What Sort of God Sends People to Hell?!

sodom_011One of the most common arguments (though often fired off as an accusation) that Christians hear against the notion of a good and loving God is that such a God, were he truly good and loving, would not send good and loving people to a realm of eternal punishment. How could such a kind and gracious God possibly damn someone to hell? Doesn’t he love everyone?

And so the line of interrogation goes, scores of skeptics placing God in the dock, wagging their finger at such a ferociously tyrannical deity who demands our affection or else. I mean, who does God think He is anyway? Sure, Stalin ought to be doomed to hell, but not Stephanie. God should certainly punish Hitler, but not Henry.

While much has been said on the subject – books upon books from each side, debates and Facebook tirades ad infinitum – a particular series of events in Genesis provides a helpful center for the compass. In Genesis 12-17 God reveals Himself to Abraham and calls him, famously, to become the father of many generations. Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham…

In Genesis 18, the LORD appears to Abraham (likely one of many Christophanies) accompanied by two angels and declares His intentions to destroy the wicked city of Sodom. What follows is the remarkable discourse in which Abraham bargains with the LORD to spare the city for the sake of 50 righteous people, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. Notice, however, Abraham’s original complaint:

“Then Abraham drew near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?'” (Gen. 18:23-25, ESV, emphasis added)

Though Abraham’s trust in the LORD and his intimate relationship with Him has been established (Gen. 15:6, 18:22-23), he still takes it upon himself in interceding for Sodom to question God’s intentions. How could God “sweep away the righteous with the wicked”? How could He allow the “righteous [to] fare as the wicked”? In essence, how could God’s punishment for the bad include the good? How could a loving God allow damnation to come to the innocent? Shall not the Judge do what is just? Shall not the loving God (I John 4:8) do what is loving?

We might very well be tempted to respond like Abraham did: “Far be it from You!”

Yet, God’s response to Abraham is revealing. He yields. He accepts Abraham’s plea to spare 50 righteous from the city, and the story does not stop there. Abraham progressively whittles the number from 50 down to 10, hoping to maintain God’s good favor in sparing the righteous. And God continues to accept. What is the point?

God’s lesson for Abraham – and for us – is the same as His lesson throughout Scripture:

  • There is none righteous, no, not one (Rom. 3:23).
  • All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
  • If God should mark iniquities, who could stand? (Ps. 130:3).
  • We are dead in our trespasses (Eph. 2:1).
  • Death has spread to all men because all have sinned (Rom. 5:12).
  • All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way (Is. 53:6).

The problem with Abraham’s petition for the LORD to spare the righteous is not in the sincerity of his prayer, or in his trusting in the LORD to do what is right, but strictly in his definition of a righteous man. Apart from God, there is no such thing as a righteous person to be spared. While God’s agreement with Abraham to save the righteous is certain – He will save a remnant from the corrupt city – it will not be because they are righteous. They will become righteous because God has saved them.

We see this played out in the following chapter. In Genesis 19 God’s angels enter Sodom to save Lot and his family from the destruction that is sure to come:

“As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.’ But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city.” (Gen. 19:15-16, ESV, emphasis added)

This is the cornerstone of God’s work in salvation. It is not God’s offering to save good people so that they may become great people, nor is it God’s accepting of our good merits and our noble desires to be saved. God resurrects the dead (Eph. 2). God causes light to shine out of darkness (II Cor. 4). God shows His love  for us in that while we were yet sinners, wholeheartedly obsessed with our sinfulness and in utter rebellion toward God, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

God did not save Lot because he desired to be saved. Like all of us before we are saved by grace, Lot lingered in the city. He longed to remain in wickedness, not to escape it. He desired Sodom, even above the pressing urgency of angels. Lot’s salvation, and the salvation of his house, came not by his drawing near to God but by the seizing grip of God’s mercy. God came down to save us; He did not accept us as we climbed to Him. All of the initiative is on God’s side. He must seize us, for without it, we will forever linger.

