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).

 

Poem Audio #4 – “School Poems”

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Here is my discussion of “School Poems” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.


“School Poems”

The air in study hall was thick with the smoke of pencils,

Scribbling to find fire on the page, ten teenagers

Looking for love in the smile their words might make.

 

Over in the library, some have rolled their sleeves,

Bent over a row of screens,

Their hurried breaths gyrating the pinwheels of their poems

As their fingertips clicked like cleats on the pavement of their laptops,

Letters dripping on documents,

A thousand rain drops on an old tin roof.

 

I walked past the boy on the steps with a halo of reverb

Plugged in from ear to ear, connected to a phone synced to his heart,

Drumming his palms against his knees like his life

Had been lived only for this moment, the wild abandon

Of one who’d learned to walk the plank

As the pirates of passion loomed behind him with their thick beards

And blades sharpened

As if to say, “Rock this one out or you’ll sleep in the ocean.”

 

The girl in the courtyard crooked one leg behind the other,

Curling her fingers around her phone in the cold

Like she knew the next message he sent would make her warm.

So she bubbled her poetry in blue, mailed it on the airwaves, and waited for his ellipses,

Three dots in Morse before three words she longed to read.

 

Down the hall, the kindergarteners knelt outside their classroom,

Upturning waxy bags of crayon and a dozen safety scissors,

Peeling the ghosts of Elmer’s glue from their palms

As they told their parents they loved them

With a red construction heart and a firm crease in the center,

A greater declaration of devotion than any sonnet could ever sing.

 

So I kept walking briskly in the air of this century

Where people still write poetry, breaking pieces of their body

Like bread for summer swans

And pressing them deep into a dozen syllables,

The friction of pounding feet and chattering teeth

As they toss their own words into the rushing waters of time.

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

Poem Audio #1 – “Falling in Love” / “Paper Plates”

black-and-white-image-of-headphonesTo expand on the poetry I have published here over the last year or so, I thought it would be fun to record readings of some of my favorite pieces from The Cardinal Turns the Corner as well as to introduce newer pieces I have written.

In addition to these readings, I’d like to provide some commentary, background, and/or explanatory notes that situate each poem in whatever experience, memory, or mood inspired it. No writer writes in a vacuum; we are always influenced by something (usually a thousand somethings). 🙂 So, here is Poem Audio #1.

The two poems discussed in this recording are “Falling in Love” from TCTTC and a new piece “Paper Plates.” Each poem has been reprinted below the audio file for those who wish to read along. Enjoy!

 


“Falling in Love”

The other night I stood for half an hour

Between the night sky and the butterfly wings of sleep,

Trying to count how many times I’ve fallen in love with you.

 

The streetlights filled our window while you slept,

But all I could do was wander around the room, hands folded,

The wind stirring the leaves on the pavement outside.

 

For years I have looked beneath the rocks in the river,

Inspected the wrists of jazz drummers

And the breath of blue roses for the full moon.

 

I have unlaced the fog in the morning

And swept the brushstrokes of dew on the ground

To find the words for our love,

 

And the candles at every step of our memory,

Lighted by the words we’ve spoken,

They are becoming forest fires.

 

In my hands are a dozen marbles. When I hold them up to you

To show the colors of my love, the sound of their scattering

On the floor tells me to try again.

 

And I try again every time,

Finding you over and over in the corner of my eye,

Smiling like the day we first met.

 

So I stayed awake that night, wondering how

I might manage to hold all this love

When all along it lay quietly in the way our fingers touch when we watch movies,

Your knees bent beneath the blanket,

The hours drifting away like snow.

 

“Paper Plates”

I’m trying to remember how long we’ve eaten on paper plates,

Cheap napkins with printed lilacs,

Both of us bending the tines of plastic forks

As we slowly keep from speaking.

 

When did we become so still, so suddenly motionless,

Twin marble statues stuck beneath the weight of water,

Staring in the distance past each other’s ocean shadow?

 

How did the sunlight in our voices

Fade into the night, our fingers numb

As blackened matches, our gazes turned to separate walls?

 

There must have been a moment when we accidentally said our last words,

When the sugar in our breath slid deep into our memory,

When our kisses somehow grew stale and

Our styrofoam lips first chipped along the edges.

Falling in Love

The other night I stood for half an hour

Between the night sky and the butterfly wings of sleep,

Trying to count how many times I’ve fallen in love with you.

