The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 3

4. The Doctrine of Hell Violates the New Testament Ethical Standards

We are told that we cannot argue that a belief in hell contradicts the character of God because His holiness makes hell a necessity. But not making this argument forces the whole of Christian ethics to degenerate into nonsense. The Christian ethical standards established for us in the New Testament prove that hell cannot be derived from God’s holiness. For we are exhorted to be holy just as God is holy, to be conformed to the image of Christ, not in abstract terms but in concrete specifics.

For example, one specific aspect of being holy is “Never return evil for evil to anyone, but overcome evil with good”. Does God have one standard of holiness for Himself and a completely different standard of holiness for us? Because it is manifestly true that hell is returning evil for evil. It is manifestly true that hell does not overcome evil with good. Can God not live up to His own standards? Does He obey a different (and seemingly lower) standard than He expects of us? Is it simply metaphorical to say that we are to be holy just as He is holy? Or is our idea of hell a misconception?

Or let’s consider another specific aspect of being holy: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”. What sense are we to make of such an exhortation if the Christ we worship and are being conformed to is the One who not only lets the sun go down on His anger, but continues to pour out His wrath even when the sun has burned out and all the universe is old and is only then just beginning to express His anger? These were both exhortations that were to help conform us to the image of Christ.  Isn’t it natural to object to the discrepancy? Isn’t this an argument that must be made?

5. The Emotional Commitment to the Doctrine of Hell

One phenomenon that is somewhat mystifying in the discussions I have had with other believers on the question of hell is how emotional the issue becomes.  It is as if the denial of the existence of hell were a personal attack.  It is as if admitting the possibility that hell does not exist would lead to the undermining of the entire Christian faith.  Can it really be true that there is no Good News if there is no hell?  Can it really be true that the gospel would cease to be proclaimed if there was no eternal conscious punishment of the lost?  Why do Christians consider it such a necessity to believe in hell?  Why would anyone find it desirable to believe in hell?

The emotional nature of the issue is frequently revealed by one of the most commonly asked questions I encounter: “Don’t you believe that God has the right to punish the wicked however He likes?” It is an ambiguous question. On the one hand, I can answer affirmatively, that yes, I believe God has the right to do with us as He likes; I am, after all, still essentially Calvinistic. The question remains as to whether it is conceivable that such a place as hell could ever be something that He would like to do with us. Since God is good, since God is love, since God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all, how did we ever come to believe that an eternal conscious torment is something that God would like to do? On the other hand the question, “Does God have the right to do whatever He likes with the wicked?” may be taken as equivalent to the question, “Does God have the right to do evil?” which is utter non-sense as questions go.  It is as meaningless to ask if God could do evil, He who is the definition of good, as it is to ask if light could make the room dark.

So let’s soften the question into a more honest one: “Do you believe that God has the right to punish sinners and that whatever sentence He pronounces on them will be just?” The answer is, “Of course”. I do not at all dispute God’s absolute authority to deal with sin and evil and pain in whatever way seems best to Him; I merely assert that it is a contradiction to His character and to the revelation of Scripture to believe that God authorizes the eternal conscious punishment of any of His creatures, including Satan himself.

But the question can equally well be turned around. To those who defend the existence of hell I ask: does God have the right to simply forgive everyone their sins even if they refuse to accept Christ? The sins are committed against Him; doesn’t He have the right to simply forgive them if He wishes?

To answer “yes” seems to capitulate to my argument, for if God has the right to simply forgive an unrepentant sinner then why do we imagine that He would do otherwise? Usually we are told that He would not forgive an unrepentant sinner so that justice would be upheld, but it is impossible for me to see how this upholds justice, as I tried to argue above. So here I am in the bosom of Abraham being comforted for all eternity and there is my foolish neighbor, who refused to accept Christ, suffering in torment for all eternity. It was a very thin line between his foolishness and my faith. Where is justice being served? That, of course, is up to Christ Jesus and not to me; it is His suffering that is being scorned by the unrepentant sinner. So what does He say? Is it conceivable that He would say something like, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”? That is a direct quote of one of His statements when He contemplated the actual people who put Him to death; and if He could take such an attitude toward His executioners, why is it so hard to believe that He wouldn’t take a similar attitude toward the sinner who is so bound to evil that he hates Christ and would willingly drive the nails in himself?

