Most people, Christians or not, don’t like to talk about hell. Many seekers abhor the subject because they ask, quite logically,
“How can a God who professes to be loving, kind, faithful, and merciful toss anyone into hell? I mean, I’m a lowly worm of a human being, and I would never reject one of my children to the point of condemning them to death.”
This is a logical statement — soundly based upon a sense of justice and fairness that mirrors those attributes in God.
The standard Christian response, at least the one I’ve been slapped with, is,
“God’s ways are not our ways! You are a SINNER and in your disobedience and immorality you are UNABLE to see that God is loving and gracious, and if you do not submit to Him, you DESERVE eternal damnation!”
I’m in; You’re not
Too often, there’s a disturbingly smug sense of glee or satisfaction on the part of the speaker who knows, because he has properly recited the Four Spiritual Laws (many people do this repeatedly over their lifetimes to insure that they’ve got it right and won’t, by inadvertence, be eternally damned), that HE’S going to heaven, even if YOU — and millions and millions of corrupt, depraved, nameless and wicked people — are not.
It’s when you put faces on these people, and give them families, and jobs, and emotions, and settle them in an area where the name Jesus is completely inaccessible, or damage them by people who have literally spit the name of Jesus in their face, that the questions arise.
“They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” (Matthew 25: 46) you are then told. “See? There’s a HELL for unbelievers! It doesn’t MATTER if they can’t hear the story of Jesus. God is fair and just and this is how He does it.”
Read More Than One Verse
If you back up a few verses, however, to 31 onward, and read, you will not see any mention of “accepting Jesus” as you will injunctions to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, protect the sojourner, clothe the naked — in essence, take care of the Least of These.
This isn’t universalism; it’s simply reading the passage and not inserting statements that aren’t there. The difference between the sheep and the goats is how they treated the least of these. So maybe our next question should be, “Who are the least of these, and where are they in my life?”
Revelations 21: 8 consigns the “cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars,” to the fiery place of burning sulfur, and while it’s popular to single out the “unbelieving” and the “sexually immoral,” very few of us can stand up and say that we’ve never been cowardly, never lied, never worshiped money and position at the expense of God.
Justice, and Mercy
This is where Jesus comes in: He offers to take the punishment we deserve because, frankly, doing wrong does deserve punishment. If someone stole our car and bashed it into a wall, we wouldn’t expect him to walk off without paying. We would expect justice, but for justice to work, it is tempered by mercy, an exceedingly difficult combination for us to comprehend. We deserve punishment, but we need mercy.
God holds the balance of both, and while, in 2,000 years, we’ve never come up with a good answer to, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” we might consider setting the question, and the issue of hell, aside while we focus on God’s goodness, mercy, love, faithfulness, grace, and beauty. There is no evil in God, so however He does what He does, it is fair and right and just and good, and the reason the hell question bothers us is because the interpretations we are given destabilize our sense of God’s goodness.
Ignorance of God’s Understanding
Josh McDowell, in his most excellent book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (ISBN 978-0-7852-4219-2, page 408), quotes the 19th century poet and literary critic Samuel Coleridge:
“When we meet an apparent error in a good author, we are to presume ourselves ignorant of his understanding, until we are certain that we understand his ignorance.”
In terms of God, this means that, when we encounter disturbing sections or concepts in the Bible that seem to refute God’s inherent goodness and grace, we don’t
1) immediately assume that God’s not such a Great Guy after all
2) toss out the disturbing sections because they must surely be symbolic, wrong, or mis-written by a human being.
Rather, we accept that we have a conundrum — and as I mentioned, many of these conundrums have been with us for thousands of years — that’s beyond our understanding right now. Let it go, ask God for wisdom, and move on — never losing sight of the critical point of God’s perfection, power, grace, mercy, judgment, wisdom, and love.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I write about the things many of us think and wonder about, but generally avoid mentioning because someone, somewhere, will attack us for asking.
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