This story is not one of an arbitrary, capricious God, smiting away with the Louisville slugger of holiness, but one of judgment and mercy, dual characteristics of the Almighty God. Abraham was right: the Judge of all the earth shall do what is just. Sin and rebellion shall be punished. Yet, Abraham also saw the merciful Father, extending a gracious hand to save Lot and his family when they had done nothing to deserve or desire it:

“So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.” (Gen. 19:29, ESV, emphasis added)

God justly destroyed the wickedness of Sodom. God mercifully spared a remnant, not for their righteousness but for His own. God remembered Abraham’s intercessory prayer and set Lot apart from the city of doom.

The question is not how a good and loving God can punish good people; there are none apart from His grace. The question is how a righteous and holy God could save the Lots who linger.

May we rejoice and be glad, filled with the truth that He “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14).

 

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Poem Audio #3 – “Space” / “Two Boys”

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Two more poems: “Space” and “Two Boys.” The full text for each poem is included below the audio player. Enjoy!


“Space”

I read the other day

That the human body can briefly survive

The hard vacuum of space unprotected,

And I’ve never been more afraid than I was then,

Sitting quietly at a table, drinking coffee.

 

I dreamed you and I were astronauts,

Breathing into screens, fingers in padded gloves,

Drifting in the black, until suddenly,

You peeled your suit straight off your arms

And pushed into the dark.

 

I wanted to reach you on the radio,

Try every channel, all my digital rhetoric,

Just to have you back,

But you slowly grew smaller,

A white star fading from the frame

 

Until you disappeared.

 

I wanted more time to hold you in orbit,

To see the constellations

Reflecting in your eyes,

To prove I could protect you

From the cold of this wide universe.

 

But I was left there, suspended,

Playing over and over in my mind

The singular curve of your hand

As your fingers unwound themselves from mine

And you said you needed space.

 

“Two Boys”

Every man is twice a boy –

 

once, through the swinging years of wildness,

two barrels of bone and breath

in his fiery chest,

hands on the hot road,

toothless summers of

grapes and tall grass,

the braille of bumps on the high dive –

 

and again, in the final minute,

when his breath stays in his mouth,

and his fingers itch

for his mother

The Gospel According to Snow White

RevelryA little over a year ago, I wrote a post referencing the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty and how its depiction of dragon-slaying and the victory of goodness over evil is quintessentially biblical, reverberating with the sweet harmonies of Jesus’ grand story. We now must turn to Snow White

I brought home the movie a few weeks ago for my daughters to watch. Toward the end of the film, I was struck by the sheer power and depth of the story in displaying both the dilemma of death and the transcendent beauty of redemption, culminating in the glorious resurrection of all things. Indeed, the Bible teaches that Eden most certainly will be restored, and, to quote T.S. Eliot, “all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well” (The Four Quartets). In his Revelation, John declares with valiant sureness, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (Rev. 21:5).

It should be no surprise that the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of transformative power. After all, all truth is God’s truth. Tolkien showed us this in his epic tale of a halfling saving all of Middle-Earth. Who can forget the disbelief, the skepticism many shared that the responsibility for the One Ring should fall to a lowly hobbit? Or that the salvation of all the Jews could rest in the hands of Esther, one who attained her royal position “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?

Even more directly, Chesterton writes in his essay “The Ethics of Elfland” of the glorious beauty and wonder that fairy tales hold in presenting the most dynamic truth in truly astonishing ways:

“…We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales because they find them romantic…This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…We have all forgotten what we really are”

Chesterton is right; fairy tales jolt us awake to the absolute vibrancy and wonder of God’s True Story. Indeed, these stories we tell are numinous, bathed in sunlight; we merely need eyes to see them. The world and its millions of stories, trickling through every pore of reality, are diaphanous, “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins). Just as Plato described the awakening of man’s reason to see the light beyond the cave, for these are mere shadows before us, Lewis believed the resurrecting of man’s imagination drew us “further up and further in” toward the dawn of True Reality to see the glory of God’s story in living color. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ – this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus” (“In Bright Shadow”).

So, we must turn to the truth and beauty of Snow White not to be merely entertained but to equip the eyes of our imagination to see more clearly the truth and beauty of God’s Story.

