Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Walking past Janet on my way to the computer, I mentioned, "I'm going to write about hell." She just rolled her eyes, as if to say, He just doesn't know how to stay away from controversial topics. I'm sure she's right.

Actually, I have been reading a fascinating book called Heaven by Randy Alcorn. I have never read anything quite like it. The book clarifies some of the vague concepts that I have had about heaven for a long time. In addition, it has filled me with a greater passion about going to heaven. I plan on writing about heaven after I have finished the book in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I would like to share a good quote about hell from Why We're Not Emergent by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. It is found on pages 198-200.

"We need the doctrine of eternal punishment. Time and time again in the New Testament we find that understanding divine justice is essential to our sanctification. Believing in God's judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.

"First, we need God's wrath to keep us honest about evangelism. Paul reasoned with Felix about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment (Acts 24:25). We need to do the same. Without the doctrine of hell, we are prone to get involved in all sorts of important God-honoring things, but neglect the one thing that matters for all eternity, urging sinners to be reconciled to God.

"Second, we need God's wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forego repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord's promise to repay the wicked. Paul's logic is sound. 'Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord' (Rom. 12:19). The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross or will be punished in hell. We don't have to seek vigilante justice, because God will be our just judge.

"Third, we need God's wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus' sake. The radical devotion necessary to suffer for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus comes, in part, from the assurance we have that God will vindicate us in the end. That's why the martyrs under the throne cry out, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?' (Rev. 6:10). They paid the ultimate price for their faith, but their blood-stained cries will be answered one day. Their innocence will be established when God finally judges their persecutors.

"Fourth, we need God's wrath in order to live holy lives. Paul warns us that God cannot be mocked. We will reap what we sow. We are spurred on to live a life of purity and good deeds by the promised reward for obedience and the promised curse for disobedience. If we live to please the flesh, we will reap destruction from God. But if we live to please the Spirit, we will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:6-7). Sometimes ministers balk at the thought of motivating people with the threat of eternal punishment. But wasn't this Jesus' approach when He said, 'Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell' (Matt. 10:28)? Sometimes we need to literally scare the hell out of people.

"Fifth, we need God's wrath in order to understand what mercy means. Divine mercy without divine wrath is meaningless. Only when we know that we were objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), stood condemned already (John 3:18), and would have faced hell as God's enemies were it not for undeserved mercy (Rom. 5:10) can we sing from the heart, 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!'

"Sixth, we need God's wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be. Jonathan Edwards is famous (or infamous) for his sermon 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.' It's still read in American literature classes, usually as a caricature of the puritanical spirit of colonial New England. But few people realize that Edwards also preached sermons like 'Heaven is a World of Love.' Unlike most of us, Edwards saw in vivid colors the terror of hell and the beauty of heaven. We can't get a striking picture of one without the other. That's why the depiction of the heavenly New Jerusalem also contains a warning to the cowardly, unbelieving, vile, immoral, idolaters, and liars whose place is in 'the fiery lake of burning sulfur' (Rev. 21:8). It's unlikely we will long for our final salvation if we don't know what we are saved from.

"Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters. We all know the saying that Christians are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. The idea is that if all we think about are heaven and hell we'll ignore ministries of compassion and social justice. But what better impetus for social justice than Jesus' sober warning that if we fail to care for the least of our brothers we will go away to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:31-46)? The wrath of God is a motivator for us to show compassion to others, because without love, John says, we have no eternal life, and if we don't share our material possessions with those in need, we have no love (1 John 3:17).

"Eighth, we need God's wrath in order to be ready for the Lord's return. We must keep the lamps full, the wicks trimmed, the houses clean, the vineyard tended, the workers busy, and the talents invested lest we find ourselves unprepared for the day of reckoning. Only when we fully believe in the coming wrath of God and tremble at the thought of eternal punishment will we stay awake, keep alert, and be prepared for Jesus to come again and judge the living and the dead."



