The Emphasis is the Real Message

What is stated is often not the message being sent by what is stated.

At a retreat I recently attended the core of the speaker’s message over several days, to both Christians and presumed non-Christians, was, “God loves you unconditionally. God does not change; God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is no scar, sin, or shame too great for you to lose the love of God. God loves you regardless of who you are and what you have done. God’s love does not change.”

At one point the speaker pointed out that Millennials and Gen Zs believe in heaven, but not in hell.¹ He lamented this belief and said that it was a lie straight from the pit of hell. He wondered aloud why they would believe in heaven and its joy, but not hell and its suffering.

And then he went back to the core of his message. “God loves you unconditionally. God does not change; God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is no scar, sin, or shame too great for you to lose the love of God. God loves you regardless of who you are and what you have done. God’s love does not change.”

The core message being sent (God’s unconditional, unchanging love for all) contradicts what the messenger explicitly affirms (reality of hell). This is not an issue of divine justice and righteousness, but how the speaker communicates his message. His message is that God’s love is the same for the Christian/elect and non-Christian/reprobate alike, and that it is not dependent upon our condition, and does not change. But being sent to hell is not a loving act, so a listener must chose to believe that either a) If you are sent to hell, that God never loved you, which contradicts the core of the speaker’s message, or b)If you are sent to hell, that God’s love changed or was dependent upon your actions, which contradicts the core of the speaker’s message, or c) That hell is not real, which does not contradict the core of the speaker’s message.

My point is not to discuss the validity of the speaker’s message but to answer his question about why those generations would reject hell: because that is what he, and speakers like him, have taught. They may explicitly affirm its existence, but their core message could not leave it standing.

This experience was illustrative of the truth that the message being sent is not just what is being said, but what is being emphasized, prioritized, and what the regularly rhythms and habits of a community are. In fact, some affirmations (the existence of hell) are lost in the midst of the core emphasis (God’s unconditional, unchanging love for all) to the extent that it does not matter whether or not they are made.

This is why intentional theological and ecclesial liturgy is so critical.

¹While it is true that more Americans (roughly 80%) believe in heaven than believe in hell (roughly 67%), the rate is not different for those generations compared to older cohorts.