The Bliss of Eden

DopeyWhen Snow White arrives at the dwarves’ cottage, we see a warm and inviting portrayal of Eden: there are chores and tasks to be done (to the blissful tunes of whistling while you work, of course), there is community and fellowship, and the cottage is alive with song and dance. Merriment abounds. The story presents this way of life as a perfect balance of duty and desire; each person has a role to fill, and he or she fills it gladly. Sneezy is the one who sneezes, Happy is the one who is happy, Grumpy is the one who is grumpy, and so on.

Dwarves

At the center of this pure and enchanting home is the image of Beauty herself, the ideal virtue incarnate in the character of Snow White, the proverbial “fairest of all.” She is undistorted by the seductions of the mirror, and she is elevated to the right position of a bride and mother, for the prince seeks her hand in marriage, and the dwarves seek her loving and affectionate arms in biblical domestic motherhood. She is the mother of all the living, and the eventual bride of the prince. The stage is set for the great Drama.

The Dilemma of Death

AppleEdenic paradise, God’s story tells us, is subject to the rebellion of man. It was only a matter of time before Snow White would face the choice to fall from the warmth and glory of her perfect home. And fall she does as she fills her mouth with the false deliciousness of the Queen’s poisoned apple and succumbs to the deep sleep of death. Yet, this sleeping death is no individual affair; the effects of her sin are not limited to her lifeless body. Indeed, all of nature is bent by her fall, and when the dwarves encase the body of Snow White in the glass coffin, all of creation attends to mourn the death of Beauty. It is a truly eerie scene in the film; Snow White lies beneath the numb sheet of sin and death, quiet and still, as her dwarves weep softly around her and all of the woodland creatures draw near to see and to mourn. In their sorrow, they know that ultimate Beauty has died and their perfect world has been damaged by darkness and evil. All of creation feels the sting.

Funeral

The Kiss of Life

In this bleak moment of despair and sadness, the sleeping bride is powerless to rise from her bed of death. She needs the sweet kiss of a savior, the arrival of her great prince to bring her back to life. She needs resurrection, not only for her but for all the grieving world. Mourning must turn to morning.

And so arrives the great prince, ready to unseal the curse of death with the kiss of life. I challenge anyone to watch this scene and not whisper “amen” at the moment their lips touch, for this is truly our story. This is our greatest need. We are the sleeping Bride of Christ, desperately in need of Christ’s resurrecting power. Hear the old song:

“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,
Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”

Kiss

Indeed, our Prince has come to kiss us wide awake. Savor the beauty and the power of the Story.

Tolkien writes it this way:

“‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’

‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

Amen. May it be. A great Shadow has departed, and everything sad is coming untrue.

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

We all live happily ever after.

Coloring

When God found me,

Wobbling my patched knees on the cobblestone of old roads,

We took a side street where

He beckoned me beneath the curtain of a tent,

Red and white, the blare of trumpets,

The breathless circus of all his grand design.

 

He showed me an elephant, and I sat down

Criss-cross applesauce

To marvel for half an hour.

 

Then he tipped his hat and pulled out a canvas,

Stretched in white like a swollen sail.

He dropped it in my lap and told me to

Fingerpaint my theology, make it as big as my grandfather’s shoes.

 

So he held my shoulder as I bent over my creation,

Pressed thumbprints and fanning fingertips

Smearing the colors of childhood across my makeshift doctrines,

And I looked up to see him smiling at me,

His eyes as warm as lions.

 

He noticed I’d drawn two bluebirds, gliding in the sunset,

And an old man sitting on a bench –

I said they reminded me of him, for only

A good and loving God could create a bluebird

As well as the old men who noticed them.

 

That night, God and I sat together, coloring,

Weaving our fingers along the grain of each new blankness,

Picture after picture,

Until he finally helped me to my feet and commended me for my coloring,

For to see the glory of God, we all must learn to

Dye.

Play

We folded our arms around each other

As the pages of our scripts flurried like glitter

To the floor, making eights in the air,

Surrounding our slow dance between the walls of an elevator, descending

From our room to the lobby.

 

We couldn’t care, neither of us,

To catch a line, or even a single cue.

You just watched my eyes as I lit up all the buttons,

Resetting the clock,

Pulling you in closer as the doors begin to close.

