Imagine a children’s storybook filled with images of chaotic carnage, of bodies strewn across the damp hills and burning cities crumbling under the weight of molten brimstone. Imagine tucking a child into bed after recounting these gruesome stories and then simply telling them that God loves them. With no further explanation than moral directives, the child is left with a nightmarish fear of divine retribution. The thought is horrifying.
A reciprocally horrifying thought is reading to that same child a storybook filled with evil villains who constantly escape punishment and are praised by society. A story where a sexual assailant is released from prison only three months after conviction; another story where a genocidal maniac is worshipped as a god and savior of a nation. Still yet another story where the bad guy cheats the system and vindictively tramples down upon the innocent, forcing them into poverty, imprisonment, and slavery. Imagine tucking that child into bed simply telling them that God loves them and not to worry about the lurking evil. The thought is equally horrifying.
We might thank the publishers for redirecting the focus of the story of Noah from the drowned bodies that floated past the ark on its voyage to salvation, to all the cute little animals that were saved. However, we wouldn’t thank them for gleefully celebrating the plot of Jezebel and Ahab in seizing their neighbor’s land and the lack of divine involvement. To be sure, God’s judgement is terrifying, but the lack of God’s judgement is more so.
Hell and the idea of God’s judgement is a complicated and hotly debated topic among scholars with a few major viewpoints. While I can’t take the time to cover the different perspectives and interpretations, I do want to focus on God’s judgment as it is seen through the eyes of our culture and explore what it means for followers of Christ.
God’s judgment is taboo in today’s current cultural climate, and for good reason. The very concept of hell or divine wrath is so repulsive to most people, that many have discarded the doctrine altogether. Yet, their alternative either faces the same problems of a traditional understanding of Hell, or in the name of tolerance, unrepentant pedophiles may go free. Surely, there must be a better way. Why is it that when we ask for such unobstructed tolerance, we are shocked with the result? Why are we so immediately repentant of our wish when we discover that the sexual assailant only gets a slap on the wrist? What did we expect? This is why I suspect that our problem with God’s judgement is not with the concept itself, but with the context it is used in.
Within the context of scripture, we find a compelling drama, where the author allows his characters to rebel and commit theatrical mutiny as they attempt to tell their own fledgling story. All efforts to derail or improve the author’s show reveal a flaw within the character’s reasoning: that their stories do not make sense apart from their author’s. Although these characters are able to understand their position, they delude themselves with visions of grandeur, and they strive to become a self-cast star. Instead of abandoning his work, the author writes himself into the story as the main protagonist. In doing so, he reveals how the part is truly to be played and he invites his characters to rejoin the original production, freely offering the characters their own parts as supporting roles in a larger story. While many characters accept this gift, others choose to continue to disrupt the play. These members are eventually dismissed and cast out of the drama just before the final curtain.
Surely, this example may find some faults of comparison, yet I believe most will find the author’s actions an appropriate response to the rebellion. Here, the context determines the appropriateness of God’s judgement. While there may be competing narratives and power struggles on stage, there can only be one playwright. And while he may tolerate a certain level of rebellion amongst his cast, he will not do so forever; the show must go on.
What happens when the context is shifted from history to our story? Our problem with God’s judgement and with Hell is that many of us feel like we haven’t done anything to deserve it. Often, we compare ourselves with those we find inferior, and use their actions to justify ourselves: “well at least I am not as bad as them.” These comparisons might be atoning if we simply had to be better than another person, or if the contest was only about observable outward actions. Therein lies the problem with our response to God’s judgement; we are just wrong.
