No, this isn’t about George Strait. (Some of you won’t get that joke, but it’s irrelevant.) This is about something deeper, and if you read through to the end, I expect you’ll be surprised at least once.
Imagine you’re offered a suite in an expensive mansion. The owner gives you everything you need and shows you how to use the furnace and the fireplace. But once the suite has been entrusted to your care, you ignore his safety rules and set the house on fire. Everything you do to put it out just makes it worse. The exit is blocked, and you’re four stories up. In a few minutes, you’ll be dead. But just when all hope seems lost, a fireman smashes one of the windows and calls out, “This way! I’ve got a ladder!”
You may already know the basic premise of this analogy, but there’s more than meets the eye. (No, it’s not about the Autobots. Some of you won’t get that joke either, but it doesn’t matter.)
God is our landlord. He gives each of us our own “suite”: life. (No, this isn’t about Zack and Cody, but you’ll probably miss that joke too.) Whether or not we appreciate the one we’ve been given is another story; for whatever reason, some of us get stuck with a crummy suite. But it’s the same story for everyone: we ignore the rules (and our own good sense) to burn the place down. Our recklessness – our sin – ignites the flame that eventually consumes us. It doesn’t do any good to blame the landlord; we knew better than to play with fire, but we did it anyway.
Yet even when the flames surround us, Jesus Christ – our fireman – offers an escape. He calls to us through the smoke; we need only respond. If we’re trapped, he comes to us. He climbs into the room; rushes through the smoke and debris; kicks down the door; throws himself on the fire; carries us to the ladder in flames; and deposits us safely outside as he burns to death in our place.
But many would rather die in the fire than be saved. When he comes for them, they rush further into the burning suite; and the more he tries, the further they go. He pleads and pursues, but they resist his help. Their rejection doesn’t only make salvation more difficult; it makes their final end worse. They might only have died from smoke inhalation, but they’re so desperate to escape the fireman – instead of the fire – that they plunge headlong into the flames until their flesh melts from their bones.
The question is: why?
Some like the thrill of the fire. They don’t want to miss out on the chance to see it up close… and what a story they’ll have if they do! Of course, they’ll have no story at all if they die; but they wait too long to figure that out.
Some take offense at being told they need rescued. They deny that they even started a fire. Simply by warning them, the fireman insults their pride. They would rather make their own decisions and burn to death than do as he instructs.
Others would prefer a more open-minded fireman or some other escape route that perhaps they could take credit for. What gives this fireman the right to insist they have to climb his ladder? Never mind that it’s the only way; he has no right to tell them so!
Still others prefer the advice of so-called “firemen” on the ground: “Try climbing down the wall!” “Jump and I’ll catch you!” “Think happy thoughts and you can fly!” (I’m not sure if that’s Peter Pan or Joel Osteen. Same difference.) Many insist on survival by other means. “Put out the fire!” “Wait in the bathtub!” “You can use the door if you run fast!” It might be better than nothing, but it won’t help. And it’s nonsense once you know about the fireman’s ladder.
In every case, the cause of death is their own. If someone asks the fireman, “How did they die?” he could answer “They set the house on fire” or “They wouldn’t let me save them.” Both are correct, but neither are his fault.
There’s a misunderstanding (among Christians and non-Christians) that God sends people to hell for not believing in Jesus, that Heaven is for “Christians only” and everyone else can – quite literally – go to hell. This leads many professing Christians to become arrogant and many non-believers to reject what sounds like arbitrary injustice. It’s true that Scripture teaches the exclusivity of salvation, but the reasons have been horribly misconstrued. Hell is not punishment for simply rejecting Jesus; it’s a punishment we bring on ourselves through sin. The fireman doesn’t demand loyalty before saving you; he offers your only means of escape from the consequences of your own actions.
Of course, many take issue with the fire itself. Surely their sins aren’t that bad; hell is for rapists and murderers, not regular people who tell a fib. They think of some sin like “sparks” instead of flames. It shouldn’t destroy the suite; maybe it could burn us a little just to teach a lesson. But this misses the entire point. God doesn’t burn the suite down to teach us a lesson. We burn the suite down ourselves, no matter how small the sin. “One spark starts a fire.” (That’s what the stars of Disney Channel told us in 2009, but Smokey the Bear has been saying it for decades.)
Hell is the culmination of sin. If we live for ourselves instead of God, we forfeit every good thing He’s given us. By choosing to live apart from Him now, we’ll be separated from Him forever – devoid of any light or love that we currently enjoy. In this “second death”, we’ll sink further into sin forever, blaming God and others for our actions. But we choose this punishment for ourselves; every time we refuse His grace, we get a little closer to the fire. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, there are two kinds of people: those who tell God, “Thy will be done” and those who say, “My will be done”.
