Before reading this, do the following "thought experiment". If I say "hell", what does it make you think about? Don't read this next sentence until you have thought about that for a second. If I say "God's love", what does it make you think about? If I say "the God revealed in Jesus Christ", what do you think about? Finally, think about this: How do hell, God's love, and the God revealed in Jesus Christ fit together? Now, ponder these Scriptures:
1 John 4:8 God is Love.
Hebrews 12:29 Our God is a consuming fire.
Hebrews 10:30-31 For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
1 Corinthians 3:11-15 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …Yet, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Matthew 7:11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
And think about what Jesus teaches us in the Prodigal Son while you are at it (Luke 15 if you need to look it up).
Have you pondered all of these things in your heart? Good. Now you can read the rest of this.
A few days ago, I wrote an article on hell, and how some of our false ideas about it became so popular. A few months ago, I wrote two massive 8000+ word articles on the idea of a "Redemptive Hell", and why it makes more sense of Scripture and Systematic Theology than any contending version of what hell is. Today I just want to write a short post on why hell is real, why we don't want to go there, and why it is not God's last word to those in hell.
I guess my big problems with the traditional views of hell really began in 2004 with the reading of Brian McLaren's "The Last Word and the Word after that" and CS Lewis' "Great Divorce" and "George MacDonald" anthology. The problems were defined better through some great conversations with my friend Steve. And the problems got worse with the birth of my daughter Elise.
And here is the central problem: How can God our Father stop loving us? And, if it is true that God will not stop loving us, how can God give up on us? And if God will not give up on us, then how can hell be God's final Word to a vast majority of humanity who has either died without Christ, or died while rejecting the incomplete Christ they knew through the (often hypocritical) preaching, teaching, and example of His Church?
It seems that I have come to believe so much in Scripture, and come to love Jesus so much, that I simply cannot disbelieve what it (quite literally) says in places like 1Corinthians 15, Philippians 2, Romans 5, and 9-11, the Gospel of John, and Colossians. I simply can no longer dismiss promises that God will reconcile all things to Himself through Jesus Christ, and that every knee in heaven, earth, and under the earth will bow in worship and confess in praise that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. I can no longer simply believe that the Bible is exaggerating when it says that God's Love will never give up, never fail, and never keep a record of wrongs (cf. 1Co. 13). I simply cannot call it naïve optimism or dramatic overstatement that just as "in Adam all die" so "in Christ all will be made alive" because God "so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life".
And, since having my daughter, I can no longer imagine that God could stop loving us. Jesus (above) says that if we, even though we are evil, know how to do good to our children (because we love them), then just imagine how much more God knows how to do good to us. Our love for our children, as great as it may seem to us, is but a pale reflection of God's love for us. And I refuse to believe that if I just understood God's love more, I would understand how he could stop loving his children, or give up and give them over to un-ending destruction. That's not God's love. That's satanic! My love, as a born-again, Scripture-trusting, Christ-believing, Spirit-filled Christian father, bears witness to the even greater love of God my Father. If I cannot imagine giving up on my children, how much more can God not imagine giving up on us!
I can imagine that God might have to give us a huge, hellish "time out", by allowing us to perish and be separated from everyone else so that we can no longer spread our hurtful, selfish, sinful infection to others. I can see why hell is necessary, and I believe that hell is a reality. And from my experience in my own soul, in Christ's church, and in God's world, I believe that people DO and WILL go to hell, because heaven would be hellish if they were allowed into it, in their current state.
But I can no longer believe that hell is a destination of no reprieve. Instead, it seems that hell is a tool of last resort. I believe that hell is "being face to face with the love that will not die". It is being in solitary confinement with Him who is the consuming fire of Love. It is our Father saying:
Fine, you can deny my love and even deny my reality, but I will never deny you. And I will keep you alone with me so that you cannot hurt anyone else with your sinfulness. And it will be you and me here alone forever, if you want it to be. And you will never see another soul until you choose to accept my love and my forgiveness and become a loving child of God like my Child Jesus is. I give you the choice. You can receive my love and say to me "Thy will be done", or you can deny me and I will say to you "Thy will be done". It's your choice. I am waiting…
Why is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God? Because he will torture us forever if we do not obey him? No! It is fearful because it will kill our selfishness to come face to face with him who is unselfish, unfathomable, unrelenting love. His perfect love will sear our conscience and convict us of all that is mean and cruel inside of us. The fire of His Love will purify and refine us of everything that stops us from being in perfect communion with Him and His children. He wants to kill everything in us that uses Him and manipulates others for our own gratification, and the part of us that wants selfish gratification is afraid of that reality. Deathly afraid. He will not give up, not stop, and not hold back until He has made us into a perfectly loving child of God who can fully share in Him as a friend shares love with another friend and as a wife shares intimacy with her husband. We cannot hide from his love, but we will be stripped naked and see ourselves as we really are in the presence of His perfect Love.
