The hell discussions all over the blogsphere were largely set off by Rob Bell. Last year, Bell’s book Love Wins set off a huge reaction. Now, I haven’t read the book. I plan to, but haven’t yet. The book is controversial, so much so that many have declared Bell a heretic. Well, here’s the promo video for the book in case you don’t know anything about it (oddly I didn’t until just recently- a whole year after all this business began)
So, Bell’s point, as I understand it by reading many of those responding to him, is that God loves everyone. God is love. If God loves everyone, unconditionally, the traditional view of hell is incompatible with that. So, hell as a punishment for all who don’t accept Jesus Christ contradicts the nature of God as Bell understands God (if you’ve read Love Wins, and I’m wrong, please correct me). So, in Bell’s understanding, all people will eventually be saved. Hell is temporary, corrective. Ultimately the love of God for all people wins out over the need to punish evil.
So, Bell would fall into this category we call universalism- the position that God will save everyone… eventually, somehow, we all experience the victorious love of God.
Part of me wants Bell to be right- to think that all people would one day repent and every knee would bow to Jesus, and evil would be purged from the earth. Hell sounds awful. Even those who most ardently support the strictest eternal conscious torment position would (I hope) admit that hell is something vile and terrible. There is a holy tension here. Scripture says that wrath and punishment (however we understand it) awaits the enemies of God. But how is that compatible with love? Jesus called us to love our enemies, and bless those who persecute us. Yet he will not do the same? But he has (Rom. 5:8-10). How can a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in covenant love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6) create a place where the objects of his love become objects of wrath, perpetually, unceasingly, etc. Bell has basis to at least ask the question. If he died for the enemies who he loves, what need is there for eternal punishment?
So does God love everyone? Well, the other end of the spectrum is Mark Driscoll. Here’s his thoughts on the wrath of God. I am posting here a roughly 8 minute video, but here’s the highlight quote which got Driscoll in some hot water with his critics:
Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is “meritous”. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you; He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you
Yeah, he said that… to his church.
So, here’s the dilemma- does God hate certain people? I’m sure we can think of some awful person from history- surely God hates Hitler? Does God hate anyone who doesn’t profess “Jesus is Lord”? This question ultimately defines how we understand hell. If God loves the sinner, and is pursuing them, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9) it is likely you will battle with this idea of hell. It won’t sync with your understanding of God. He doesn’t want anyone to perish, yet he himself inflicts this perishing on people? That should cause us to pause. Why? Why not make it easier to find him? Why not make the narrow road wider? Yes, he has made himself known, and Romans tells us no one has an excuse (Rom. 1:20). But God could make it even easier, couldn’t he?
So what if Driscoll is right? Well, the prophet Nahum wrote, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies.” (Nahum 1:2). I really prefer 1 John 4:9. I prefer it. It sounds nicer to me. I want that to be true. I don’t like this wrath business. But there it is. If we see that God, as Sovereign, has the capacity for infinite love, it’s logical to conclude he is also capable of infinite hate, right? He is slow to anger, but he does show anger. Sirach states “both mercy and wrath are with him.” (5:6). If this is the case, eternal hell is very easy to see as a real possibility. But does the capability for infinite anger translate to an actual infinite pouring out of anger? Just because God can, does that mean he will?
Now, here’s the really tough question; does it have to be one or the other? Is it possible for God to love everyone and show wrath toward some simultaneously? Habakkuk prayed, “In wrath may you remember to show mercy” (Hab. 3:2). In wrath, show mercy. When you pour out anger, may mercy happen. How can that be? Are not wrath and mercy mutually exclusive, antonyms? Well, no, God can be loving and wrathful, because his love restrains his wrath (he is slow to anger). The Midrash Tanhuma states:
It is also written (concerning the Holy One in Exod. 34:7) “preserving steadfast love for thousands.” And it is written (ibid.): “Visiting the iniquity of parents upon children
and children’s children…” From here it is shown that a good measure is five hundred times greater than a measure of divine punishment.
So, God’s love is to thousands (at least 2000) and wrath to the fourth. Thus, his love is at least 500 times greater than wrath. His mercy and compassion curbs the wrath.
Bell uses the example of Ghandi. Ghandi was a Hindu. He did not proclaim Jesus is Lord. Is he bound for eternal conscious torment? I can’t say for sure. I am not the Almighty.
But here’s what I wondered; when we look at hell, how often do we do so with the agenda of determining who’s going there? How often do we want to place everyone into a category of hellbound or heavenbound? We want to be the one to separate the sheep and the goats. And we do so with the living as well as the dead. We don’t just debate the eternal fate of the most evil people history has known- the Hitlers, Lenins, Stalins, Charles Mansons, etc. We do it with the people we see around us. We look at the guy on the street corner selling drugs as an object of God’s wrath.
Is that what Scripture teaches? We see in Scripture Jesus comparing God to a shepherd who leaves the 99 to pursue 1 who has wandered off. When we categorize people, do we see lost and in need of rescue or hellbound? Do we see them as the object of God’s pursuit?
Do we perceive hell as something which grieves the heart of God? Those are unrescued sheep. This is where the debate breaks down. We pick sides and throw rocks at the other while the folks in the middle fall through the cracks. Rob Bell supporters have all sorts of names for Driscoll and vice versa.
What I’m proposing is that perhaps the angle at which we approach hell needs to be adjusted. The recent debate about the duration of hell or the ever popular debates over who goes to hell are somewhat problematic. What I like about Bell’s approach is that he asks, “who is this God?”. That is a more important question. Instead of launching into debates about the exact meaning of apollumi and how this place can simultaneously be completely dark and a lake of fire, how about we ask, who is God? What is God like? How do we relate to God as created beings? All to often we gloss over this. We say, well God is holy and just and therefore must punish sinners. Really? We define what God must do? Or we go the other way- God loves everyone. Surely he wouldn’t punish anyone forever. Surely the doctrine of hell is stretching things.
Perhaps it’s time to throw up our hands and simply say “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” have mercy on us.
But I want to close with this thought: Jesus pleaded for forgiveness for those who killed him. Read that sentence back to yourself. He prayed for their forgiveness. He prayed that the guys responsible for killing the Son of God would be reconciled to God (Lk. 23:34). Could it be that Caiphas, Pilate, Herod, etc. might find God to be merciful and compassionate? Jesus advocated for them.
We know from Scripture that not every person who has ever lived has their name in the Lamb’s book of life. But it’s his book. I’d rather let him have control over who goes where and for how long.
In your wrath, remember to show mercy. Amen.