Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is Hell Good for the Gospel?

For most of my life I struggled with the notion that the gospel message meant Jesus took my place on the cross and suffered God's wrath instead of me. Something prompted me to find out if this was always part of the gospel message. As it turns out, the dominant view held by the Church for the first 300 years was Moral Influence, which evolved to what would remain the dominant view for 1,000 years as Ransom Theory (Jesus tricked the devil) and Christus Victor (Jesus conquered death for all). It wasn't until the 11th century that Anselm's idea that God is offended by sin took over, and it wasn't until the 16th century that judicial punishment became a catalyst for Jesus' death that has shaped much of Protestant thinking today.

My criticism of the "divine courtroom" idea is that the only plaintiff I see in scripture is Satan. It is Jesus who tells us that God is not offended or repulsed by His beloved creation; it is our shame that creates an illusion of disconnect. So I think this penal substitution idea has more to do with John Calvin who was a lawyer, and likely read the Bible through this lens.

I believe the intention of the Reformation was to return to our early Christian roots, and I believe this was right in spirit (which is why I consider myself Protestant), but it was executed poorly.

As Mark Driscoll likes to say, bad theology is reactionary exegesis. So as a reaction against Catholic Indulgences (clergy atones with money for past sins to avoid temporal punishment), the gospel message was devolved into a form of psychological torture by trying to counter this.

Christians are supposed to be afraid of God. We are supposed to be afraid of judging other people in a way that God would not. But instead we are afraid of the possibility that God is not merciful enough to love us as we are, just only as we should be. I take great comfort knowing that this is not really fear, but lack of faith. What strikes me as alarmingly inconsistent is we do not trust that God is good and merciful enough to love his enemies. Because nothing could be more scandalous.

It's very clear from scripture that God's love for humans does not depend on our first loving him, being righteous, or having faith in him. If God loved only believers and hated his enemies, then "love your enemies" would require us to meet a moral standard higher than God himself, and that is clearly absurd.

But don't God's enemies burn in hell?

The Bible says God loves wrongdoers, unrighteous people, and even his enemies; not just people who believe in Christ. Where a distinction is made is between all being purified and reconciled by Christ's death and some being saved by his life. These are two different things.
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. ~ Paul, Romans 5:10

So what does it mean to be saved by his life? Jesus lived his life as a sacrifice for others. The great commission is a call to be refined by God's love, and to be subservient to his will. He invites us to get an early start on hell.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. ~ Isaiah 48:10
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.~ Hebrews 12:7-8
Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die... This is what makes the gospel sound so foolish. But this is what makes the gospel so necessary – we are invited to participate in the salvation of everyone by joining Jesus in dying to the sin of our ego and being resurrected into a life of corrective discipline filled with significant challenges and monumentous victories.
This is right and it pleases God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity: Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a payment to set all people free. ~ 1 Timothy 2:3-6
So let's be afraid. Let's be afraid of doubting God's goodness. Because who would want to be that guy who used fear of death to coerce people into heaven?

What we want––what we need from Christianity is real good news: really real unconditional love. No doctrinal stipulations, no deathbed ultimatums, and no limit to God's saving power and mercy. What started my investigation was wondering why the gospel couldn't just be about this man named Jesus: the Saviour who gives us life more abundantly by liberating everyone from sin and death. Well as it turns out, that's exactly what the good news has been from the very beginning. Taste and see, no strings attached.
All men are Christ's, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? ~ Clement of Alexandria, 150 – 215 AD

Further reading:
Eternal Torment vs Universal Reconciliation
The Church Fathers on Universalism
The History of Hell (Mark Edward)
A Hell of a Question

The film that got me thinking:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Ironically, Habakkuk is all about God tolerating wickedness and evil. 2 Corinthians 5 says God became sin for us. He took our curse upon Himself (Galatians 3). To say that God cannot look upon sin is to say that sin can defeat and defile God; that sin is more powerful than the righteous holiness of God. God is not so weak and powerless.