“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:18-19
Someone recently asked me what hell is like and if I believed that hell was an physical location where the damned souls would burn for an eternity of misery and suffering. I told them that I don’t know what hell is going to be like and that, like a friend once told me, I am not a fan of being a fan of hell. Of course, the other side of that theological coin is the question of heaven and all that entails. Again, I don’t know what heaven is going to be like. Sometimes we get so focused on the afterlife and eternity that we forget to pay attention to the life right in front of us.
Recently, traveled with the group of amazing musicians and artists of Timothy’s Gift as they brought hope, love and joy to the inmates and staff of eleven prisons in Florida. Having never been to any type of prison facility, I was a bit anxious to visit. Yet, it became one of the greatest experiences of my life. I don’t know what hell will be like in the afterlife, but I am sure that a maximum security state penitentiary is hell on earth. Especially if you have multiple life sentences and no chance of parole. To be confined to the same buildings, crappy food, daily routine, clothing and judgement every day for the rest of your life is hell. It is not being able to see your family at holidays, birthdays or summer barbecues. Ever. It is the lonely existence of a prisoner that is hell on earth. It is in this man made hell where murderers, rapists, thieves, abusers, liars and molesters must spend the rest of their earthly lives.
As we entered the first prison facility on that early Monday morning, I felt as though we were entering the gates of hell. It was a complex designed to keep the worst of society away from the best of society. It was a fortress of sin, despair and judgement. I felt so out of place and not even sure what I was doing there, or really what any of us were doing there. Melissa Greene, the “Hope Curator” for Timothy’s Gift and main presenter said it perfect during her message; “I have not walked a step in your shoes, never walked the yard, never slept on the same bed, never stared at the same four walls as you. What could we possibly bring you or say to you?” I echo those same comments. I have no idea what it is like be a prisoner or to face intense security every waking and sleeping moment of my life. What could we possibly give them? What could we possibly say or do for them? We were in hell, there seemed to be no hope or joy.
Then it happened. We brought the message of heaven with us. Of course! How could I be so naive? We brought with us the message of hope and love and dignity to the inmates. We didn’t bring Jesus because he was already there. We simply reminded them of this great truth and opened up the glory of heaven. It seemed so simple after the first visit. All we needed to do was to tell the inmates that they were loved. We simply needed to tell them that Jesus stood for them and remembered them. They are not forgotten because Christ is already there.
The gates of hell cannot withstand the Church. The gates of hell cannot withstand God’s people loving each other. The gates of hell cannot keep out hope or joy or love. The Church, the actual people of God, can break down the gates of hell with the message of hope and love. This is the message of heaven: you are the beloved of God and nothing you do can keep God from loving you as one of his children.
While I don’t know what heaven and hell will be like in the afterlife, I do know what it looks like here on earth. Hell are those places of prison, those places of suffering, those places of hurt and those places of darkness where no hope can be found. Heaven is when the people of God put aside their difference in theology and love each other. Heaven is when we love those that society has cast to the side. Heaven is when we love those who are forgotten and feel unloved. That is heaven and that is a force that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. So go. Go to hell and bring heaven with you.
For more information about Timothy’s Gift and to hear the story behind this amazing ministry, click here.