Thursday, May 05, 2005

More Musings on Hell

I have been encouraged by the many of you who have taken the time to email me and chat with me about Sunday's sermon on hell. We are living "life together," meditating and processing God's Word with one another. I received the following letter from one guy in our congregation. It's an excellent overview of some of the issues that surround this difficult topic, but it also demonstrates the intellectual and emotional struggle that many of us have experienced in trying to come to grips with God's Word on these matters. It's a thoughtful response and helpful extension of the discussion we began last Lord's Day. I don't necessarily agree with it all, but I won't tell you which parts. I do appreciate the well-articluted paradox between God's sovereignty and human responsibility (notice I didn't say God's sovereignty and man's free will. The difference is significant and crucial.).

Free lunch to the first person who can guess who wrote it. . . .

May 5, 2005

Pastor Tim:

I appreciate your courage in preaching on Hell last Sunday. After your series on Heaven I mentioned to my wife: “the subject of Heaven may not be taught enough in church but if Pastor Tim was really brave he would preach on Hell.” You are either a brave man or are trying to avoid going to three services by winnowing the flock.

I confess that I have struggled with the doctrine of Hell (haven’t we all?). C.S. Lewis has helped me accept that it is ok to not like the idea. His ‘The Great Divorce” has helped me to imagine that it could be possible for the Lost to in some way choose hell rather than relinquish their autonomy to God (I am aware that this allegory is not necessarily scriptural – it suggests the idea of purgatory for example). However, I’ve still not found a satisfactory way to think about Hell. Instead, I gave up trying to understand the doctrine and just trusted that God knew what he was doing.

From time to time the questions resurface. Philosophical questions like: “How can a Just, Sovereign God create creatures destined for eternal punishment?” Practical questions like: “How do I relate to unsaved loved ones if their destiny is really eternal damnation?” I am hoping to find a tolerable way to think about Hell (rather than ignoring the subject) without compromising my sense of Joy in the Lord. My fear isn’t that I won’t understand the doctrine, but that I will understand and will therefore find it difficult to worship God. Here are my thoughts, Tim - any help you can offer would be appreciated:

Consider the following Christian beliefs:

1. God is Just.
2. All humans are born with a sin nature.
3. Without God’s intervention the destiny of sinful humans is Hell.
4. Hell is a place of punishment.
5. Hell is eternal in duration.
6. God elects (chooses) who will be saved (Eph 1:4-5)

The difficulty is understanding God’s justice if 2-6 are true. Man cannot help but sin – he is born with a sin nature. How can man be condemned for what he is genetically programmed to do? The answer given is that it is still man who chooses to sin. Somehow we are both responsible for our sin and unable to keep from sinning. We must accept that there is an irresolvable paradox between God’s sovereignty in choosing who will be saved and man’s responsibility. I can’t think of any analogy that helps explain this and am resigned to accept that the dilemma can’t be resolved.

This would just be an academic exercise except that the stakes are so high. The punishment for our sins does not seem proportional to the offense. Our concept of justice includes fairness and a weighing of the circumstances to fit the punishment to the crime. A traffic violation will get you a fine. Murder someone and you will go to prison. If premeditated with special circumstances you may forfeit your life. It is difficult to imagine how 70 years of sinful living merits eternal torment (putting aside the issue of responsibility). It’s even harder if we think that this punishment will be earned by the nice people we know who try to live moral lives but do not know God (its not quite as difficult if we think about the most wicked transgressors).

Our sense that justice requires punishment proportional to the crime is not unique to our culture. Consider Leviticus 24:20: “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” In your sermon you noted that our God-given conscience cries for justice when we experience a wrong. Why does our conscience fail us so badly in acknowledging that Hell is the just reward for our sin? It does no good to say that God’s justice is “above ours” – that when we apply this attribute to God it doesn’t mean what we think of when we apply the word to human circumstances. Then why use the word “just”? Why not simply say, “God can do whatever he wants”? When we say: “God is Just”, we must mean something very like what we mean when we say that Solomon is just, or that a particular law is just (fair).

