Thursday, November 24, 2016

Hellfire and Damnation


I can't think of any other biblical teaching more distasteful to modern, “enlightened” folks than the traditional stance on hellfire and damnation—the “wrath of God”—his final and shocking solution for evil. Ironically, just about everyone has a strong sense of justice (what I would argue springs from our shared stock in the Imago Dei). Only we can't seem to agree on how justice should play out (“fairness,” for example, will usually involve a lot of special consideration and mercy in my own circumstances while of course looking more like sevenfold vengeance for the other guy). Those who criticize God's handling of evil, find him at the same time to be doing “too much” and “not enough.” Why doesn't he immediately dethrone the despot, prevent children from being murdered, and bring his vengeance upon the jerk who just cut me off in traffic, we wonder? And yet how can he—with perhaps Hitler and the like being exceptions—condemn human beings to an eternity of unrelenting torment? We should take note that it's Jesus, more than any other biblical character, who speaks most frequently and urgently about the horrors of hell. The certain, coming judgment of God was the pressing reality in which his good news was announced. As such, the unpleasantness of hell can never be divorced from the gospel. We can hardly understand what all the fuss is about regarding Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection apart from comprehending the alternative had he never heroically stepped into our broken world.

Thanks to Dante and numerous others, we may have a picture of hell in our head that looks something like cavernous dungeons set aflame with demonic, reptilian or half-goat, pitchfork-wielding tormentors roaming the halls. But I don't think even Jesus' story about two men who share a post-death exchange on the other side was meant to describe the spacial layout and architecture of the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). I would argue that hell—and heaven, for that matter—is often mischaracterized in our minds as a place rather than understood as a relational proximity to God. More on this later. It seems clear that the imagery of being cast out of the warmth and protection of a city into deepest darkness, complete with wailing and gnashing teeth; or the thought of being thrown on a heap of decaying waste, where abandoned corpses are burned or left to rot (as in Jesus' vivid example of the accursed Gehenna); or the vision of a lake perpetually aflame with the infinite wrath of God are all graphic metaphor. However, this should in no way alleviate our reasonable concerns about such an existence. The flames, devouring worms, death, and darkness are best attempts at describing something far worse.

The Bible often depicts the same thing in a number of different ways. We tend to gravitate toward one analogy or another. Reformed/Calvinist traditions, for example, connect more strongly with the gospel metaphors that emphasize God's sovereignty (i.e. a lamb or a lost coin found by a shepherd or searcher, a dead man brought back to life, or varying soils that receive the same seed, etc.) while Arminian thinking brothers and sisters tend to make their home in the stories that highlight human choice (i.e. an open invitation to a lavish banquette, a wayward son who comes to his senses, and so on). God's sovereignty plays heavily into what unnerves us the most about hell, so we'll certainly have to explore it further. For now, though, I merely want to point out the multifaceted way in which God patiently communicates complex ideas to us. The Creator, humanity, and what went wrong between us is effectively described in terms of a rightful King and a mass rebellion, a Judge who must address heinous criminals, or a great debt looming over bankrupt debtors. It makes no difference which biblical example drives the point home for you (I imagine certain individuals and even whole cultures may respond more readily to an analogy of economic debt as opposed to one involving disloyalty to a monarch, for example, or perhaps the other way around) Thankfully, he's come at it from a number of angles. He wants us to get it.

Jesus viewed himself, among other things, as a physician who came to treat sick people (Mark 2:16-17). In this analogy, humanity is suffering from a universal, debilitating, and eventually terminal, illness. Some may recoil from the sin-as-illness simile simply because illnesses beset us generally through no fault of our own (but I suppose that's another reason we have more than one analogy to work with). Jesus presents himself as the Cure—the only Cure—for what's killing us (John 14:6). He claims that he didn't come to condemn the world but to rescue and restore (John 3:17). Furthermore, he explains that the world is already condemned, that we're already dying, or even dead in a sense (John 3:18). Anyone who opts out of his restorative work in the world is simply left in the tragic state of decay in which he initially found them. Of course he means to set the whole universe back to what it was, what he always intended it to be, and, though our participation in his cosmic redemptive process is voluntary, he cannot leave the treasonous non-participants to continue wreaking havoc in his universe indefinitely. It is his universe, after all, and sin is destructive and contagious. According to the Genesis story, the harmful ripples of human sin are somehow felt throughout the entire cosmos. In eventually quarantining—removing from his physical universe—those who have refused his costly offer of help, God will have granted them what they persistently demanded: an existence devoid of him.

Depart from me,” will be his final words to those who defiantly refuse to be made well (Matthew 25:41). They will then experience the furthest relational distance possible from their Creator. Relational proximity—their lack of communion with God through Jesus—was their trouble all along. Their tragic banishment, in Jesus' own words, is resulting from the fact that he “never knew” them (Matthew 7:22-23). As it turns out, to reject communion with the Tree of Life is to inherit a death of the worst kind.

