We need to stop defining sin as the thing that will lead people to burn in flames for eternity. Who can ever think they'll be so bad as to wind up with that as their destiny? Since many people can't accept that they're bad enough to burn in hell forever, they simply decide there is no such thing as sin or hell, like I did for many years.
What, actually, is sin and hell? Sin is what separates us from God. Hell is the separation. Both are a choice we freely make. We are the ones who choose to commit the sin and live in the separation.
You or someone you know might say, (as I did for many years) "I haven't chosen to separate myself from God!" (Meaning, "I'm not a sinner!") Well, let's look at that. Have you ever lied? Have you ever said something about someone that wasn’t true...or exaggerated the truth about someone so as to make it a false account? Have you ever repeated gossip? Have you ever secretly held a grievance against someone, and instead of going to that person and discussing it, you told your sister, co-workers, husband and the whole neighborhood? Have you ever hated someone? Have you ever lusted after someone, even secretly so that nobody ever knew? Have you or are you disobeying your parents or another authority figure out of stubbornness and pride? Have you ever physically or emotionally hurt someone with your words or hands? Have you ever cheated...on a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, tax form, expense account? Have you ever taken advantage of someone's weakness for your own gain? Have you ever knowingly exited the grocery store with an item that the clerk failed to scan? Have you dug up perennials from national parks and other public lands and planted them in your garden? Have you looked at porn on the computer? Have you gotten into an email relationship on the computer behind your spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend's back? Have you ever not accepted someone's apology or forgiven them? Have you lied to your spouse or boss about a money matter to protect yourself in a wrong transaction, or to cover up over-spending? Have you ever shopped on EBay or played computer games while at work, on the company's time and dime? Are you addicted to drugs or alcohol? Do you binge eat or drink? The list goes on and on. This is all sin. It's what separates us from God in this life and from God in the next. Everyone will live in eternity. It's just that some will live with God in heaven and others will live separate from Him, in the place of eternal separation: hell. We choose. It's up to us to decide.
If you've read this far, I hope you're seeing that none of us is worthy on our own to stand before God. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). So do we throw in the towel and give up? No. We look to the Savior, Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty in full for our sin when He died on the Cross for you and for me and for all people. Just as we can freely choose to stay separated from God, we can also choose to be reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ. It's up to us to decide.
We mustn't let the devil-with-a-pitchfork picture of hell blind us to what sin and separation from God really is. It's easy to create a false sense of security by telling ourselves that hell is reserved for the baddest of the bad, and not for us. But picture, for a moment, hell without flames, and without the little red ghoul and hot coals. Picture it instead as a frustrating, lonely, dysfunctional, non-progressing place where you strive and strive and strive and get nowhere. Maybe that vision of hell looks a bit like life. If that kind of life is possible here and now, why won't it be possible in eternity?
Many people live separated from God. Many of them even attend church, like I did. They're Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC'ers, Dutch Reformed, Catholic and on and on--but they continue to live separated from God because they haven't personally and intentionally allowed Christ into their life. Some people think they're Christian because they live in a "Christian" nation or because it was handed down generation to generation. Others believe that because they worship nature, they worship God. Others are experts in Biblical Studies and teach at Christian seminaries but have only head knowledge: they haven't made the 12 inch connection from their head to their heart (thanks, Pastor Steve, for that illustration). They are still God of their lives. They live without ever having made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to live according to His ways.
In John 3:3-21, Jesus talks to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Today Nicodemus, in spite of his own high status of teacher, would be considered a ”seeker,” as he comes to Jesus under cover of night to get some answers. Here is their conversation:
Jesus says, “’I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’
'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'
Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.'
'How can this be?' Nicodemus asked.
'You are Israel's teacher,' said Jesus, 'and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven--the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.'"
Condemned. That's a pretty heavy word, and it sounds like we're being punished. But if you read the above verses closely, you see that the condemnation is of our own choosing: we are the ones who punish ourselves by choosing to ignore Jesus and the light He brings us into and instead choose the darkness of separation from God. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that it is God's desire that none shall perish. Yet though He calls, many ignore. Though He calls, many reject. Though He calls, many choose to remain separated from Him.