To answer “no, God does not have the right to forgive an unrepentant sinner” naturally demands the question, “Why not?” How can God’s right to punish be unlimited but His right to forgive be limited? Those who answer this question negatively often do so because they think it would mean that Christ died for nothing. Why did Christ Jesus go through the suffering of the cross if the Father intended simply to forgive everyone anyway? I think the proper response to this question would be that Christ Jesus went through the suffering of the cross precisely in order for the Father to forgive everyone. Or taken from a different point of view the objection becomes, “Why should anyone bother putting their faith in Christ if they are forgiven for their sins regardless?” The answer to this one is that forgiveness of sins is only the beginning of what Christ intends to accomplish. A merciful God may well club fools on the head to carry them out of the burning building, but getting out of the burning building does not get you into a room in the mansion that is yours as an adopted son or daughter.

I think this last objection reveals the shallowness of our understanding of the meaning of salvation more than it justifies the belief in hell. We have such a vague view of what we are being saved into that we fall back on preaching merely what we are being saved from, and that in turn demands there be something horrible to be saved from. It is a form of compensation; to make up for our lack of anything positive to say, we must paint a vivid picture of the negative, the torments we imagine we will escape. The hope of the world to come, the hope of the resurrection, is such a pale hope to us that we know we could never persuade people to desire it. We can’t win them, so we fall back on scaring them. We have given up on talking about the beauty of God, the desirability of God, of the deep-goodness-that-surpasses-imagination of God, and are left with only the cobwebs and darkness to describe.

In short, I claim that we cling to the belief in hell because we have no clear notion of the goodness of God; because the Good News has grown so dim in our sight that it has become merely the escape from Bad News. We emphasize deliverance from hell because we have lost a clear vision of knowing God and loving God.

6. What Is Judgment? What is Wrath?

Nonetheless, even granting that the Bible does not teach the doctrine of hell we have come to know and love, it does unarguably talk about judgment, it does unarguably talk about wrath. We have become so accustomed to identify these concepts with hell that it may seem as if giving up eternal torment inevitably leads to giving up the whole idea that God will judge anything, that God ever feels anger. But it is not my intention to give up anything that the Bible teaches, only to give up what we thought it taught that it doesn’t. Here I will give my interpretation of these two words, judgment and wrath.

The judgment of God is this: that we each become conformed to the image of what we worship. Those who worship Jesus will be conformed to His image; those who worship an idol will become conformed to the image of what they worship. One example of a passage that makes this idea explicit is Psalm 135:15-18: “The idols of the nations are but silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear, nor is there any breath at all in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, yes, everyone who trusts in them.” Perhaps this passage is in the back of Jesus’ mind when he invited “those who have ears to hear” to listen to Him.

I believe there are eternal consequences for what we choose. Our eternal fate is the one we choose. Every person is given exactly what he loves, what he clings to, what he trusts, what he wants, what he worships. Love is a serious thing. We can love that which destroys us; we can see all around us people who do, who are in a slow death while their true love consumes them. And just as a love of sugar or fat or salt or ease will lead to the loss of health, the loss of limb, the loss of faculties, so the love of idols will lead to the loss of the capability of knowing God on some level or other. It eternal life is that we know God, then eternal death is the death of some connection to God, some mode of knowing God. To worship Jesus means to be conformed into His image into a sort of creature beyond our imagining with powers and delights and connections to God that cannot be put into words. To worship something less than Jesus is to be conformed into something less even than the sort of humanity we currently experience. This is God’s judgment: He gives us what we want, what we love. John 3:19 says something very much like what I am arguing for: “And this is the judgment: the Light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil.” This is what predestination is: that we become fully who we are, that we grow up to be what we are now in embryo.

