John 5:18-29 (ESV) This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Jesus, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment."
The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Trinity is Luke 16:19-31, the account of the unnamed rich man and Lazarus. While at death, Lazarus goes to “Abraham’s side,” the rich man goes to “Hades” (ᾅδης), translated as “hell” by the King James Version. Given that Jesus describes it as “a place of torments,” no matter how you translate it, you don’t want to go there!
Since eternal damnation is a misunderstood topic—and one that we have an aversion to, since it is unpleasant to think about—I am going to focus this week’s devotions on the topic of hell (and its alternative, heaven!). The first (and most pressing) question is, “Why does a person go to one or the other?”
On Holy Trinity Sunday, we confessed the Athanasian Creed, which says near its conclusion, “At [Christ’s] coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”
The “done good” language strikes Lutheran ears as potentially dangerous or misleading, since we are always at pains to exclude good works from salvation, rightly rejecting “works-righteousness” and emphasizing that we are justified and saved only for the sake of Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 1:30). However, we cannot dodge the fact that Jesus Himself says that “those who have done good” enter the “resurrection of life” (John 5:29).
It is worth noting that the New Testament speaks of “good works” more than 20 times, all of them in a very positive sense! In no place does it suggest that a human “good work” contributes to salvation; rather, good works are fruits of faith, consequences of our justification: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
In fact, when St. Paul specifically excludes works from the equation of justification, he doesn’t use the word “good”: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 8:28). Since the Law of God involves not only the requirement to do good works but also the prohibition against evil deeds, what St. Paul is driving home is that the Law is powerless to justify, no matter what we do: “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:21-22).
Still, what are we to make of the “done good” language of the Athanasian Creed and of Jesus in John 5:29? While Lutherans tend to emphasize faith in order to exclude works-righteousness, Jesus is perfectly comfortable pointing to good works as the fruit (proof) that faith is living: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit… Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 7:17; 12:33). St. John also tends to follow this pattern as well: “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 John 11). In other words, “to do good” is synonymous with the entire life of the believer; “to do evil” is shorthand for the entire life of the unbeliever.
Context also is always key: before speaking of those who have “done good,” Jesus had just said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Not to mention that John 5 comes after John 3, where Jesus has already said: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:16-21).
Prayer: O Lord, Father of all mercy and God of all comfort, You always go before and follow after us. Grant that we may rejoice in Your gracious presence and continually be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.