January 27, 2013

A Hellish Problem

Well, this morning as we continue our series, Reasons to Believe, we are taking on a challenge.  We’ve already confronted head-on the objections that truth can’t really be known and that the Bible is untrustworthy in terms of revealing anything about God to us.  This morning we are going to take on a challenge that is much more emotional than either of these previous two.  For many folks it is epitomized in the sermons of men of old, kind of like this one:

“…The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most venomous serpent is in ours.  You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.  It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep.  And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the morning but that God’s hand has held you up.  There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to Hell, since you have set here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship.  Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into Hell.”[1]

Makes you warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?  Why am I not preaching like this every Sunday, right?  We’d probably make the national news.  We’d get all kinds of folks coming in here to see the nut these poor folks keep paying to yell and scream at and condemn them every Sunday.  Of course I wouldn’t have much of a voice anymore, but maybe that would solve the problem.  In retrospect, then, maybe I’ll stick with what I’m already doing.  Any guesses, by the way, who first preached that sermon and what he called it?  The preacher was Jonathan Edwards—not my namesake, by the way—and the sermon was entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This sermon perhaps more than any other has come to embody the idea of fire and brimstone thought to characterize the preaching of so many of those judgmental preachers of old.  And for folks well-schooled in modern culture, it is a perfect example of why, for believers, we need to stay away from judgment and focus instead on the love and mercy of Christ, and for nonbelievers, why the church is not something of which they want any part.  Why someone would take such apparent glee in talking about a doctrine so offensive as Hell is a mystery to many today.  Many folks object to the faith on these very grounds.

Put very simply the objection words like this: How can a loving God send people to Hell?  How can a God who is described by one of His followers as essentially loving consign people to an eternity of punishment?  What’s fair about that?  In fact, I want to take a quick survey.  I’d like everyone to close their eyes so no one’s embarrassed.  Okay, I want you to raise your hand nice and high if you have ever struggled with reconciling a loving God with an eternal Hell.  Open your eyes.  And you thought you were the only one.  This isn’t an easy pill to swallow for us in part because we, like God, are primed to lean toward mercy when given a chance.  And if you’ve ever doubted God is first inclined toward mercy, just read the story of Israel and try to figure how many second chances they got along the way.    This morning I want to take some steps together in the direction of making sense out of all of this.  How can a loving God send people to Hell?  Let’s see if we can figure it out.

As has become the habit of this series, let’s start by taking a look at what we actually believe.  Our notion of Hell as a place of eternal fires and torment is rooted in several passages in the Bible.  Somewhat ironically, our ideas primarily come from Mr. Love Himself, Jesus.  Several times in the Gospels, but Matthew’s Gospel in particular, Jesus is recorded as talking about Gehenna, which is the Greek word usually translated “Hell” in the Bible.  In fact, every time you see the word “Hell” appear, with a single exception the original word was Gehenna.  And with a single exception Jesus is the only one who uses that word.  This word is itself actually a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase “Valley of Hinnom” which was an actual place on the outskirts of Jerusalem where all the waste of the city was taken and burned.  Perhaps you can imagine the smells when the wind was just wrong.  The fires were said to always be burning because there was always more fuel for them to consume.  In the minds of Jesus’ audience, using this place to describe what was waiting for those who finally opposed the kingdom left a rather poignant image.  It was much later in His ministry, as recorded in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, that Jesus first introduced the idea of eternal punishment for those opposed to the way of life of the kingdom.  Speaking of eternal punishment, in 2 Thessalonians, writing to comfort suffering believers Paul describes rather graphically the judgment on unbelievers coming with Christ upon His second return.  Let me read a bit of this for you starting at 1:6: “…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  Finally in Revelation 20—a passage we’ll come back to in a few minutes—John, when describing the final judgment writes: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  This is the second death, the lake of fire.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Forget an “Amen,” can I get a “yikes!”  As hard as it sounds the clear teaching of Scripture is that there is going to be a place for those who finally oppose the Lordship of Christ.  The title given this place by Jesus we translate “Hell.”  Whatever else characterizes this place it will be marked by torment and suffering and punishment for those who spent this life tormenting and opposing God and His people.  And it seems that this will be the state of things for these folks for all eternity.  Now, most people imagine this to be a place of never-ending fires—as indeed the Valley of Hinnom was known to have—that will burn the damned forever.  I’ll be honest: I can’t imagine a much worse fate than burning for all eternity.  What exactly is supposed to be loving about this?  How can a God described as the embodiment of love and justice send anybody to a place like this?  How can such a God be described as worth following?  Indeed, it would seem that this objection has some legs.  Let’s see if we can’t cut these off and make some sense out of what we have here.