The wrath of God can be defined as the other side of the coin. In pouring out His wrath God simply lets us have our own way. This is a repeated theme in Romans 1, for example, with the refrain, “therefore God gave them up…” So what are we being saved from? From ourselves. From being left as orphans in this desolation. From hopelessness. From pointlessness. From the dull disappointment of all our dreams. From a jaded heart that can find no rest or pleasure in any thing. From the inevitable failure of all we do. From that horrible suspicion that this is as good as it gets.

Even a dog has its own integrity of being and rejoices in its own life and worships God in its own way. The lost are not in permanent torment; on the contrary they are in a state of perfect joy and worship God to the limits of their ability to experience. In that sense I suppose I could be accused of being a universalist, of believing that all people are saved, but it depends on how you define salvation. To lose our soul, to lose some part of what it means to be human, is an eternal loss even if we are eternally incapable of realizing what we have lost. Nonetheless I do believe that all creatures, everything created by God, in heaven or on the earth or under the earth, will end in perfect joy on whatever level of creation they end up. Is this universalism or not?  It is universalism of a sort in that it imagines perfect joy to all creatures as their ultimate destiny. On the other hand, it is not at all universalism in that it imagines consequences, serious consequences, eternal consequences that are horrible to contemplate, for those who reject the knowledge of God in Christ.

What being saved means is that those parts of our humanity, those parts of the image of God in us that have been damaged beyond repair, are created anew rather than being consumed. But being saved does not primarily mean that we keep what we’ve got, albeit in a perfected condition. Being saved means that we are raised into a newness of life, into a kind of life that is inconceivable to us at present. I believe this is what is alluded to in I Corinthians 15:35-58. I believe this is also what is implied by Jesus’ oft-repeated phrase, “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” It is clear that He is not talking about physical ears but about spiritual ears, ears which only exist if God has created them; ears which only exist if there is the embryo of a new creation present; ears which only exist if the person has been “born again”.

When Jesus died on the cross He bore the entire weight of the Fall, all the curse, all of the consequences, for all men at all times and for all of creation as indicated in Romans 8:20-22. God has indeed reserved a judgment of fire, a judgment that consumes utterly every trace of the Fall. Those who are in Christ are given shelter from that storm; but even those who are in Christ will have their work tested by fire (see I Corinthians 3:10-15). However the fire that consumes is God Himself; He is the consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29); the unquenchable fire is Jesus Himself as John the Baptist said in Matthew 3:11-12, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The Holy Spirit is Himself the flame of hell, burning up what is corrupt in us and creating a new creature in its place. The gospel, the Good News, is that Jesus makes a new creation that will outlast the burning of all things.

What about those who have never heard, or those whom circumstances prevent them from genuinely hearing of the hope Jesus offers? My view holds that God has the power and the right to give them whatever He wishes, and the goodness that makes it impossible to believe that He will deny them any good thing they can receive. My view is that everyone is given exactly the truest and deepest desires of his heart. Those who fail to “get to heaven” do not fail because of their lack of goodness, but because of their lack of desire. They just have no taste for God.

Finally I would point out that the Scriptures hint that there are levels, both in heaven and in “hell”, there are degrees of being saved and degrees of being lost. In heaven there are those who rule a hundred cities and those who rule ten; in hell, it is more tolerable for the Assyrians than the people who rejected Jesus in Capernaum. There will be degrees of gain in the dimensions that will be added to the lives of the saved, and there will be degrees of loss experienced by those who are not saved. I conceive of the saved as being like the stars of the sky, shining with varying degrees of glory, so astonishing that were we to see a saint in glory we would be tempted to worship him or her as a god. The lost will fail to achieve even what is human in the present sense of the word. But on no account are we to imagine that the arm of the Lord is shortened, that He cannot bring good out of everything He has created and that He will do it because He is truly all powerful and all good and all loving and all merciful, all.

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