Monday, December 16, 2013

How Can “Eternal Hell” Be Consistent with God’s Character?

Renowned atheist, Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), was no friend to the biblical faith. He had attacked it in perhaps its most vulnerable place – the doctrine of eternal damnation:

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

Ingersoll had charged that hell was “eternal cruelty,” not eternal justice as we Christians believe. However, it is difficult to launch a defense. Although the doctrine of eternal damnation is scripturally well-established, much about the nature of hell is left uncertain, and perhaps purposely so. Scripture warns us that we are not going to understand everything:

  • The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29)

To illustrate our uncertainty about the nature of hell, let’s take a look at one common revelation about it. According to Jesus, it will be a place of “wailing and gnashing of teeth”:

  • “And will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:42)

  • “Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” (Matthew 22:13)

  • "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13:28)

These verses reveal one consistent problem in our attempt to understand the nature of hell. Much of the language seems to be figurative (poetic). The first verse associates the “wailing” with a “furnace of fire,” while the second with “outer darkness.” Both descriptions – fire and darkness - cannot be literal. Meanwhile, the last verse associates the “weeping” with the regret of missing out eternally on the benefits of the kingdom. While they wanted the benefits, they continued to reject the Benefactor as they had in their first life.

Reject? The consistent absence of any attempt to confess sins and repent makes their rejection of God rather obvious. It was absent from Judas’ thinking. Instead of confession and repentance, he elected to pay for his betrayal of Jesus himself by his suicide. It was absent from Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man, who, upon death, found himself in a place of torment. Instead of confessing his sins asking pleading for forgiveness, he merely requested that his torment be slightly eased (Luke 16).

This leads us to another question about hell – one that opens the window to a possible understanding of divine justice in this matter. What if hell is self-chosen? Jesus gives us a hint of what this might look like:

  • 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. This is the verdict [“condemnation,” NKJV]: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-19)

According to Jesus, He need not condemn us. We are self-“condemned already,” because we have rejected the Son, the only way of finding forgiveness. And it seems that the condemnation in the next life will be little different. Because we have chosen the darkness of sin instead of the light of Christ, it is we who have made the choice for our eternal destiny! If we loved darkness here, we will continue to love darkness there and will flee from the now blinding and terrifying Light of the Presence of the Savior.

This is not to deny that there will be a great judgment in the end. However, it does suggest that God might simply approve the very judgment we have chosen for ourselves. Heaven and hell, therefore, might simply be a matter of God giving us what we have chosen for ourselves.

Another illustration of this principle is found in the Garden account. After Adam and Eve had sinned, their orientation towards the Light was radically transformed. While prior to their sin, they enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God in the Garden. They were so comfortable with this arrangement that their nakedness caused no discomfort whatsoever. However, once they sinned, they hid in the darkness from the Light, which had now become distasteful to them, and determined to deal with their guilt and shame in their own way, much as Judas had done. While the first couple attempted to cover their sin with fig leaves, Judas resorted to a hangman’s noose.

Even after God had given them room to confess their sin, they lied and refused to take responsibility for their betrayal. Indeed, God cast them out of the Garden and out of His Presence. However, they never once pleaded for His mercy. Even after they were informed that they would be sent to a place of pain, death and hard work, they never once expressed any objection to this terrible judgment. Instead, it seems that they were more than willing to endure the pain in order to avoid the Light.
Perhaps this is a dim picture of the supreme and terrifying justice of hell? I don’t know. However, I am confident that our God is just and merciful despite our perplexities. He promises as much:

·         “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:47-48)

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