 

The streetlights filled our window while you slept,

But all I could do was wander around the room, hands folded,

The wind stirring the leaves on the pavement outside.

 

For years I have looked beneath the rocks in the river,

Inspected the wrists of jazz drummers

And the breath of blue roses for the full moon.

 

I have unlaced the fog in the morning

And swept the brushstrokes of dew on the ground

To find the words for our love,

 

And the candles at every step of our memory,

Lighted by the words we’ve spoken,

They are becoming forest fires.

 

In my hands are a dozen marbles. When I hold them up to you

To show the colors of my love, the sound of their scattering

On the floor tells me to try again.

 

And I try again every time,

Finding you over and over in the corner of my eye,

Smiling like the day we first met.

 

So I stayed awake that night, wondering how

I might manage to hold all this love

When all along it lay quietly in the way our fingers touch when we watch movies,

Your knees bent beneath the blanket,

The hours drifting away like snow.

 

Math

We started with addition, placing our hands side by side

To complete the whole.

But soon, your kisses divided into half a dozen words,

Then fractioned into thoughts,

 

Now, absolute zero.

 

And I couldn’t bear the burden of this one-sided subtraction,

So I multiplied my work

To find an answer that could fit.

 

But as you slowly put your pencil down,

Scrubbed to its last lead,

And walked out the door,

I closed my eyes and longed for the impossible solution to this problem,

The moment when our equation could finally be balanced and

One and one are one.

Fangs

I could feel the skeleton in my skin

When you left me, every dry bone,

Like I had swallowed two balloons

Bumping inside the gaps of my ribcage.

 

When we were together, I had learned to grow arrows

From my fingertips, I had become an archer

Straining to earn your glances.

 

I threw those darts at your heart long before my back became your cutting board.

 

Your eyes were happy, and you played the piano like the tide

Passing over the shells of the shore beneath the moonlight.

And we would walk along the sea, our toes touching the glass

Of its little waves, the seagulls soaring above our heads.

 

But soon you led me along the blade

As the hives in your mouth traded their sweetness for stings,

Your laughter becoming fangs,

Filling the air between us with distance.

 

You touched my hand one last time, a single spark

Before you went away,

And now, this cold adrenaline’s a poison, convincing my body

It is more alive than it could ever be again.

School Poems

The air in study hall was thick with the smoke of pencils,

Scribbling to find fire on the page, ten teenagers

Looking for love in the smile their words might make.

 

Over in the library, some have rolled their sleeves,

Bent over a row of screens,

Their hurried breaths gyrating the pinwheels of their poems

As their fingertips clicked like cleats on the pavement of their laptops,

Letters dripping on documents,

A thousand rain drops on an old tin roof.

 

I walked past the boy on the steps with a halo of reverb

Plugged in from ear to ear, connected to a phone synced to his heart,

Drumming his palms against his knees like his life

Had been lived only for this moment, the wild abandon

Of one who’d learned to walk the plank

As the pirates of passion loomed behind him with their thick beards

And blades sharpened

As if to say, “Rock this one out or you’ll sleep in the ocean.”

 

The girl in the courtyard crooked one leg behind the other,

Curling her fingers around her phone in the cold

Like she knew the next message he sent would make her warm.

So she bubbled her poetry in blue, mailed it on the airwaves, and waited for his ellipses,

Three dots in Morse before three words she longed to read.

 

Down the hall, the kindergarteners knelt outside their classroom,

Upturning waxy bags of crayon and a dozen safety scissors,

Peeling the ghosts of Elmer’s glue from their palms

As they told their parents they loved them

With a red construction heart and a firm crease in the center,

A greater declaration of devotion than any sonnet could ever sing.

 

So I kept walking briskly in the air of this century

Where people still write poetry, breaking pieces of their body

Like bread for summer swans

And pressing them deep into a dozen syllables,

The friction of pounding feet and chattering teeth

As they toss their own words into the rushing waters of time.

Driving

We sped along the highway,

Headlights slicing through the dark.

You placed your hand at your side,

I held the wheel in silence,

Patterns of ice spreading at the edges of the windshield,

The defrost sighing on the dash.

I wanted to look over to you

And love you all over again,

Pull you close on the bridge

And kiss above the water

Far from this hanging night

Hovering over you and I

In our separate cars, driving to different houses.