That is why it is fearful. Not because God will give up on us, but because God won't!
Can someone stay in hell forever? Theoretically, yes. It is vaguely possible that someone could be alone in solitary confinement with God forever and stubbornly keep denying His love forever, like a two-year old that never stops having a temper tantrum. It is thinkable that someone could grasp the unreality of their sin for all eternity and never loosen their grip to receive the love they are living inside of. There is a potential that someone could choose personal misery and desperately close the eyes of their soul to the light of Christ for un-ending ages upon ages.
But, somehow I doubt that a creature will ever be able to out-stubborn its Creator. Not our Creator, the one that defeated death in Jesus Christ.
There may be some who take millions upon millions of our years to repent and accept God's Love in Christ. There may be some so dead-set on denying Jesus that they will take eons to admit that all of God's fullness is revealed in Him. And there may be some who for ages will hold on to their guilt and hurt and not allow their sin to be put to death through Jesus' one-time offering of Himself on the Cross.
But, in the end, I hope with a sure hope that Jesus will redeem all of Creation and reconcile all things to His Father through His death and resurrection. I don't think anyone will get there apart from Him, because to know God is to know Christ (since He IS God Incarnate). And thus, if someone says "no" to Christ, they are saying "no" to God. But, in His time, using hell as a last-ditch tool, I hope that God will bring all people to say "Yes" to Him in Christ. It is not some vague, pie-in-the-sky, hell-denying, Christ-avoiding, pluralistic Universalism. It is a hard, concrete, specific hope in a God who has proved that His Love will NEVER die in a specific place and time, through a very historical resurrection of a very real Person.
And I do not call this hope a doctrine or a dogma. I cannot be certain of it. I can only see hints and pointers to it all through Scripture. And God does not have to redeem everything to be God, or to please me. God is not confined to any boxes, and God does not "owe" it to anyone to save all. Quite the other way around. We owe it all to Him, and there is no way to repay because we have screwed everything up! Yet, God repayed Himself perfect obedience by becoming human in Christ and living a perfect life for us all. To forgive us, God has to take all the consequences of our sin, suffering, and death into Himself and not allow us to be destroyed by it. This He has done by dying for us on the Cross, and defeating death by rising again. And since He is the Eternal God, His death is an eternal death that puts to death an eternal amount of consequences for an eternal amount of sin.
Everything that hinders us from coming back to God has been dealt with once-for-all in Jesus. Everything except our acceptance of it, and desire to live in it. And I have a certain hope that, since God has done all of this for us in Jesus Christ, he will complete His work and bring us to that acceptance in this world or the next (or the next!). After all, if God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things necessary to live in Him? (cf. Romans 8:32 ) It's not a certainty, but a hope. And St. Paul reminds us that "hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).
Let's put it logically in three theses: Thesis 1: Does God really love every single person he has created and desire them to be saved? If we trust the clear meaning of Scripture, then the answer is yes. Thesis 2: Does God have the power to accomplish what he desires? Again, the clear import of Scripture is yes. Thesis 3: Will God accomplish the redemption of all people as He desires? That's a good question. Well, if the Father really does desire all to be saved (thesis 1), and He has the power to save all through His Son who has crucified all sin, and His Spirit who has the ability to woo even the most unrepentant sinner back to Him (thesis 2), then the answer seems inescapable, even if the certainty is merely hopeful.
So what is hell? It is coming face to face with this love that will never die, known fully only in Jesus Christ. And what is heaven? It is coming face with this love that will never die, known fully only in Jesus Christ. And what is the difference? Whether we experience this reality as warmth and comfort, or as flames and misery, depends entirely on how much we have surrendered our entire selves- body, spirit, and soul- to love like Jesus does.
And, if this is hell, and God will love anyone no matter what, then why share Christ with others? I guess that is answered best by a series of questions: If you really love Jesus with all your self, how can you NOT tell others? If you really love others, how can you NOT tell them about the source of your Love, which is Jesus and his death and resurrection? If you were a doctor, could you just walk past a car wreck with lots of injured and dying people, and say "I don't need to help them, they are going to God anyway"? If you had a antidote to a epidemic, could you just say "I don't feel like injecting anyone and curing them, because they will go to God anyway"? If you believe in the power and persistence of the Love of Christ to heal everyone, how could you for a moment not choose to live in it for your own sake, and share it with everyone for the sake of others?
And finally, how could you knowingly and purposefully live in sin and selfishness if you know that you are going to be refined by the fire of Him who is perfect Love, and spend forever in His presence and in the presence of everyone you have ever known? If you know you can't escape God's Love, and that God will never give up until you Love like He does, it changes the way you live now and forever.
May we all live our lives, every day in every way, as people who will forever be face to face with the Love that will not die. Amen+