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).

 

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.

Jean Valjean and the Face of God

tn-500_14.01_mir_les_mis_colm3949At the end of Les Misérables, as Jean Valjean lies dying before his beloved daughter Cosette and her husband-to-be Marius, the musical swells to a beautiful arrangement of different musical themes sung by Valjean, a vision of Fantine, and reprising his earlier role, the Bishop of Digne. In this stirring scene, Valjean commends Marius and Cosette to marry and reveals his long-held secret that he, in fact, is prisoner #24601, tired from a life of running from the law. As Valjean sings his last confession, Fantine appears to welcome him into heaven, accompanying his reflection on the grace he has been shown and his attempt to live a life worthy of it. At last, Valjean sees the Bishop, the noble priest who initiated the entirety of Valjean’s redemption by welcoming him to his home, forgiving his crime, and graciously setting him free, transforming him into a new man whose soul has been “bought for God”. Notice the kindness and sacrificial love of the priest as he gives Valjean the candlesticks at the beginning of the musical:

“But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?”

Here, in Valjean’s final hour, he experiences an almost beatific vision of the priest, surrounded gloriously in candlelight in the 2012 film adaptation, as they sing one of the show’s most gorgeous lines:

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

maxresdefaultNo statement better captures the spiritual center of the story as Valjean fully takes the measure of how strong grace truly is. One simple act of kindness, unmerited yet fully proffered, has the power to transform a filthy sinner into a forgiven saint. Even in his humble and lowly position, the priest became a vessel for Valjean and, by extension, the audience to see the very face of God through his indefinable love for an embittered thief.

For such wild forgiveness and abundant grace effuses from our Father, the Almighty God who turns slaves into sons and frees us all from the burdens of our many years in prison. Like the Bishop, God offers rest for the weary, comfort for the resentful, love for the unloving and unlovely. Like the Bishop, God transforms the nameless prisoner (24601) into a new man, restored to life, saved not by good works but to them, called to let the grace with which he’s been filled spill over to another. When Valjean is forgiven, he is free to shed his old life and commit himself to a life of service, redeeming little Cosette from her equally dismal life.

In I John 3:16, the apostle describes this love of the Father: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” This selflessness characterizes love and, as God is love, draws us closer to His nature. Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), learning to love others as He is love is the way forward.

In Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Incidentally, this truth explains Javert’s ultimate self-destruction. No man so bound to the duties of the law can function, for the law is fulfilled in love; the only way Christ could fulfill the law is in his final breath dying for His friends. As Javert’s inability to cope with such love and grace becomes his undoing, Valjean’s embrace of it in giving his life to Cosette, Marius, and the dozens of young boys at the barricades becomes his way to salvation.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling . As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:8-10).