background in education and counseling allowed me to grow and blossom into more of who God made me to be.”

After almost a year in California, a new opportunity arose for Carrie in Kentucky. “I had the opportunity to interview with the pastoral care team in Pikeville in January 2013, though it was more like a divine appointment than an interview. By the end of the weekend, there was no question that I was being called there and so I said tearful goodbyes to my Cornerstone family and moved in March.” It was in Pikeville that Carrie’s status changed from intern to part-time pastoral resident. Nine months later, she interviewed with the Clarksville, Tennessee, pastoral care team for a full-time pastoral resident position. She is now serving in that capacity there, focusing on community outreach.

When asked about the strengths of her intern experience, Carrie said, “I got 2-for-1 and then some in California! Being able to work with both Mark and Anne was fantastic because they were like an open book. They invited me into their home (literally) and got right into looking at how best to help me learn and grow. I ended up living with Cornerstone members George and Marguerite Casey. I was surrounded by a community of people ready and willing to support me, grow with me and encourage me.”

The intern program also had some challenges. “I was far from home. As much as I appreciate technology, there were times when being away from my family was harder than I expected. I went to college, then worked at two colleges about an hour from home, so getting together with family had been easy for many years.” Another challenge was “learning to build meaningful relationships with members in your congregation and the community, even though you know your time is temporary. I realized that even when you wholeheartedly embrace a relationship with someone, time is still a factor in the development of the relationship, and that’s okay.”

Though Carrie is thankful for her intern training, she is enjoying her full-time employment as a pastoral resident. What she enjoys most is “connecting with the members and getting to know them. As I hear their stories and see how God has led them through the years, I am encouraged and grateful for this time in life where our paths are joined. I also enjoy learning alongside fellow pastoral residents and other church leaders. As we learn together, we share together, and we encourage one another. It’s a blessing to be connected in Spirit even when there are miles between us.” This ties in with Carrie’s passion, which is “helping others see and understand who they are to God. Helping them experience God’s love regardless of their circumstances, heartaches, or hang-ups.”

What Carrie enjoys most about being part of GCI is that we are a family. “We grow together, we learn together and we embrace one another through the love of God. I rejoice when I am with my brothers and sisters at various events, whether I have known them for years or we just recently met.”

Though she has been in the Intern Program and then served as a pastoral resident for only a couple of years, Carrie already has many fond memories. “Each connection with someone is special. Whether through late night chats, making sauerkraut, eating frozen yogurt, or drinking coffee, I cherish the moments of sharing ideas, dreams, stories and life.”

Carrie says she feels closest to God “when I am in tune with his movement—speaking his words of love, life and grace into someone’s life, or receiving those words from someone into my life.”

We asked Carrie what advice she would give to someone considering the GCI Intern Program: “Be honest with yourself about your fears, worries, doubts and uncertainties. God’s got you covered and has so much to give to you that holding on to any of those things means your hands won’t be fully open to what he has to give you. Let God mold you, bend you and continue to refine you into the beautiful vessel of his love he has created you to be.”

For a video with Carrie discussing her community outreach experience, click on the link under “Church Development,” above, left.