OK, it’s finally time for the fire and brimstone! See, read all of these passages where Jesus teaches about hell! What do you have to say about that Mr. Grace and forgiveness?! Well, actually, I have quite a bit to say.
22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
29 “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
30 “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.
28 “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
9 “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into the fiery hell.
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
33 “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?
43 “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire,
45 “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell,
47 “And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell,
5 “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!
(Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5, NASB).
There is a tendency to think that if God is tender towards sinners, ready to show mercy and forgive, then it is likely that all or at least most men will be saved from hell. In fact, why would a loving God make up such a horrible thing as hell? Is God a hater? Hell is such a medieval idea! I really do feel compelled to make a bit of a statement on this. There has been a bit of recent brouhaha concerning this issue, but I don’t want to approach things by addressing the brouhaha. Instead, I want to explore the nature of grace and to look at why this implies hell.
First, there is a reason that belief in Christ is called “justification.” It has to do with justice. Stay with me here, because this is a really important point! Love can’t exist without justice, it implies justice. Justice is a piece of the love pie. Suppose that Jeff harms Suzie, and God loves them both. He loves Jeff, and He loves Suzie. The problem is, if He showers favor and kindness and free easy forgiveness on Jeff, it condones the harm done. This has the effect of harming Suzie even more, because it blesses the act of harming her. She needs the opposite of this – she needs resistance to the forces that would harm her. So, if God now ‘forgives’ Jeff, God becomes an agent in blessing the one who harmed her! If God is going to bless Suzie, He will have to demonstrate His disapproval of the harm that was visited on her.
There is no such thing as love without justice, can you see it? As long as we think that salvation means that God just sort of overlooks the things we’ve done to harm ourselves and to harm others, we ask God to transgress love. When we are hesitant about God’s wrath, His hatred of sin, when we try to cover this up and make Him more a God of “love” (by which we mean, vapid niceness), the more we limit the nature and scope of His actual love. Because of love, He hates sin. Because of love, He has wrath against it. In the same way that we understand that He can’t let Hitler get away with it on behalf of the millions of innocents he murdered, we must understand that He can’t let anyone else get away with it either. He never approves, at all, of any sin, He mustn’t ever do this. Justice is nothing more than perfect love cast across all people equally, and this perfect love is the kind of love we are really starved for.
If there were no show of punishment or wrath for Jeff, Suzie’s injury would not be acknowledged; it would in fact be condoned and blessed to harm her again. It would effectively count her pain as nothing. If he injured her, and then the powers that be simply forgave him, and gave him a reward, how could she be satisfied? What would dissuade Jeff from injuring her again? What would dissuade anyone from injuring anyone else again?
This is the whole point of Jesus’ death, and why it is central to the Christian faith. God’s love requires justice, and justice requires some show of disapproval and wrath against sin. God isn’t “holy” for some arbitrary reason. He is holy because everything He does is from love, from a desire to bless. The problem is that love also seeks the good of the one loved, and in God’s case love crosses the boundary of perpetration and even loves the perpetrator of evil. So what to do? He stepped in Himself, and said, I will be the one, I will show wrath against sin, I will pay for it all. As Paul says in Romans:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Romans 3:23-26, NASB).
Notice that there is a distinction laid out in this verse. He is just, and the justifier, “of the one who has faith in Jesus.” If you don’t have faith in Jesus, in this context, it means you don’t think you need the gift of redemption, of propitiation. You think you can justify yourself. You are not sinning so bad, you have some glory. You do not want someone else to justify you, you want the distinction yourself. You do not want your significance handed to you unearned! In this sense, if you want to justify yourself, you do not believe, you do not have faith IN JESUS. You have faith in yourself.
I think you can see where this is going. You are in fact a harmer, you are in fact a transgressor. You are a selfish and ungrateful poser. It’s OK, pony up and admit it, I’m one too. This admission is at the heart of faith. The beginning of faith is to admit you have fallen short of glory. You are not a beautiful person. It isn’t hard, it is simply being honest! You may say, “oh, I’m not that bad. I’m not a murderer or even an adulterer. I’m sure God isn’t so persnickety.” So, it’s OK for God to condone a little evil? Is it OK to have just a little roach cooked into your hash browns? Just a little pee in your coffee? You see that there is no “little” evil. God is completely apart from it; He only ever acts from love in every case. He acts wholly from love, thus the idea that God is “holy.”
