[This Article Is Part Of The Old Testament God Series]
Few things have given Christians more trouble than the attempt to reconcile a god of justice, love, and mercy with a god who threatens with the fires of hell.
- If a temporal sin is punished with eternal suffering, how is that justice?
- If we stand under the coercive demand, “Love and serve me, or be punished for eternity,” how is that love?
- If God is so narrow-minded that such torment can only be abated by begging for forgiveness, despite the sacrifice already made by His Son, how is that merciful?
These questions and others like them are difficult and, quite honestly, they are good questions to ask.
The Open Flame
Let’s probe a little deeper. Throughout scripture, the description of hell is hardly uniform. It is described as a fiery furnace (Matthew 13:42), the outer darkness (Matthew 22:13), the place of hypocrites (Matthew 24:51), the state of being cast out (Luke 13:28), as well as the lake of fire and the second death (Revelation 20:14, 15).
Theologians have an equally diverse perspective of hell. There are those who argue for a traditional understanding, drawing off the ‘fiery furnace’ imagery, whereby those condemned will suffer for eternity. There are also those who argue for annihilationism, drawing off the ‘second death’ metaphor, whereby condemnation does not result in eternal torment, but in ceasing to exist. Then, there are those (particularly in contemporary theological developments) who argue for a form of universalism. In this view, hell is a purging place where the sin which corrupts is ‘burned off’ and we are made pure. At this point, they would suggest that we may be granted access to heaven.
None of these address the underlying issue, however. How can a god of love, mercy, and justice be willing to condemn individuals to a torment (or annihilation) entirely disproportionate to their crimes, and still be called good?
I think there is another perspective, one in line both with historically orthodox Christian theology and scripture. Despite the differences in description, two things remains uniform — there will be suffering, and the suffering given stands in sharp contrast with the joy discovered in the kingdom of God.
We find a similar dichotomy within our own human nature.
We have the capacity to bring great joy to one another, and we also have the capacity to bring great suffering. At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that, through the redemption of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are being changed. That dark part of ourselves is slowly becoming exposed to the light of Christ and, if we participate in the work that God is doing in us, we discover ourselves slowly being moved from selfishness to self-less-ness; from people of pain to people of love.
This is trumpeted throughout the epistles, with admonitions to put away the old nature (characterized by things like envy, wrath, and malice) and adopt the new nature (characterized by love). It is in our inner transformation that we discover the fullness of what it means to be human, in right relationship with God, each other, and our purpose in creation.
If we take this same idea, and expand it to eternal implications, we wind up with two very polarized communities.
One such community is marked by transformation, made up of people who have yielded themselves to the life-altering power of the Holy Spirit, and together have formed the citizenry of a Godly kingdom whose central defining element is love.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find those whose desire for personal autonomy over and against the life-sustaining power of the Holy Spirit results in a kingdom whose citizenry have instead become consumed by their own darker natures. Such a kingdom would be an eternal witness to the depths of horror humanity is capable of. When the separation of the citizenry takes place at the final judgment, the kingdom of outer darkness, fueled by our own inner darkness, would rightly become an existential hell.
This latter community is a hell of our own making, from which the God of love, justice, and mercy seeks to offer us a way out. The alternative, the Kingdom of God, is more than a place of rainbows and butterflies. It is a place where we discover the full breadth of who we were created to be and the true beauty of a utopian society free from humanly vice.
What better opportunity could a loving God offer?