First, the basis of recieving judgement is not based solely upon outward actions, but also upon the entire world located inside your mind and heart. All of your thoughts, motives, emotional responses, ideas, hopes, and deepest desires are weighed before a God who “searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). Like an iceberg, our actions are merely symptoms for much deeper issues lurking beneath the surface. Second, the proper standard of comparison is not our neighbor, but God himself. The minimum requirements for being found outside of God’s judgement is that you must perfectly reflect God. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15-16). On both accounts, we fall short. Not only are we worse off than we think, but our standard itself is not remotely high enough. This “falling short” is our way of subtlety admitting that we aren’t perfect. To borrow Paul’s words, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Before we begin picturing a medieval god of maniacal anger, capricious in thought, and greedily planning destruction for his creation, we must check our ideas with what God himself has communicated in scripture. What does God care about? David, one of Israel’s greatest kings, had this to say about God, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land” (Psalms 68:5-6). Here, God is presented as one who cares deeply about the marginalized and the oppressed, and who actively works on their behalf. Hear what the prophet Isaiah says about the mission of the Messiah (anointed one of God), “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2 ESV). This passage speaks both of healing and judgement. While God makes whole what is broken, he will not tolerate the systems, the people, and the ideas that made this brokenness.
Interestingly enough, in the 1st century Jesus gave a sermon on this very passage in Isaiah. He simply read the passage, sat down, and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Throughout the gospels, Jesus demonstrates that he is this same messiah that Isaiah described, and is the perfect picture of who God is (John 1:18, Colossians 1:15-20, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1:1-3). So what does Jesus reveal about God?
There is a particular story that has always struck readers in an odd way. It is a week before Jesus’ death and he enters the temple wherein an oppressive economic system has taken over. Every year, worshippers would come up to the temple to offer sacrifices using a variety of unblemished animals. Many times, people would not want to travel with these animals, and would buy them at the temple. However, due to supply and demand, these sellers would jack up the price for a larger profit. Yet, to purchase anything at the temple, you had to use a particular currency so as to not dishonor God. The money changers would also fix the exchange rates in their favor. All of this corruption was taking place in the court of the Gentiles, essentially communicating Jewish ethnocentrism and that Israel’s God does not care about the foreigner. When Jesus surveys all of this injustice his does not sit idle. Instead, he flips the tables of corruption and drives out the money changers, the salesman, and even the animals. It’s possible that in this moment he is symbolically declaring himself the temple, revealing that the presence of God could be with the people without having to suffer this unjust and oppressive system. In Jesus, the fullness of God dwells.
All of this happens days before Jesus willingly takes on the greatest injustice of the cross. He truly reveals the righteousness of God by dying on behalf of sinners. Like the author who enters into his own story, so Jesus enters into his own creation, coming to his own people only to be rejected and murdered. Yet, this is God’s story. He would allow himself to be rejected so that he could provide a way out of sin, rebellion, corruption, and even death.
When we think about God’s wrath and justice we must let our thoughts be formed by God’s example. At the end of the day, there will be those who continually reject Jesus. Not only have they, like all of us, not perfectly reflected the character of God in our thoughts and actions, but they have also rejected the free grace of God. We must be assured that God’s judgment is just, and that Hell, although terrifying in itself, is an appropriate response. Eternal punishment and death is an appropriate response because this rebellion is not against a human author or playwright, but against the Creator who made all things. The riotous mutiny has wreaked havoc upon this world and there has been mass casualties in the name of prideful autonomy. Hell is God’s reciprocal response to injustice. They have not simply rejected God in the abstract, but God in the flesh. They have rejected Jesus willfully. C.S. Lewis explains it this way, “The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; the doors of hell are locked on the inside. . . . They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved” (The Problem of Pain, 130). By this, Lewis explains that those who reject God do not simply do it one time haphazardly; they do it constantly and continually forever.
We must understand that the justice of God is ultimately displayed in Jesus. God has provided a path of redemption that is open to all. God has suffered injustice both at our hands and on our behalf. He does so to redeem us from our own sin and brokenness. Ultimately, he does so so that we don’t get what we deserve, which is the wrath of God. He has made a way for rebels to rejoin their king in Jesus.
There are many things that can be said about Hell, and all of them are terrifying. However, God cares too much about his world and his people to let evil go unchecked. He shows us how far he is willing to go to save us in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The end of the gospel story is not about heaven; the point of salvation is not that we don’t go to Hell. The whole goal of Jesus’s sacrificial death, is that we are able to be with our creator again. Through faith in Christ, we are reconciled to God as we experience the fullness of his loving kindness and forgiveness.