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 #2 – “Little Icarus” / “Braces”

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This week’s Poem Audio features two poems on childhood: “Little Icarus” and a new poem “Braces”. The full text for each poem can be found below the audio player. Enjoy!


“Little Icarus”

 

Little Icarus stood by the wood chips.

 

He was twelve when both his wings broke, tangled up,

Trying to tear through the fabric of his polo,

Caught beneath the floorboards of his shoulder blades

As his cheeks flushed with shame.

 

He wore a slipshod buzz cut and chubby jowls that

Framed his braces and the crooked grin they fenced in,

Standing alone as yesterday’s rain lay simmering on the blacktop.

 

A blur of children sprinted past him, laughing,

And he buried his dry tongue beneath the dirt in his throat,

The stiffness of death in the mouth of a boy

Who never knew what to say.

 

Not a word about the jungles he’d seen in gym,

The knotted rope of humiliation and the sting of the lash

As the rich kid rat-tailed his back in the locker room

And all the cool boys snickered behind their elbows,

The cute girls giggling later over sandwiches.

 

But don’t you fear, little man,

For I have brought an army of book nerds,

Dreamers and choir singers,

Carrying their lisps and scars in rucksacks,

Glasses, buck teeth, and southern accents,

The boys who cry at movies and the girls who still have nightmares,

Walking our bikes over to invite you to our treehouse

Where white-out is outlawed

And your freckles are the confetti of God

Like He cut up the birthday cake of the sun just for you.

 

And together there, we’ll patch your feathers

And tell a couple of stories

Before we lean our heads back against the beams of our home,

Look up at the stars through the crack in our creaky roof,

And slowly drift to sleep.

 

“Braces”

I am thirteen years old,

And I hate the small bike chain glued to my teeth

That keeps me from the perfect kiss

I have planned for six months.

 

My smile is magnetic, tangled in wire,

My hello smothered in sparks,

My words, nicked and flickering in my mouth,

Fly in a hundred pinprick flashes, embers rising

From the fire in my chest.

 

Perhaps I can fence my garbled mouth

With the fan of my hand, breathe to you

In smoke signals, or tell you how I feel

Through the notes we write, unhindered

By chain-link and spotted iron.

 

Or maybe you will read my mind,

Your eyes pressed close against the glass

Of the space between us, peering beyond

My mouthful of radio, torn antenna,

Stainless steel.

 

But though I have worn this metal for many months,

Turning over the flavor of tin in my tongue

Behind the hard-wired cable in my mouth,

I was thirteen years old when you let me lean close

And close my eyes –

The first time I have ever been shocked.

My English Teacher

I’d like to remember you with a poem,

Not an assignment or a free response to some prompt,

But a dedication for all you’ve done for me.

 

It’s just that I’ve been dropping years into the water

For quite some time, trying to fill the well

Until I’d know where to begin,

 

And the truth is I couldn’t write one if I tried.

 

To tell how firmly rooted you are in my memory, my life,

I’d have to haul out the early timbers

And diagram my gratitude from the ground up,

Fastened together by predicates and adjectives.

 

I’d also owe you for each figure of speech,

For it was you who first lay my young ears against the railroad

To hear the aching distance

Where words and meanings surge with locomotion,

Carrying the freight of all my poems to the paper.

 

Not to mention the box of highlighted quotations,

Underlined passages and dog-eared pages I have stored away

In the attic of my mind,

I climb up there often to smell the time that has passed.

 

No, I couldn’t write a poem like that,

For you don’t know how I’d seen you on the mountaintop

All those years ago,

Your eyes looking toward the sweet mint of the pine,

Brimming with vision, clear as prayer.

 

There, your hands held the robins’ feet of souls,

Nestled gently in the worn creases,

Looking for light.

 

So near the wonders of heaven, you discovered

The language of God in poetic rhythm,

The muffled drums of meter and the pounding pulse of students,

Poems reading poems.

 

You taught me to carve my name into every stripe of sunlight,

Grab the wind with my ready hands, pull the sky around my shoulders,

Cloaking myself for flight.

What’s more, you emptied out the plastic bin

Of imagery and motion, assembled a thousand amplifiers

Pointed to my chest,

And gave me the keys to my voice

That I might hear myself for the first time.

 

So the only thing I can say is that the poem I would write

If I could

Would end with a single image, not the firm grip

Of your fingers on a sharpened pencil, or the quiet burn of lamplight

Over your late hours of grading,

But rather, the moment

You descended the sharp, granite surface,

Found me at the foot of my future,

And handed me a torch.

