Jonathan Edwards shook the world of the 1740’s with his fiery sermon. “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” is how it came to be known, and in it, Edwards combined vivid imagery of Hell with a Scriptural case for why sinners – in other words all of us – deserve to go there. More to the point – why we will go there unless we change our ways and let the saving work of Jesus Christ transform our lives. Wildly unpopular today, the idea of Hell, and of the justice implicit in God allowing his creation to go there, resonated with countless listeners, and played a part in what became known as the Great Awakening.
Most people today – and in that I include nominal believers – would laugh at such a sermon. Convinced in their own righteousness, their own “goodness,” they feel no hesitation living life as they choose and expecting God to give them their “gold star” when they stand before the Pearly Gates asking for admission. Even non-believers, if they confront the possibility that their insistence that there is no God proves mistaken, feel pretty confident that a “loving” God will not reject them. “Be a nice person” is their guiding principle, and that’s really not that hard to do, they conclude.
One skeptic made the case against Hell this way: punishment can serve only one of three purposes: prevention of further crimes, as the offender is locked away; deterrence of future crimes when he is released, and fairness to the victim of the crime. The first two, he argued, no longer apply once a person dies, since they can no longer commit sin and won’t ever be “getting out.” That leaves the final purpose – justice or vengeance.
“If Hell were a temporary, purgatory-like punishment, that would make perfect sense, but if it’s eternal, then no crime can possibly equal that. I imagine that Hitler will have worked off all of those deaths after the first few trillion years, but then he’s still stuck there forever. So what victim is left to compensate? God? If he’s really an omnipotent being, then it is impossible for a lesser being to harm him. If he’s keeping people in Hell because of a slight to his image, then I would call him petty and evil.”
This view has considerable appeal to those with a Western sense of justice. Certainly, as it relates to Earthly matters, this approach to crime and justice makes sense. The idea, after all, is to try eventually to rehabilitate people, to allow them to see and repent of the evil of their ways and eventually rejoin society once their debt to it has been paid. But even here, of course, there are those who are so committed to the evil that they do that they can never be released. Serial killers or rapists would fall into that category. Whatever may have led them to their crimes, whatever developmental or emotional issue that changed them as they grew, the only rational way to respond to them is to keep them separated from anyone that they could harm. This separation – this punishment – goes on for as long as they live. The choices they made while younger have mandated this outcome.
But at a deeper level, the skeptic’s third contention –relating to the eternal nature of Hell – actually misses the point. He views God’s position as that of human victim in need of protection, which obviously does not apply to an omnipotent being. The only other possibility, to the skeptic, is to view God as a petty tyrant, glorying in the pain he can cause to someone who has given him in a trifling offense. The problem in the analysis is that it proceeds from a mistaken premise – that God’s judgment is akin to a criminal sentence on Earth and must therefore satisfy the requirements of earthly justice. Our “offenses” are against God and, though he cannot be harmed, he is not putting us “in jail to protect himself. He is, instead, separating himself from us in the same way we separate ourselves from someone who has done us wrong. We clearly have that right, whether or not we think the person will re-offend against us in the future. There is nothing that requires us to give such a person a second chance at fellowship, to invite them into our homes, or to treat them the way we would a close friend.
Unfortunately for us, the issue we are encountering relates to the nature of time. Earthly justice recognizes that our days are numbered, and that with the passing of time, we grow old and debilitated, eventually to a point that we can no longer harm others. Death stands at the end of every person’s life. But God is not bound by time; he is an eternal being and he has created us to be eternal as well. For reasons of his own, he has decided that he will not annihilate us. We will go on living, eternally conscious and aware of ourselves and our surroundings. Life without end. It’s what we all long for, in truth. It’s why we fight so hard against aging and against the final curtain. We want live in health and happiness, of course, perhaps health, wealth and happiness, but if we had those things, we would without doubt want them to last forever, to enjoy life to its fullest forever.
But is this not also the bad news? Since God is not limited by time, perceiving every moment in an endless present, then each of our offenses against him is eternally present to him. We remain locked in our rebellion, aware of God’s presence but unable to reunite with him. By that measure, eternal separation from him – what we experience as eternal punishment – starts to make a bit more sense.
Fortunately for us, he also possesses the kind of mercy that we can only begin to imagine. He has given us free will and the opportunity to spend eternity with him. He has promised to do all the work of making us fit for that type of interaction. Despite our rebellion, and our “crimes” against him, he wishes to reunify with us, but not at the cost of breaking our free will, or of violating his own just character. We need only assent to his gift, to allow him to undo what sin has introduced into our relationship.
But for many, the rebellion goes on forever.
Posted by Al Serrato