If you do not want to do this, if you do not want to let Jesus take the wrath, if you want God to favor you over and against justice, you have to understand that He will not and must not do this. He is not going to gloss over anything you have done. Not one tiny thing, not ever. Any little thing you’ve done over the course of your life which is not from love, incurs wrath, and transgresses justice. It doesn’t matter how much great stuff you do from here on. He will not be manipulated this way. It isn’t persnickety and arbitrary. He isn’t being “angry” for no good reason. He will not transgress justice, He will not condone evil. Not one tiny bit. None of us wants Him to.
Not everyone who self-justifies looks religious, but many do. Some people self-justify by being artists, or hedonists. Some think in their heart, “I am significant because I am a celebrated author.” Their great writing justifies them. Others self-justify by being “good” family people, hard-working and loyal. These things aren’t of themselves bad. The pleasures of food and sex are given by God and are intended for good. Creative pursuits such as painting, sculpture, music, poetry, writing, etc. are a good reflection of what we were really created to do and to be. Who in the world would say that solid families, hard work, and loyalty are bad things? However, you cannot do these things and thus justify yourself. The world is filled with stories of people who are famous or highly skilled and acclaimed or simply good civic church-going people who are really quite selfish and terrible once you get to know them at all. No one is perfect, but when you think you can justify yourself, perfection is required, even in private. Especially in private. Hidden under the idea that “no one is perfect,” there is a world of selfish deceit and abuse and hurt.
What happens to self-justifiers? You can’t make up for past mistakes by determining to be better, any more than you can make the pee in your coffee better by adding a bit more coffee. Whether you are Ghandi or Mother Teresa or Ted Bundy, if you are a self-justifier you are unjust. It doesn’t matter if you only have a little pee in your coffee or a lot of pee in your coffee, you still have pee in your coffee. Self-justifiers themselves bear the wrath that love requires. They themselves bear the weight of the public dissuasion of their evil secrets and less than perfect past. They bear the penalty in their own conscience. As J.I. Packer points out,
When John writes, ‘he who does not believe (in Jesus) is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God’, he goes on to explain himself as follows, ‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:18 f. RSV). He means just what he says: the decisive act of judgment upon the lost is the judgment which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ. in the last alanlysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action towards the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show, and lead him into, the full implications of the choice he has made. Knowing God, J.I. Packer, page 138
The hell of a tortured conscience is actually primarily a hell of the present tense, and any future hell from then on is simply the working out of that same self-justifying hell. The self-justifier will not be justified; the self-justifier resents that God thinks they need justification. Of course there is a hell, because God honors the choices we make. He has given us real autonomy, He treats each of us like big boys and girls. The distinction between the justified and the condemned is not predicated upon public or even private shows of virtue; that bird has already flown. As I’ve said elsewhere, even if the murderer sincerely promises never to murder again, he is still a murderer. The same principle is the same across the board for all transgression. Justification really has to do with receiving or rejecting the FREE GIFT of the propitiation in Christ. If you don’t know that word “propitiation”, you ought to: let me Google that for you. If you receive the free gift, you are FREE INDEED! There is justice which is satisfied in Christ, there is true release for you conscience.
14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
(Hebrews 9:14; 10:22, NASB).
What about all those verses at the top of this post, by the way? There are those about the Law, murder and adultery, applied to the deep motivations of the human heart (Mt 5:22,29,30, Mark 9:43,45,47). As I’ve written elsewhere, Jesus is actually playing this distinction up, He is trying to dissuade you from self-justifying. He is taking you to the place where you can say you are poor in spirit, using the law as a tutor to lead you to grace, the same as Paul teaches. The rest of the verses are directed towards the pharisees, because they are graceless and legalistic and they constantly challenge and reject God’s gift of mercy. Clearly in Jesus’ mind, the ones who self-justified were the enemy, and the ones who confess freely and receive mercy were His friends. I can easily do that! His yoke is easy and His burden is light.