I don’t expect to understand the paradox of God’s justice, but I’d like a way to think about it. We may confess with our lips that God is Just but our hearts falter when we think about Hell. If we really don’t believe that God is Just then we will have difficulty loving and worshiping him. This is why we don’t think about Hell. It’s too risky for our faith. It’s safer to meditate on how “God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Even then, in the back of our minds, our compassion for unsaved loved ones causes us to question God’s justice: “Will He really allow them to be banished to Hell? If God elects (chooses) those who will be saved why won’t he choose them?”

Practically, how are we to relate to those we love who are unsaved. If they are really destined for eternal punishment then it seems absurd not to spend every moment trying to coerce them into salvation. Except that it is not us, but God who saves. We go about our daily lives, casually relating with and loving people who are condemned for all of eternity. We should shout: “Something bigger is going on here! Your eternal destiny is hanging in the balance!” Why don’t we? Is it because we really don’t believe in Hell?

I have convinced myself that since it is God who saves, my responsibility is to pray for the unsaved and to be a good witness. But with the stakes so high I wonder if that is enough. I have excused myself from more radical efforts by asking the following rhetorical question: “Can it ever be the case that someone will not be saved (and therefore banished eternally to Hell) because of something I did or didn’t do?” I’ve always believed that the answer must be no. If yes, then how is it fair? How can someone else pay the ultimate price for my negligence? How does that reconcile with Divine Justice? (but then I haven’t done so good understanding God’s justice to begin with).

How do I presently think about Hell, God’s justice and the unsaved? Honestly, I try not to. But I desire to think about God rightly – in a way that balances His Justice and Mercy and allows for the doctrine of eternal punishment without diminishing my belief that God is Just and loving. Here’s my present thought formula:

1. Affirm that God is Just and Merciful (in the normal way that we use these words).
2. Accept that I don’t have enough information to understand how eternal punishment could be a proportional and just punishment for sin.
3. Acknowledge that I really don’t know who will be saved from Hell. Only God knows our hearts.
4. Hope and pray that the lost will be saved – especially loved ones and those nice people that just don’t seem deserving of eternal damnation.
5. Believe that God does not wish for any to perish (2 Peter 3:9)
6. Remember that Jesus, God’s incarnate son, suffered and died to save us demonstrating God’s Mercy.
7. Trust that God knows what He is doing even if it doesn’t make sense to me at this time.

At the risk of slipping into heresy I confess to also sometimes speculating on the following possibilities:

1. Perhaps accepting the doctrine of Hell is like Abraham accepting God’s command to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Abraham didn’t question whether this was the kind of request a Just God would make. He trusted God and everything turned out fine in the end. No harm, no foul. Is it possible that Christ’s atonement covers more than we imagine – that somehow our lost loved ones will be snatched from eternal damnation at the last minute just as God stayed Abraham’s hand as he was preparing to sacrifice his son?

2. What if the Elect are from a larger pool than we imagine. Is it possible that some of those who do not confess Christ are also part of the Elect, chosen for salvation? On the human responsibility side of the equation are some judged to have trusted God even if they don’t call him by name? Lewis suggested this idea in the Last Battle where the Calormene Emeth is saved though he worshiped the false god Tash because he did so with the attitude of one who worshiped Aslan. We know that: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” (Rom 10:9-10) and that: whoever shall deny me [Jesus] before men, I will also deny him before my father who is in Heaven (Matt. 10:33).” But what of those who do not confess or specifically deny Jesus? Is there such a category? If so, could they be judged by a different standard (human responsibility side), chosen by God for salvation (God’s sovereignty side) with all still made possible by Christ’s atonement? I’m thinking of Romans 2:15: “…their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.”

3. I have tried to find a way to show that maybe God didn’t mean eternal (as in duration of time) when the Bible describes Hell as eternal punishment. However, as you pointed out in your Sunday sermon, Mathew 25:46 really makes this interpretation difficult because eternal also refers to eternal life in the parallel phrase.

4. If God does not wish for any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) then our prayers for the Lost are consistent with God’s desires. Surely He will do everything possible to answer these prayers and save the Lost. Is it possible that God has burdened our hearts to pray for certain individuals because He has already chosen them for salvation (Divine side) and knows that they will (not because they will) turn toward him before they die (human side)?