 

Only now the air was softer, small enough

To hear the snare drums in my coat,

The train of bells along my sleeves,

And the electric guitar in every fingertip

As I sent my love to you.

 

For our laughter, yours and mine together,

Carries spectral lines, neon

And warm, as we play in this metal box that

Rises and falls like chests along this building.

Even the fog from our hurried talking

Brushes the inside of the cold window, reminding me

To engrave our initials, if for a moment,

Into the cloud that we created

Before it fades away to time

And frost.

 

I know our evening’s slipping

Farther down the wishing water,

But still we crowd our fingers,

Intertwine them for a moment.

And in that still frame

Before the kites of our words and our laughter have risen,

I send my love to you,

And you, me,

Pulling you in closer as the doors begin to close.

A Quiet Pond in Camden

My wife’s grandfather passed away a few days ago, and his funeral is this morning in South Carolina. This poem is in honor of Elbert Benjamin Newman, Sr. 


I couldn’t help but notice your hands first, Granddaddy,

Your nails yellowed by coarse decades of work,

Your veins the color of wine.

 

Against the white cloth of your rolling hospice bed

They seemed translucent, thinning from the groan of

Fluorescent light.

 

They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands,

Covered in the creases of your full life,

And I admit I laughed a little when your great-grandkids

Scooted close to say hello,

And you peered through the bifocaled tunnel of time

To smile back and twinkle two fingers

As best you could.

 

But when you winced and adjusted the tape on your bruising skin,

Scratching the IV in your limp fist,

I wanted to run out of that hospital,

Down the front, tightly-manicured lawn,

And leap into the clouds to see your life in sum,

Every living scene all at once.

 

I wanted to see those hands wriggle a ring on Grandmama’s finger,

Twist the ripcord of your parachute in the War,

Peel a hundred avocados, stranded in the Philippines.

 

I wanted to see you vote for Stevenson in ’52,

Build a furniture business with the strength of your iron will,

Raise a nurse, a preacher, and an heir to your company,

Then see your lineage expand

As generations branched and took your torch into the future.

 

I wanted to see your hands cradle each and every grandchild,

Each and every great-grandchild,

As you breathed in the lily air of new life.

 

I wanted to see your hands take up the fork and knife

And silently thank Grandmama’s every move with your cutting,

Pancakes, chicken, pie, and all her other glories,

Then gulp your gratitude after swishing sweet tea

From cheek to cheek.

 

They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands

That pulled me back down from the sky of my daydreaming

As if to say it’s time.

And it is.

 

So let us all smile and say goodbye, Granddaddy,

Loud enough for you to hear,

As we crowd around your recliner in our minds

And carry your legacy forward

Into another hundred years and more,

Speeding ever faster from a quiet pond in Camden.

Grief

Another poem…


As I write this,

I’m still breathing hard from a night of fitful sleeping,

My V-neck shirt clinging like dew to my warm chest

While the ceiling fan does its best to gin up

A gentle wind.

 

It’s, let’s see,

I’ll need my glasses for a bit,

2:38 in the morning,

And I’m jotting down my thoughts at the bedside table

Like the doctor said.

Oh, and my feelings,

I’m also recording my feelings.

 

The poetry’s been difficult these days.

It doesn’t flow like it once did.

The Nile’s all dried up, you’d ask,

Or turned to blood in plague? And I’d chuckle.

I tried some in the first stanza with the sweat simile,

But I think I yawned in the middle of it.

 

I remember you used to love a haiku I once wrote

About the cold side of the pillow

(Sort of on the fly, just to see you smile really).

Only now do I see why you liked it so,

As I cycle and recycle this old feather bag

To find that cool shadowy feeling in which to lay

My weary head.

 

It’s only when I glance over at yours in its pristine condition,

And I notice no sagging indention in the center,

That I remember your pillow is always cool now,

Both sides.

 

So, I’ll just lay my glasses back down on the nightstand,

At 2:52 in the morning,

And I’ll climb once more into my tempest of dreams

Where you and I are together again,

If momentarily,

And somewhat wispy in our world of memory,

Before my body shakes awake

At 3:41 AM,

And I lean for my pencil

From my sloppy and disheveled side of the bed.