by Matt Kennedy
A number of contemporary critics have attacked the doctrine of eternal punishment by appealing to the character of divine love. Hell, as it is traditionally presented, is infinitely worse than even the most horrible earthly holocaust. Auschwitz, as Clark Pinnock points out, pales by comparison. Would a loving God send his creatures there?
There are several differences between hell and Auschwitz, but two are dramatic and must be emphasized: 1. No one would choose to be in Auschwitz and 2. no one would choose to remain there if given the option to leave. Whereas scripture teaches us that the character of the human heart is such that unless God changes us, we would rather live in eternal torment than in harmony with our Creator.
First, our hearts are set against him. We suppress the truth about God (Rom 1:18-33). We willfully violate the laws he reveals in scripture and inscribes on our hearts (Rom 2). We do not seek to know or love God, but rather to replace him (Rom 3:10-20). We are, by nature, children of wrath (Eph 2:3).
Second, this hardened animosity toward God is stronger than our desire to escape anguish and torment. Observe that the Rich Man in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 does not ask to be let out of the place of torment and ascend to be with Abraham and the poor man Lazarus. Not at all. He wants Lazarus to come down:
‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ (Luke 16:24)
He sees heaven, sees glory, sees the bosom of Abraham and does not want it. He wants relief but not redemption.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man illustrates the Biblical pattern of rebellion. God provides life, love, sustenance, and virtue. Humans respond by repudiating God. As life becomes coarse and suffering increases, rebellion only gathers steam. Torment does not lead to repentance and dependence but to increased hatred.
The pattern comes to fruition in the book of Revelation. After almost every series of terrible plagues in the book of Revelation there is this essential refrain: “nevertheless, they did not repent.” Here’s an example from Revelation 16
“The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.” (16:10-11)
For those who reject God, divine wrath is preferable to repentance and surrender which would bring mercy and peace.
We must not, therefore, think of hell as a place where God imprisons people against their will. Hell is the place where the human will is fully actualized.
This leads, of course, to a deeper question. God is omniscient. God knew from eternity those who would be damned. Why did he create them?
Before answering directly, it needs to be remembered that God is not the author of evil. Sin originates in our own hearts.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.(James 1:13-15)
We cannot say then that God created morally neutral beings and then caused them to rebel against him and then punished them for acting according to the evil he created in their hearts. That is, sometimes, the caricature that critics of Christianity like to paint. It is, also, a caricature that many would like to lay at the feet of Calvinism in particular. But the problem is not one that is unique to any one theological perspective. All Christians believe that God is omniscient. Therefore, all must wrestle with the fact that God created many millions of people knowing that they would reject him and live forever in torment.
So God did not create people and then cause them to rebel against him.
God did create people, giving them life, love, the blessings of his created order, truth, common virtue, knowing that they would harden their hearts against him and return his blessings with curses. In fact, he created all people knowing that every single one of us would despise him, his love and his many gracious gifts.
God would be fully justified in handing each of us over to this despising and allowing all humans to continue to hate him for eternity. This would be both consistent with his love – creating, blessing, delighting in the beloved and then giving the beloved the desire of her heart – and consistent with his justice – sinners would experience the consequences of sin.
Instead, he choose to rescue some from this fate and not others. He chose to draw some to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (John 6:37-40, 44, Romans 8:29-31, Eph 2:4-10) and allow others to follow their own hearts to their own end. As RC Sproul has pointed out so brilliantly, no one is treated unfairly. Some receive mercy. Others justice. No one can complain that God is in the wrong. And no one can say that they have not been loved by him.
But, to return to the problem, God determined to create millions of people, knowing that he would shower them with love and truth and that they would nevertheless hate him and, here’s the crux, knowing that he would not soften their hatred and turn them to love, knowing that in the end he would say to them, “thy will be done…”
Dealing with this question Paul writes in Romans 9:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22-24)
Paul, as he often does, asks what appears to be a rhetorical question. But the question is not really an open one. God allows people to follow their hearts and choose hell over repentance so that his loving-kindness to his enemies might be displayed during their lifetimes and his justice might be displayed at the Judgment (Rev.20)
Just judgment makes God’s justice manifest and when his character is revealed, God is glorified.
So is this what it is all about? God’s own glory?
Yes. That is what everything is about. God is the origin and measure of all that is good. A truly good being will glorify all that is good and that means God will glorify himself and all his attributes above all things.
With regard to those who despise him and violate his law, his glory is made manifest in the outworking of his justice – his “doing what is right”
But even then, and this must be observed, God does not merely snuff them out. They bear his image. They are his creatures. He gives even those who hate him the desires of their hearts. They would not have it any other way.
1http://www.standfirminfaith.com/index.php/sf/page/31754/ (Note: The website is currently down and this link is not valid at this time.)