In order to do this I want to take a look with you at three ideas, which when understood, will help clear up some confusion both in the language of the objection and in the popular imagining of Hell that is pretty thoroughly present in the church.  The first idea focuses on the language of the objection.  Part of the question there is: how a loving God can send people to Hell?  (The unmentioned second question is: how is this God worth following?)  What this does is to try and create a picture in our minds of an angry and vengeful God who in an almost tit-for-tat manner, sends people who refuse to give Him the accolades He seems to think He deserves to this place of eternal torment.  Well, when we engage this question and these assumptions at face value, we are fighting a losing battle from the start.  Indeed, a loving God wouldn’t send people to Hell like this.  A god like that really wouldn’t be worth serving.  When we engage this question as it is often asked, then, we are trying to defend something that really isn’t worth defending.  The question creates a red herring and too often we run straight for it.  The problem here is that the god imagined by this question is not the same God presented in the pages of Scripture.  Yes, the God of the Bible is described as being wrathful at sin, angry at those who have committed sin, but His anger is always perfectly measured to the situation and never gets out of control.  Now, we may not like how He reacts in some biblical stories, but perhaps the problem isn’t with His actions, but with our underestimation of the gravity of the offense to which He was responding.  Perhaps putting it like this will help: For those of you who have kids, do you remember the last time they pushed you too far?  When they pushed you to the point that you really were ready to do or say something you would have regretted?  Yeah, God never gets like that.  In our attempts to make Him seem more like us in order to be able to wrap our minds around Him we sometimes forget that.  So this image of a god angrily casting people to this awful place needs to be rejected because it’s not a biblical one.  In the end, God’s holiness will cause Him to be righteously angry at those who have finally opposed Him, but in announcing final judgments His anger will not be a fiery one, but a heart-broken one as He gives people whom He loves, whom He came to die for, the result they most desire: to be with Him or not.  Friends, if we don’t get the character of God right out of the gate, there’s no way we’ll understand doctrines about Him well.  We need to make sure that it’s us who are establishing the character of God based on the revelation of His trustworthy word, not our critics.  And this character is rooted in love and justice.  We serve a God who is above all things loving and just.

The second point relates to part of the way we think about Hell.  Most of us think of Hell as a punishment.  Well, assuming this characterization for a moment, since when does a person handing out punishments mean that person is unloving?  Good parents sometimes have to mete out wise punishments to their misbehaving children.  The other night our son threw a fit at bedtime.  As a result, we took away all of his train tracks.  Did this make us unloving parents?  Those are among his favorite toys after all (behind the cardboard boxes we have lying around the house).  I sure hope not.  “Okay,” the critic will respond, “you’ve got a point there.  But the kind of punishment involved in Hell goes way beyond the pale.  I mean, someone tells a little white lie and never repents and so they spend eternity burning?”  Our response?  You understand neither the character of God nor the gravity of sin, particularly unrepentant sin.  All sin is a rebellion against and a refusal to acknowledge who God is.  It is a refusal to acknowledge Him as Creator.  It is a refusal to acknowledge Him as King.  Now, everybody sins because we’re born with an inclination to do so.  This is called original sin and is a subject for another conversation.  Regardless of the specific nature of our sin, though, when we refuse to repent, we commit a second, deeper sin called unbelief (and yes, the Bible identifies unbelief as a sin).  In the sin of unbelief, we commit ourselves to the idea—however benignly played out (they might be “good people” as far as we reckon such a label)—that we are God and He is not.  Think about this for a second.  If someone has committed themselves to this idea, then the very worst thing they could receive would be to spend eternity in the presence of the one who is God.  I know this idea is hard for believers to swallow, but the Bible suggests that when God makes Himself pretty clearly known in the near future, there are still going to be people who don’t want to be with Him.  As a point in fact: Jesus was crucified.  For these folks, Hell is not so much a punishment as a receiving of what they have thoroughly convinced themselves they really want.  God is lovingly not forcing Himself on them, and justly delivering them to their rightful end.  Oh they will realize their error and it will be agonizing for them, but this doesn’t mean God was unloving to deliver it to them.  We serve a God who is above all things loving and just.

Speaking of the agonies of Hell, this brings us to the third point.  We primarily think of Hell as a place of fiery agony.  Now, this idea has been much inflamed in both Christian and secular literature and art over the centuries, but as I said a bit ago, the idea first came from Jesus equating the place for those who reject His ways with the Valley of Hinnom.  And I confess: the idea that God would consign someone to feeling as if they were burning for all eternity is pretty hard to swallow.  But, what if such language was never intended to be taken literally?  Now, let me start here by saying that I believe in an eternal Hell.  You’re welcomed to a paper I wrote defending that idea in seminary if you’re really interested.  Yet remember what I said two weeks ago.  We are not supposed to take every word of the Bible literally because some of them were intended to be figurative.  I submit to you that the descriptions of Hell as a fiery place are among those.  What Jesus and later John were doing when they used language like this was to try and create a picture in the minds of their audience of how awful Hell will be.  They weren’t trying to describe what it will literally be like in part because I don’t think they were given such knowledge.  Now, yes, Jesus was God and so knew in that sense, but in His humanity I don’t think He did any more than He knew the timing of His return.  The point, though, is that Hell, whatever it’s like, will be unimaginably awful.  It will be so because we will be eternally separated from God.  The problem is that we live partially separated from God a lot in this life and it doesn’t seem so bad rendering our understanding of eternal separation truncated.  The fiery language simply helps to convey that message.  Setting someone on fire for eternity does seem rather extreme for a loving God to do and we serve a God who is above all things loving and just.  Thus, understanding that the point of discussions of Hell in the Bible are more focused on its nature—terrible—and duration—eternal—than on the specifics of the place is important to cutting the legs out from under these objections.