A lot of the difficulty in accepting the doctrine of Hell has to do with the paradox between God’s sovereignty and Man’s responsibility. I’ve focused more on the role of God in choosing the Elect for salvation. If we focus on man’s responsibility Hell is more understandable. God cannot welcome sinful man into heaven. If we turn from God and choose to make a god of ourselves there ought to be consequences. C.S. Lewis seems to focus more on the human responsibility side of the equation and suggests that those who turn away from God would continue to do so for all of eternity (The Great Divorce). This somewhat helps to justify the eternal duration of Hell. Still, I’m not sure why God couldn’t just annihilate the Lost rather than send them into eternal torment. He brought them into existence – couldn’t he just take them out? Of course God is under no obligation to tell us why it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve gone about as far as I can go with this subject without starting to do research. However, I’m not sure that spending any more time thinking about Hell would be productive. I am interested in any helpful feedback you might have, Tim. Do not think that I expect a response right away – I know you are busy. It’s been helpful just trying to think through this subject a little. Your Sunday sermon on Hell is to blame.

Thanks for reading.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

WOW!!!

Anonymous said...

The more I learn about God the more I see myself for who I am. It is difficult for me to acknowledge that no matter how hard I try to be a "good person" I am still deserving of eternal punishment. Am I really that evil? Am I or any of my unsaved friends and relatives really so evil that we deserve horrible eternal punishment? The more I come to know God the more I realize the answer is YES! YES! YES!

I did not even begin to see how holy, pure, righteous, good our God is until I was confronted with the reality of Hell. It is truly a horrible punishment beyond comprehension. It illustrates how far a "good person" falls short of God's standards. The horror (which shows just how evil I am) is contrasted with the Grace of God (which shows true goodness).

Jesus Christ went into the lake of fire for eternity and took that horrible beyond comprehension punishment. What "good person" would do that? Only God could. Only Jesus Christ would. And I thank God that He did.

If I refuse His beyond comprehension sacrifice for me what could be a greater afront to God?

Amy Kardel said...

I am going to guess this is from Mark Case. Only a PhD in Philosophy numbers his arguments like that. German PhDs add 1.1.1 like a weird Microsoft versioning system gone overboard. This was an American philosophy PhD. No?

Anonymous said...

Hello. I don't know the person that wrote this because I am not part of the church at SLO. I am part of the flock in Laguna Hills where Tim used to minister.

I have one thought about the letter on Hell that Tim received from somoene in the congregation. The anonymous author writes:
"The punishment for our sins does not seem proportional to the offense. Our concept of justice includes fairness and a weighing of the circumstances to fit the punishment to the crime. A traffic violation will get you a fine. Murder someone and you will go to prison. If premeditated with special circumstances you may forfeit your life. It is difficult to imagine how 70 years of sinful living merits eternal torment (putting aside the issue of responsibility)." Here's my thought on the portion I quoted. When we consider God's punishment of those who sin against Him we need to recognize that it wasn't just 70 years of sinful living, but 70 years (or even 1 second) of sinful living against a specific person - an Infinite God. Because our sin is against an Infinite God, the punishment for that sin is to be infinite as well, except for the grace of God in salvation. If we sin against our neighbor, then eye for an eye is appropriate. They are a creature just like us and the punishment is appropriate for the offense. But, if we sin against God who is perfectly Holy and Infinite, then how could the punishment be anything but infinite? Justice requires eye for an eye. However, when one of those eyes belongs to God, no amount of time could repay the offense. Finite creatures cannot repay an infinite debt to an infinite God. That is Anselm's argument in his "Cur Deus Home" (Why the God-man?). We needed one who was both infinite himself and could serve as man's representative. Man sinned, so man "ought" to pay for his sin. But the payment needed was an infinite payment that man couldn't make. Not any ordinary man, that is. Enter, the God-man. Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully man, was the only one who could atone for the sins of sinful man. Anselm's book is really helpful when it comes to understanding the issue of eternal torment and why it is not not only biblical, but necessary for justice to truly be served.

Dave McShea said...

Tim,

I don't know what was more thought provoking, your sermon or this letter. I think you have about 10 years worth of messages in the questions and comments made here.

I appreciate the struggles and the issues raised. I too was convicted by the thought of my atittude toward the lost if Hell is their destination.

Now I can see why the classic preachers did not neglect this topic the way we do in the church today.

Keep it up Tim. Preach boldly!