I suppose that another thing Hell does is to throw into sharp relief the truth that although we are immensely precious to God, we have no intrinsic value.

In other words, if we were valuable in and of ourselves, then God would be unjust in electing some to heaven and some to Hell. (He would be deeming the valuable to be valueless, which is a lie, and therefore a sin.) Our value is a potential value, therefore.

The discovery that we need, and that God can create value through grace, is an outcome of accepting that we are more like mirrors than sources of light. Because we have nothing good to bring to God that he has not himself created in us, we can discover that our value is something to attain, and only in Him.

This gives me purpose, and reinforces a key truth about nihilism: rejection of God is not the acceptance of some other good, but simply the rejection of all good. To accept that "God is himself the good news" is to take a giant leap away from punishment. Jesus' warning not to fear people, but God, if we look at it in context, was designed not simply to point us away from Hell but to reinforce the truth that comes a few verses later: "you are worth more than many sparrows". Jesus was teaching this to his disciples, whom he sent out to the "lost sheep" of Israel, to tell them that the Kingdom is near, and to demonstrate the truth of that by signs of healing, revivifying, cleansing, and driving out demons. They were to leave peace with those worthy to receive it.

Hell is, to that extent, a kindness: nobody can be forced to love or accept that peace against their will. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God "Thy will be done" and those to whom God says "Thy will be done".

Interesting post again,


Terry said...

Thanks for the comment, Ed. I'm not sure that I followed your first couple of paragraphs, though. As I understand it, people have value since we have been created in God's image. In a sense, he made us with intrinsic value. As such, it implies that I must value people because they are made in God's image. Of course, I may be misunderstanding your point. Could you elaborate on what you wrote in the first two paragraphs? Otherwise I agree with your point that God is the good news. He is grace, power, and glory personified. Keep writing such thoughtful and thought-provoking words. I love your ability to bring out such good thoughts from the Scriptures!


I'll try and elaborate then, because I do agree with you that we should value people because they are made in God's image! My point is simply that "being made in God's image" is not the same as having *intrinsic* value.

What I'm saying is that when Jesus speaks of destroying body and soul in hell, he means that the "made-in-God's-image" value can't *be* in hell. The value that we have (the value that Jesus alludes to when he says "you are worth more than many sparrows") is based on the fulfillment of God's grace in us.

In other words, it is the creative act of God that has the value, not the dust that God shaped, which has the value. This is exogenous, and not intrinsic. (It's God who confers it, so although it lives within us, how could it be intrinsic?) A dollar bill is worthless apart from the promise. The value of the jelly mould is in the jelly. For something to be valuable, it has to have someone doing the valuing, and evaluating. That someone is God.

When you love someone, you do a good thing because you are loving the image of God which God has stamped them with, not the dust that they are. The love of others should point to the love of God. Anything else is idolatry, which is why I'm quite particular that we have no intrinsic value.

The point is that Hell shows us clearly that we need God for our very existence to have any meaning at all, and that we are valuable to God and in God, because this is our purpose: to love God and be loved by him, to worship him and enjoy him forever. All our value is conferred on us by God, and if we need proof of this, then ask this question: apart from God how can I have a lasting value?

Terry said...

Thanks for the response! That was a great explanation. I'm glad I asked. I understand now what you were saying; I had not thought of it in that way before, but I believe you are right. We cannot be valuable unless we are valued by someone (God), and we love others because of the image of God in them (otherwise it's idolatry). I appreciate your time in answering my question!


Glad it was coherent... I'm not a theologian, I'm a historian by training, so you're quite right to push me to be clear. In the modern historiographical climate, historians tend to be more interested in what ideas were, than whether or not they are true.

Thought-provoking as ever. Keep up the good work.


Terry said...

Thanks for not taking my questioning the wrong way. I'm not a professional theologian either. My minor was in social studies, but it's been a couple of decades since I've studied history in an indepth manner. I could be a little rusty in that area, too. But I like the way you make me think. If I don't quite understand sometimes, I'll ask questions. Thanks for answering!