Eden Restored: How Story Will Save Us All

A good friend of mine asked me to write a short post for his blog, and I have included the link here. I hope you all enjoy!

I recently spoke with someone who mentioned that one of her friends does not encourage her children to “play pretend” or involve themselves in any sort of imaginary world. Inviting small children to imagine, she explained, inhibits them from readily acknowledging and confessing what is true. She believed a strong and healthy imagination in her […]

via Guest Post: Eden Restored: How Story Will Save Us All — Chris Weatherly

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.

The Devil’s Lies

As the night centered itself behind a thousand stars,

Your voice cut the cables in my mind,

And I fell to the corner of 8th street,

Where I found my shadow in some shallow gravel water,

My pupils exhaling,

Unwinding,

Widening to devour my vision –

Dilated thick like dark ink.

 

The sharp steel of your footsteps raked like teeth to a stop,

Surrounded by the blur of city light

As I knelt alone, rooked in the corner, undone and

Enveloped in the venom of my name

On your silver tongue.

 

The earth stammered when you spoke, quivering beneath

The bass of your breathing lies

As you slowly taught me how to drown.

 

And now I see

How your every word howls,

Choking and decoding my defenses,

Coursing through my chemistry,

Anchoring the fever to my bones until they shiver

Like sparrows in the cold.

 

And when you lean in closer

To tear apart the helix,

My knuckles rust, robotic,

Helpless to your redirection,

Heavy with the burden of entanglement –

Short circuits and crossed wires –

Reprogrammed to believe in you

And all your bitter charming.

 

So I time a desperate prayer to touch

The crest of tossing waves,

To clear the fog and wind within

And find my loving Father,

Tell Him that I’m sorry,

Then beg He take a shovel to this serpent on the corner,

Calm my frightened eyes and

Pull the poison from my spine

That I might stand up straight

And finally become human again.

Wife

Your fingers felt the hem of your violet dress

When you first looked over at me,

And for a moment I swear the room rippled

Like water kissed by a skipping stone.

 

Then you spoke,

And all the watercolor rain

In every cloud between us

Began to fall,

Rinsing the beautiful stillness,

Bearing your words like notes on sheet music

Across the twirling wind,

The sweetness of roses,

The lovely taste of light.

 

Your smile curled at the corners like hymnals,

Bright with the glory of verse,

The joy of Christ resting on your gentle cheeks

And your eyes deeper than morning.

 

I stood helpless as you swept your hair behind your shoulder,

Arrested by a single sentence,

A hundred hummingbirds whirring in my chest.

For you were no mere person,

No woman on a busy street,

But starlight on the evening sea,

Melody in rosined strings,

Beauty in a violet dress.

 

And still, now,

As I rake the snow with my right hand,

Five fingers along the length of our front yard,

And the cold night laughs a flurry of new blankets,

I see our children dance around the staff that I have drawn,

Stepping out a chorus, leaving notes beneath their shoes,

And I know when I look up,

I’ll see my lovely wife,

And we’ll smile in quiet gladness

For the time that we’ve been given.

Idolatry

A poem on idolatry and repentance…


I stopped in silence on the corner,

Marveling,

As I watched Superman stumble out of the bar,

His eyes emptied of their stars and stuttering

With six glasses of Kryptonite.

 

He swung his strong arm around the street lamp,

Guffawed a wet vomit on the sidewalk,

Then hacked his spit back through his nose to burn his lungs.

 

Passers by halted as he threw up again,

His x-ray vision malfunctioning, now

A sterile gaze frantic for the trash bin.

 

With his left hand, he clumsily groped for his red cape

To wipe the mealy puke from his lips,

And the ladies on the corner softly covered their own mouths in shame.

 

We noticed his look had lost that Clark Kent cut,

The sharp and dapper face of a hero, and his cheekbones,

Once formed by flight,

Now stubbled lazily as his dingy suit glinted in the moonlight.

 

But as he bent over the trash can to ready himself for more wrenching,

I knew then what I must do,

What we all must do.

 

The crowd stared as I wrapped my arms around his neck,

Hugged our feeble god,

And pulled his cape knot tight against his throat

With all my evening strength.

 

One by one the audience faded away,

Abandoning the suffocating drunkard,

Bearing the startling truth that

We lose the things we idolize

And must choke the things we cherish most.