Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Doctrine of Hell, Part 2

In yesterday's part one on the doctrine of hell, I pointed out that the Bible teaches that hell is a place, that hell is a place where justice is meted out, and that hell is a place that God Himself created. Hell is a good place, though it is quite terrible. It is good because hell is a just place. Hell is where sin is punished exactly as it ought to be punished. The failure to understand that hell is a place where justice prevails is, perhaps, one of the primary reasons we shirk the doctrine of hell altogether.

Though we are all sinful and selfish beings, we all have an innate sense that there is something called "justice." We may, and often do, disagree as to what justice might look like, but we have a keen sense of "fair" and "unfair." This is why the idea that a loving God would not send anyone to hell simply falls flat on its face, even in a cursory examination. We understand that crimes deserve punishment. If an infamous criminal came before a judge, and the judge said, "I'm going to let you go because I am too loving to punish the guilty." We would immediately protest. The families of the victim of the criminal would be especially upset. How could God get away with being less just than a human judge?

So then, I do not think that the idea that a loving God would not send anyone to hell is really a very serious argument at all. It could be that this objection really comes from the idea that hell is too harsh for the crimes committed. This, in my opinion, is a much better objection. How can God punish for eternity something done in a finite time? Also, how can God punish someone in hell simply for failing to believe that God exists and/or that Jesus Christ is the Messiah? Do people really deserve an eternity of agony for not capitulating to God? And if they do, doesn't this make God some sort of tyrant unfit to be worshipped or served?

These are excellent questions, and these questions are why feathers get ruffled by the idea that Ghandi might be in the same hell as Hitler. Christians ought to take time to work through these questions for the sake of their own sanity, and for the sake of those who would sincerely like to know how we could believe such a thing. The Bible teaches, quite clearly, that if Ghandi died a Christ-rejector then he does go into the same hell as a Christ-rejecting Hitler. How can this be just?

First, we have to recognize that rejecting Jesus of Nazareth is not the same as rebuffing the friendship of just any other person. Jesus is the Messiah, the perfect representative of God on earth, for in Christ "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Colossians 2:9). God is not like our neighbor. Here is a partial description of what God is like from the Westminster Catechism:

God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, not deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory, in by, unto, and upon them: he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things.

Follow this simple logic. God is the fountain of all being. God is good. Therefore, all the good that we enjoy comes from the fountain of God's being. Let me break down what that means for us.

Because God is the fountain of all the good we enjoy, we are experiencing a gift from God when we love, kiss, eat, sleep, hug our family members, hold our spouse, and play with our children. Every happy thought, every joyful tear, these are all little drops of pleasure that had their source in the mind of God. When we reject Jesus Christ, and by rejecting Christ we reject God, we are rejecting the source of all of those things that are good. We are trying, in our rebellion, to get at the streams of joy without having to love the fountain from which they flow. This is pure folly and the root of all evil. What this does to us is it demonstrates that we are, in this condition, unfit for good things because we do not love the most wonderful thing of all: God Himself. Secondly, this folly cuts us off from enjoying the good things of life as we should.

Here is how rejecting God sullies the joys that we do have. Imagine a clear mountain stream. As it flows, it is crystal clear, it is cold, and it is refreshing. It will even remain liquid below freezing temperatures because it is moving. For some strange reason, we decide we love the water but hate the stream. So, we dam off a little section for ourself. The water is stilled. We play in it, but we soon find it is muddied. If we leave it alone, it freezes. As it sits alone, it also begins to stagnate. It is no longer refreshing, clear, or safe to drink. So what do we do? We curse the stream and blame it for our lousy water.

Hell may be described as a place where people go who hate God. There, they are cut off from the stream of God's goodness. Hell is a place where all of God's favor is withdrawn, even the muddy pools of our own making. God is the source and rightful owner of even the waters we muddy. For the rejection of Christ, God has decreed that we are to be cut off from the fountains of His goodness. So then, hell is partially the agony of remembering the sweet taste of stolen waters that we are no longer allowed to enjoy, and it is partially the consuming hatred of the Being who refuses to share this water on our terms.

This is why Ghandi, if he died in rebellion to Christ, goes to the same hell as Hitler. Ghandi enjoyed his muddied version of peace and equality, but if He did not love the Prince of Peace, then he cannot keep it. Hitler loved authority. But if he died not loving the Sovereign God, then he cannot keep it.

Do we still worry about Ghandi? We shouldn't if we believe in a just God. God will give Ghandi exactly what he deserves, and so it will be with Hitler. The punishment will be neither too great nor too little. It will be perfect justice. All who look on the punishment of hell will marvel. They will marvel at the folly that put people there, and they will marvel at the justice meted out in that place.

On the last post in this series, I will look at why the outright denial of hell belittles the salvation found in Jesus Christ the Lord.

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