The Uncle Bob problem

Recently, I had a Christian in passing conversation refer to a relative who was living in active sin. The person said to me that the sinning relative believed in Jesus so should be okay.

“As far as I understand it, if you take Jesus Christ as your savior, you will go to heaven,” this person said.

Most of this was an exercise in easing the Christian’s own anxieties about the fate of the relative, and it was literally a conversation in passing, so I did not respond very deeply or well in the moment.

But the brief exchange has stuck with me. I’m wrestling with how to best re-engage that person. And I find myself wondering how many other people have this view — despite all the preaching that gets done.

The fear that a person we love might be damned to hell is powerful. It is the question I hear Christians wrestle with most often — even more than they wrestle with their own salvation. And the pressure to not face the threat of hell for a child or spouse or parent is powerful. I would venture to say the most common response is to conclude that since we cannot contemplate the damnation of the person we love or a person who has already died, it must not be an option. Surely, God forgives. Surely, at the last second, Uncle Bob repented.

I understand these thoughts. And as a pastor, I am the first to say that I don’t know what the Lord has decided in the case of those who have already died. We all stand before the Lord on the day of resurrection. It is not for me to know or say what Jesus will judge in the case of others.

And yet, I worry about the Uncle Bob theology that spares us the heartache of contemplating hell for those we love. I worry because it does not just slide into antinomianism, it is antinomianism. It discounts what Jesus Christ and the apostles taught regarding holy living and the narrow way of salvation.

All these leads me to wonder how powerful spiritual denial is in our theology. To explain, let me compare it to medicine. We all know people who engage in willful denial about their own health problems. They can be in pain or suffering, but if you suggest they change their ways or go see a doctor, suddenly they tell you that it is not a big deal or that they are really okay. The problem with this, of course, is that cancer and heart disease don’t go away just because we don’t want them to be there.

In spiritual matters, we find it even easier to engage in denial because the consequences of our spiritual maladies are easily ignored. When sin brings trouble and strife to our life, we blame these present fruits of our sin on other factors — mean people, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstanding parents, etc. As for the future fruits of our sin, we deny they exist or talk ourselves into a theory that “God loves us” and “Love wins,” so we don’t have to worry about that.

This is all comforting, but, if the Bible is to be trusted at all, it is fatal.

I am at a loss when it comes to dealing with this fatal disease among our people. Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear!” We seem to be pretty good at stuffing spiritual ear plugs into our heads.

But the problem seems real to me.


7 thoughts on “The Uncle Bob problem

  1. Recently, my sister’s step-daughter died in a one-car accident. She’d been a drug addict for 25 years, despite multiple stays in both jail and rehab facilities. She birthed and gave up two children. She was homeless when she had the accident–having “borrowed” a car at 3 am in the morning to get her drugs resupplied. My sister said, “Well, we know she accepted Jesus as savior so she is going to heaven.” Now, I actually think that the doors of grace have remained opened to her but not because she “accepted Jesus” or “prayed the right prayer” but because that is the nature of God who desires that none should perish. I read what you have written here and assume that you think this poor lost woman is now facing eternal conscious torment, as if she had not already had a lifetime of it. Our theology is problematic indeed.

    1. Why, Christy, do you assume that. I believe I state explicitly that I don’t know her fate any more than you do.

      1. Because of this statement: “And yet, I worry about the Uncle Bob theology that spares us the heartache of contemplating hell for those we love. I worry because it does not just slide into antinomianism, it is antinomianism. It discounts what Jesus Christ and the apostles taught regarding holy living and the narrow way of salvation.” I read it as affirming the lostness of the Uncle Bob’s in our lives–in no way do their lives conform to anything looking like the narrow way of salvation. Would be glad to have misread this statement.

        1. I believe in hell. I believe people will end up there. I do not presume to say I know how Jesus will judge your sister’s step-daughter. But I worry that our reluctance to say she may end up there keeps us from hearing what Jesus appears to be saying. You and I may end up there as well, of course. As might Uncle Bob. Thanks be to God, that is not inevitable. But it is possible.

          My objection was your assumption that I think I can say with certainty what had happened in a particular case. I would not presume to stand in the place of Christ. I do try to follow what he teaches, though, including those parts about the way being narrow and so on.

  2. I’m a little late to this party because I’m on the Bourbon Trail aboard the American Queen on the lower Ohio, but I saw this post and had to comment on the (very real) sense of frustration and doom we feel for the rascals in our families, coupled with reserve on our part regarding their ultimate fate (and our own). The wheat and the tares are mingled fatefully together in our families. We must leave the sorting to the angels…but there will come unanticipated occasions when one of these rascals asks a question that proves to be an opener. So John’s post got me to thinking about that fugitive brother-in-law of mine. He has ditched cell phone and credit cards because he’s on the run, but we pray for him (as we do for ourselves) every day without fail. Until he’s “found” and grasped out his condition, my brother-in-law is as good as dead

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