At this point the agnostic and atheist may think, “What difference would that be from my current existence?” “I've never given him a second thought in this life.” “Why would it be so horrible to exist apart from him in the next?” This flawed line of thinking fails to see the numerous echos all around us of a Creator who holds the exclusive patent on justice, beauty, and love. This once-good universe we now inhabit still possesses, even in its broken state, the warm reflective glow of its Creator, as well as the persistent memory of what was and the lingering hope of what could be again. The loyalty of a friend, family bonds, the world's most beautiful art, sacrifice and heroism, even the simple joy of holding a newborn baby—all of this originates with a remarkable God who dreamt it into existence. There is much we mistakenly think is ours, when in actuality it is only on loan from him and only functions as a reflection of his essence. We also know from Scripture that God is everywhere, but there are certainly lesser and greater degrees to which we can perceive his presence. Sin creates a relational distance between God and humans—a rending of heaven and earth. However, Jesus—the exact imprint of the invisible God, a temple of flesh and bone—through his death and resurrection brings heaven crashing back into earth (with the ultimate and complete reunification of heaven and earth yet to come). As mentioned, his restorative process is already incrementally underway, and “new creations,” in which his Spirit dwells, are becoming little pockets of heaven-restored all around us. Whether we're aware or not, we're all of us in this life adrift in an ocean of his grace. All this to say, it's impossible to even imagine what it would be like to be completely excluded from all that's of God—even forfeiting the image of God that we presently bear. What would be left, what we can rightly claim as “ours,” cannot even still be called “human.”

What a cruel tyrant he is,” say many of God's critics, “to extort our friendship with the dangling promise of 'eternal life' and threaten us with 'hell' if we won't comply.” “If he was truly 'loving,' he would simply give us the eternal life, no strings attached, and let us be on our way.” Anyone who thinks in these terms unfortunately knows nothing of “eternal life.” God cannot give eternal life—he cannot give heaven—apart from giving himself (John 17:3). And there is nothing left but what we call “hell” for those who will not partake of him. We might not like the fact that a branch once severed from the tree withers and dies. But there's really no use in wishing, hoping, or demanding that the branch goes on living independently of the tree. That's not how trees and branches work.

In our discussion of hell, we tend to fixate on all the wrong things. “Why isn't he doing a better job of rescuing us,” we wonder? “Why isn't he overriding our foolish rejection of Life and our subsequent pursuit of death?” The real scandal of the story, however, is not his final confrontation of evil. The real jaw-dropping part of the whole thing is that he has miraculously and at great cost to himself crafted a way—even after everything we've done, after everything we've become—to redeem us, transform us, and reattach us to the once-rejected Tree of Life. In light of the story of God, hell makes perfect sense. It's the shocking twist of the cross, however, that should leave us dumbfounded.

If God can do anything, can he make a rock so big that even he can’t lift it? Can he carry out an evil act and still be pure good? Can he make a square circle? These aren’t actually questions of substance. A square circle, for example, isn’t a complexity for omnipotence to solve. It’s a logical contradiction. It’s a word game that doesn’t amount to anything. In our conversation on God’s sovereignty, we must be able to tell the difference if we’re to get anywhere.

To put it mildly, Christians don’t quite agree on how God’s sovereignty plays out. It’s been a topic of debate for thousands of years, and we certainly won’t be resolving it here. But I’d suggest that as we wade into these undeniably deep waters we can’t afford to lose sight of two biblicaly revealed truths about God: First, he is indeed sovereign (i.e. completely in control of his creation and himself); and, second, he has a genuine, heart-rending desire for reconciliation with all of his wayward, image-bearing creatures. As we build sophisticated theological systems that attempt to make sense of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human choice, we’ll inevitably be tempted to erode either of these two key truths. But we mustn’t. In an oversimplified binary system these can’t both be true (Either he doesn’t actually want to be reconciled with all of his creation, or he lacks the ability to accomplish it). However, if we plan on staying true to Scripture, then we must consider a truly sovereign God who doesn’t always get his way.

Theologians try to describe this paradox by distinguishing between God's “perfect” and “permissive” will. I'll attempt to illustrate this tension by referencing a typical trip to the grocery store with my young children (although I'm neither omniscient nor omnipotent, so, like all analogies, this one will break down sooner rather than later). From the start, I have various hopes and goals for how our errand will go (my “perfect will”). I hope, for example, they will refrain from grabbing at everything in reach, that they will mind me, stay near, and not sound like blood-curdling banshees as we go (we've certainly had plenty of conversations and consequences to this effect). Despite my sincerest hopes, however, experience has taught me that there will undoubtedly be course corrections along the way. I could forcefully ensure my initial hopes—my supreme will for their behavior—by bringing them to the store in straitjackets, taping their mouths shut, and placing them securely in the grocery cart next to the milk and eggs (Before calling CPS on me, remember we're still safely in the realm of the hypothetical). But this ultimately isn't what I'm after. I'm aiming to raise mature adults who understand their innate sin-illness and look to Jesus for forgiveness and restoration. I want to address their hearts and wills, not just command their mechanical obedience. To this end, I'll have to trudge through the occasional grabby klepto-hands, a measure of sass, wandering off, and inhumanly shrill volumes (call this my “permissive will”). Even after this patient process, my children may grow into adults who reject me and all that I've taught them. Such is the nature and inherent risk of somewhat autonomous souls who are gifted with the ability to choose.

Damnation is the worst possible outcome imaginable. Could God have made genuinely free creatures who were incapable of wandering, incapable of rejecting the Tree of Life? I think this would be something like a square circle. Well then, is it worth it? Is having authentic relationship with creatures like us who are free to love as well as hate, not to mention everything else that comes with a real world as opposed to a toy one, worth the loss and rejection of so many (and he does feel every agonizing loss resulting from his wager)? It's no mere game to him. He has literally poured his blood, sweat, and tears into this endeavor—held nothing back. So is it worth it? Only he, as the omniscient Creator, can answer the question. And indeed he has.

For the joy set before him he endured the cross...” —Hebrews 12:2b

...he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” —2 Peter 3:9b


  1. Brings to mind "The Great Divorce" by C S Lewis. Thanks Josh.

    1. Yes, Lewis is a major influence of mine. Many of my extra-biblical thoughts about God and life originate with his work, especially "Mere Christianity."