Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hell: A Great Injustice?

The idea of God consigning human beings to eternal torment has been strongly denounced. The renowned atheist Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) had written:

• Eternal punishment must be eternal cruelty and I do not see how any man, unless he has a brain of an idiot, or the heart of a wild beast, can believe in eternal punishment.

However, what if hell is SELF-chosen? What if many would prefer to be in a place of darkness than a place of light and truth? Clearly, many people have a strong aversion to God – the idea of a cosmic policeman or morality watchdog. Many philosophers have confessed that they prefer a world devoid of God. The atheist and author of the Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, explained his rejection of the Christian faith:

• I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning [and moral absolutes]; consequently assumed that it had none…We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless. (Ends and Mean)

A meaningless world is a world that can’t point an accusing finger at us. It’s a world where we are free to create our own meaning without an overbearing God imposing His values upon us. What if this temporarily-alluring, self-created world, in which we have “eliminated” God – the light – then becomes a darkened hell. Would this make God unjust? Hardly! Perhaps hell is something we choose because we can’t stomach the alternative. Soren Kierkegaard explained that the God-alternative is very demanding:

• The truth is a snare; you cannot have it without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only such a way that it catches you. (The Last Years)

It is therefore no wonder that the truth is highly offensive. It not only catches us, but it also exposes us. As light exposes filth, God uncovers our true motives. And there is nothing as threatening as having our real self revealed to the light. In line with this, Jesus stated:

• This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
(John 3:19-20)

It is the lovers-of-darkness who seem to hand down the “verdict” on themselves. Because of this, it is possible that judgment will not have to be actively imposed. The lovers-of-darkness will gladly reject the light. (I know; I too had been a lover-of-darkness!)

Although Jesus is designated as the ultimate Judge (Acts 17:31; John 5:22-27; 9:39-41), there remains some uncertainly regarding how He will judge:

• As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.
(John 12:47-48)

Evidently, Jesus will judge, but He will judge indirectly. “My words” will do the judging. But how do words judge? Perhaps, humanity will be divided by their response to His Words. The goats will gladly choose the goats, and the sheep will follow the other sheep. For some, His Words will be an utter stench, driving them away. According to the Apostle Paul:

• God…through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life…(2 Cor. 2:14-16)

Why would His revelation represent such a stench to those who reject Him? Jesus explained that “the world hates me because I testify that what it does is evil” (John 7:7). Indeed, we hate those who expose us for what we are, even when we are not fully aware of what we are doing. As light disperses darkness, truth is an offense to our many rationalizations and denials. Humility, transparency and trust in a saving God are provocations to those who have fortified themselves – however inadequately – against the charges of their conscience.

Perhaps the best example of this is found in the Garden of Eden. After the first couple sinned, they could no longer tolerate the presence of God. They hid themselves under a bush from Him and covered themselves with fig leaves. Even after giving them every chance to confess their sins, they refused and clothed themselves in half-truths and blame-shifting. And even after He pronounced upon them the consequences of their sin and rebellion – death and expulsion – there was no confession or repentance. We are left to conclude that when their God delivered His final, they were content to be finally away from His painful presence. Not once did they say, “Forgive us and give us a second chance.” Instead, they were probably relieved to be separated from this over-bearing and judgmental God. Indeed, God had condemned them, but they had first chosen this condemnation themselves. By hiding in the bushes, they demonstrated that they no longer wanted God.

Those who have rejected His Messiah are already self-condemned:

• For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.
(John 3:17-18)

According to Jesus, humankind is self-condemned already, because of their hatred of the light – a vote in favor of the darkness of self-deceit. If they hate the light in this life – and God is more “distant” here – there is no reason to suppose that they will suddenly love the light in the next life, when God’s presence will be far more imposing. This is illustrated in Jesus’ parable about the beggar Lazarus and the unrepentant rich man. Upon dying, Lazarus went to the place of the saints, while the rich man went to a place of torment. Although he begged to have his thirst quenched, he never once asked to leave the place of torment or to enter the place of joy. Instead of confessing his sins, he seemed to blame God for not having provided enough evidence of his eternal fate. In response, God assured him that he already had enough evidence (Luke 16:19-31), which lovers of darkness choose not to see.

Even in a place of torment, we tend to be too comfortable with our own ways to feel at ease under the scrutiny of a perfectly righteous and demanding God. Hell then becomes the destination of choice. It may be a place of torment, but evidently it is perceived as less tormenting than being in the presence of God.

But won’t there be people who want to go to heaven, but it will be denied to them? Firstly, the Bible gives us no hope that anyone in hell will suddenly smell the coffee and repent of their sins. It also seems that no one who truly wants to go to heaven and to enjoy the love of God will be denied. Furthermore, no one who ever humbled themselves to ask the Lord for forgiveness was ever turned away – not according to Scripture.

There is one possible verse that can be invoked in support of the idea that some will be denied entrance into heaven. Jesus provides the hypothetical situation of people who demand entry into heaven by virtue of their spiritual attainments. However, these never had any relationship with the Savior, nor did He ever have any with them. To them, He declares, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). Why then would they want to be with a God they had never known or truly pursued in this world? They were probably clueless about heaven and what it entailed. Isaiah gives us an indication of what it will be like to be in His presence:

• Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?
(Isaiah 33:14)

Only when our sin problem has been decisively addressed, do we want to come into His presence:

• When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior…
(Psalm 65:3-5)

The only reason we can endure God’s “everlasting burning” is because our guilty conscience has been cleansed by our Savior.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22; 4:15)

Once our conscience is cleansed, the “everlasting burning” becomes the fires of love and intimacy.

While the idea of hell might seem unjust, we can only blame ourselves in view of a God who cries out continually,

• The Spirit and the bride [Jesus] say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.
(Rev. 22:17)

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