Now, admittedly, none of this does much to soften the nature of this doctrine.  But what it does do is to help shift the debate from emotionally charged issues—that’s unfair of God!—to more theologically relevant ones like what does somebody do to get there and how can we avoid it?  Friends, we serve a God who is above all things loving and just.  That’s simply who He is.  We must hold this fact in our minds as a starting place when dealing with tough doctrines like this one.  If we lose that for even a moment our critics gain ground that is frightfully hard to gain back.  That the debate over things like this culturally stands where they do is a testament to this fact.  We haven’t thought about God rightly, so we haven’t talked about God rightly so the culture has taken the lead in dictating the tone of the conversation.  We lose when that happens because culture works against God.  We have to take back control of the conversation.

But, the reality of the word is that Hell is a doctrine that is neither unjust nor unloving.  And there is one passage in the Bible that I think helps make this point more clearly than any other.  It’s found near the end of the book of Revelation.  In Revelation 20, as John is narrating the final events of this world before the kingdom comes in power, he tells of the Millennium that will take place after Christ has returned, but before the final judgment.  Now, he doesn’t say a lot about what this time will be like, but we do know that all of those who died before Christ returns will be resurrected and will take part in ruling over the world with Christ.  People sometimes say that this world will be a lot better when Jesus is finally and fully at the helm.  Almost like if that happened God wouldn’t have to do all the judging because people will just fall in line.  This will be that time.  This will be the answer to that wish.  For 1,000 years (and we can have the discussion as to whether or not that will be a literal 1,000 years later), Christ will reign over this earth.  What more, Satan is going to be locked up in the Abyss so he’s not going to be around to blame things on…I mean to tempt us away from Christ.  It’s hard for me to image a better time in human history than this will be.  Now again, we don’t know what this time will be like, but taking an argument from silence, I tend to think that normal life will carry on, especially for the folks who survive the Tribulation but have not yet received their resurrection bodies.  They’ll grow and work and marry and have children and life will continue.  They’ll repopulate the earth after the devastation of the Tribulation.

But, and here’s the important part, after the 1,000 years is over, Satan is let back out of the Abyss.  This is the final test.  Can people resist Him?  I mean, we will have been under Christ’s gracious reign for a millennium, why would we want anything else?  And yet, listen to 20:7: “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.”   Alright, don’t worry about Gog and Magog for now.  Look at the bigger picture.  Satan comes to town after 1,000 years of Christ reigning directly and seemingly instantaneously assembles a huge army.

Think about that.  Who on earth is rebelling against Jesus now?  These folks have experienced the direct reign of Christ for 1,000 years and have rejected Him.  At this point in history there is literally nothing else God can do to convince people to follow Him freely than what He has already done.  He’s tried everything.  These are folks who very simply don’t want Him.  For God to force them to be with Him anyway…that would be unloving.  We serve a God who is above all things loving and just.  And so there’s Hell.  These are the folks to whom God finally says, as C. S. Lewis put it, “Alright, thy will be done.”  Now, did God send them there?  In a sense, yes.  Will it be a punishment?  In a sense, yes.  Will it be awful?  Unquestionably.  But was this unloving of God?  By no means.  Ultimately, God gives us what we want.  We simply have to live with our choice.  Praise the Lord that we serve a God who is above all things loving and just.

Friends, the doctrine of Hell is a hard one.  There’s no argument there.  It was hard when Jonathan Edwards was preaching fire and brimstone.  It’s still hard today.  But when we understand it properly, it presents no objection to the faith at all.  Indeed, the opportunity to spend eternity separated from God makes our choices finally meaningful.  If you want the choices you make in this life to mean something you’d better believe in an eternal Hell.  If everybody were simply given a pass to heaven in the end, then we could charge God with not being loving or just.  But we’re not.  For those who finally oppose Him, they face the prospect of getting their wish.  This is a glorious manifestation of the love and justice of God.  Being hard to swallow doesn’t make it wrong.  It just makes it hard.  Thankfully we can rely on the fact that we serve a God who is above all things loving and just.  And this end doesn’t have to be for anyone.  There’s no foregone conclusion here.  When we place our trust in Christ and His work and strive to live out His lifestyle, God’s justice is satisfied by His sacrifice and His love compels Him to welcome us into His kingdom.  This because we serve a God who is above all things loving and just.

[1]Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 407.