'Cushioned Pews, No Hell'

THAT was written on the sign outside a church. I always smiled when I saw it, thinking how inviting those words would be to some people. What more could they want-a comfortable seat and the assurance that we aren't going to be scared into worshiping God!

Many people struggle over what hell is. What about Christian Science? Does it teach that there is a hell? Well, it accepts the Bible teaching that God is Love, and on this basis teaches that God doesn't send anyone to a place of eternal damnation. But no Christian can read the words of Jesus Christ without encountering his warnings of hell. St. Matthew says Jesus once told his followers, ''If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell'' (5:30).

What was Jesus warning against? Certainly he was telling people not to hold on to sinful ways but to get rid of them before they overwhelm one's whole being. The person who holds to wrongdoing of some kind is at the same time experiencing some measure of hell. As long as we hold on to sin, we suffer its effects.

I saw this once when I was busy envying the possessions of my neighbors. Our family rented a small apartment in a nice neighborhood. Every time I walked to town I would pass scores of beautiful large houses that other people owned. I found myself mad at neighbors I hadn't even met, for doing nothing more than enjoying their homes!

I knew this kind of thinking was not Christian. One of the Ten Commandments says, ''Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house . . .'' (Exodus 20:17). But as long as I held on to envy, I suffered. It was time to ''cut off my right hand''-to give up the sin I'd been holding on to.

I began to discipline myself to love my neighbors. Instead of envying them, I practiced being grateful that they had such nice houses. I thanked God that He cared for all of His children, and that this was shown to me in the way that He was caring for my neighbors. As I let go of coveting, I got out of that hell. Soon we found a large house we could afford to rent, just blocks away. It was just right for our family.

God never sent me to hell. But the sin of envying had kept me in a suffering state of thought. Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer of Christian Science, wrote, ''I am asked, 'Is there a hell?' Yes, there is a hell for all who persist in breaking the Golden Rule or in disobeying the commandments of God.'' This statement, which describes what I learned, is from The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany (p. 160).

Following the Bible, no one needs to go through hell. This is really the Christian's comfort and joy. Those who truly follow what Jesus taught have no desire to think hellish thoughts-to hold on to sin and its effects. When you suffer, or see others suffer, you can rejoice to know that there is a road to freedom. This freedom doesn't come from a rote acceptance of doctrine. But doesn't it make sense that, if dwelling in sin holds us in hell, turning toward heavenly-mindedness would free us?

Hell isn't some far-off place that we don't experience until after death; heaven isn't some beautiful place that we don't get to enjoy until after death either. Striving to live in the way Jesus did, letting God govern our actions and thoughts, is the opposite of being sinful. Jesus was constantly telling his disciples that heaven was much closer than they expected. ''The kingdom of heaven is at hand'' he told them, according to Matthew (4:17). The happiness that we identify as heavenly is as close as our thoughts-it's right here. And it's possible for all of us to turn away from sin and find that heaven.

My example is just one; there are other hells people face that might seem more threatening. But many other people have found freedom from hell through prayer. Those who have been healed of addictions, of immoral behavior, of hatred, and of sickness, have felt more and more that the kingdom of heaven is within each and every one of us. What does that mean for hell? That it's becoming less and less real to them, every day.

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