There’s no point arguing that we didn’t start the fire. (Forget about Billy Joel.) All of us have sinned and fallen short, so we’re all in the same mess. We’re all given some degree of truth by which we’re held accountable. We might never hear a preacher or parent tell us it’s wrong to steal; but as the Apostle Paul said in Romans 2, we have no excuse for committing sin because we condemn the same thing in others – especially when committed against us. Our conscience tells us right from wrong: it’s written on our hearts “to accuse us or excuse us” on the day of judgment.
We try to justify our sins by measuring them against something worse, but God sets a holy standard. However small or few, any sin tips the scales against us. It isn’t true that all sin is equal, but then neither is the punishment. We’ll receive our just dues for what we do in this life (1 Cor. 5:10) – including every careless word we speak (Matt. 12:36). If you think God will punish sin unfairly, you’re mistaken; it will be in exact proportion according to what we know (Luke 12:48).
But for every sin we might commit through ignorance, there are undoubtedly more that violate our conscience, so the point is moot. We’re not endangered by what we don’t know; we’re endangered by ignoring what we do. Nobody can be wholly ignorant of their sin; they simply choose to ignore it. They might be asleep, but the suite still burns – even if they never know it’s catching fire. (And not in a good way, like Katniss.) They played with matches; they should’ve been mindful of the consequences.
You might ask, “what about those who never hear of Christ?” Many die without knowing the fireman was ever there. But this still assumes we’re punished for not being Christians. Our own sin brings the punishment; Christ is our escape. We certainly want everyone to know about him, but the only people who blame the fireman for their own demise are those who know he’s there. So don’t worry about other people’s fate; focus on your own.
It’s true that some may die who would’ve accepted his offer. (Jesus made this clear in Matthew 11:23.) But even those who don’t know about the fireman can surely see the futility in their own efforts; it only wastes time or stokes the fire, regardless of what other people tell them. Nobody can “un-commit” sin. Their only hope is to cry out. If they do, the fireman just might find them; he might even rescue some who never know he’s there.
There may be nothing wrong with trying other religions when you don’t know about the fireman. But why bother with a rain dance if someone has a ladder? Oprah might think there are many ways to God, but Jesus said otherwise. No other religion – no other fireman – will help us escape or put out the fire. It doesn’t matter how sincere we are if it provides no actual salvation; one Christian YouTuber said, “I can sincerely hate you,” but that doesn’t make it right. (Go listen to Mike Winger. He’s fantastic.) Even the 9/11 hijackers were sincere.
No one is punished for believing the wrong thing; only sin brings punishment. We might believe in some other means of escape – “jump,” “run,” “climb,” or “run a bath” might all sound rational when you’re about to die – but we have no need for any of that if we know about the fireman. It doesn’t matter what we want to believe; it matters what we should believe. We can’t escape judgment or erase our own sins. The fire will consume us unless we accept salvation.
So let’s end our story by assuming that you do. The fireman carries you to the window and hoists you onto the ladder. Just as you turn to thank him, he collapses in the fire. You’re terrified and heartbroken, but it’s too late. He did what needed to be done so that you could be saved, and now he’s swallowed up in the flames. But as the ladder begins to retract – just before you lose sight of him – he looks up, and you recognize him for who he is: your landlord.
For all the mistakes you made, the rules you broke, and the damage done, he still didn’t hesitate to save you. He ignored your disrespect for his authority and offered you a way out, even at the cost of his own life. Yet many will say, “He got what he asked for! He never should’ve given you those matches! He shouldn’t have trusted you with that suite in the first place! What kind of idiot gives someone a room so they can burn it down? And why should he get credit for dying in your place? He’s a fireman; that’s his job! You could’ve escaped without him if you’d had your own ladder!”
People go to their graves insisting that God is unfair – that the landlord shouldn’t have given us such a complicated heating system – while ignoring His own intervention on our behalf. It’s precisely because we were doomed that he came to our rescue. We’ve been entrusted with the freedom to make our own decisions and the means of knowing right from wrong; but without exception, we all blow it. And instead of leaving us there to die by our own hand, the landlord sacrifices himself so that we can live.
In the end, we can all complain about the fire we caused, but we can’t say there was no way out. Jesus Christ offers us a way; in fact, he is the way. He’s not just the fireman; he’s the ladder! He connects heaven and earth so that we can reach God. Jacob once saw that ladder in a dream (Gen. 28:12); Jesus was that ladder in the flesh (John 1:51). All we have to do is trust in Christ and climb up.