Embracing Hell

Ever since I have become informed enough and confident enough to hold my own opinions about how I think the world should work, one of the ideas that has helped me survive the past two decades of American politics, finance and media, has been the idea that hell is real and that some of the persons who infuriate me so much will wind up there! Now, I know that this is not the most attractive quality in a pastor; however, I also know that others share this same “hope” of mine. And, in all seriousness, for those who have survived unpunished abuse, torture, deceit, racism… sometimes the only thread left connected to the hope of justice trails from the hope of God’s ultimate justice in the next world. There is a satisfaction, of sorts, that comes from imagining the ruthless, evil, arrogant crooks and liars of this world being confronted by God and realizing, with utter terror, that they now will suffer consequences for the hurt they have inflicted on others.

Then, in my less righteous phases, I know in my heart that the God I believe in and worship is a God of astonishing love, wanton grace and scandalous forgiveness. I have believed, as Paul wrote to the Colossians that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God,” that “the fullness of God dwells in” Jesus; and therefore, our understanding and estimation of God must match what we know of Jesus. And the Jesus I know from the Gospels everywhere taught and acted with grace, love, forgiveness and healing. Consequently, I have struggled for years to reconcile my righteous indignation and desire for vengeance with the love and grace of God that I have experienced and believe to be the defining attributes of God. For the life of me, I could not figure out a way to bring these two conflicting ideas together.

Until, I began to discover authors with far more nimble minds than my own. I am extremely grateful that I have found, in the past few years, several authors who write thoughtfully, truthfully and Biblically about these matters in ways that seem to me to reconcile what I had thought were incompatible beliefs.

Hans Boersma, the J..I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College, lays a profound and rigorous base upon which to build a coherent understanding of these matters, in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition. In the passage below, Boersma speaks primarily of Jesus’ self-giving act on the cross. But his argument for understanding that act extends beyond the cross alone and hints of the way we must understand any thoughts of “hell” also.

At the heart of this study lies the conviction that the cross expresses the hospitality of God. This assumes that whatever model we use to describe the atonement, the welcoming love of God must shine through in it. That is to say, an internal criterion for the viability of each of the atonement models is the way in which they are able to account for the hospitality of God, inviting his creation into eternal fellowship with him. After all, “it is proof of God’s own love for us, that Christ died for us while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). Any atonement model in which violence obscures God’s hospitality needs some kind of reevaluation. Not only is the metaphor of hospitality useful to point out the divine motivation for the atonement, but hospitality also bespeaks the eschatological future. Hospitality, like love, refers to the very character of God to which believers look forward through Christ’s work of redemption. Thus, God’s hospitality forms the backdrop that preceded the atonement, as well as the horizon that the atonement anticipates in turn… God’s hospitality is like the soil in which the process of reconciliation is able to take root and flourish. At no point can we separate what takes place in the atonement from the beckoning love of God.

I believe the same holds true for understanding hell; i.e., whatever we hold to be true about God’s eternal justice must conform to our understanding of, as Boersma puts it, “the beckoning love of God.”

So far, I have found no one who more clearly and convincingly helps me understand God’s justice as an expression of God’s love more than Sharon Baker, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religion at Messiah College. Her book, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment, has entirely lived up to its title for me. On the one hand, Baker brilliantly points out the logical flaws that plague our traditional understanding of God’s justice, such as:

Is eternal punishment for temporal sin just? Does sin committed during one short, temporary life span deserve an eternity of punishment? Even in our own society, we strive to make the punishment fit the crime. We make laws, elect judges, appoint juries, hold court sessions, and try offenders in order to ‘prove’ guilt and pass sentence on a just punishment for the guilty. In contrast to this, we cling to traditional views of hell, in which our loving God exacts eternal punishment for temporal sin – an extreme case of the punishment not fitting the crime – and we consider this to be ‘justice.”

Here is another one I love:

In addition, traditional views of hell diminish God’s power to redeem all humanity. If billions of people suffer eternal damnation and separation from God, the effectiveness of sin, evil, and Adam’s condemnation is greater than the effectiveness of God’s grace through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection… What does [this] say about God’s power? About Jesus’ work on the cross? In fact, traditional views of hell do not bring God glory; they usurp God’s glory by diminishing God’s power!”

At the same time, Baker provides a powerful vision of how all the Biblical imagery of hell and God’s justice can be true AND full of love. Though her argument dissecting images and notions one-by-one would be worthy of lengthy discussion, within this platform I will include only one extended passage that reveals something of Baker’s reconciling work:

Picture a person who has committed much evil in his life, someone who rejected Jesus while living, someone who may have abused a spouse or a child, or a person who perhaps committed terrible acts of terrorism against innocent people. Imagine any person whom you would like to see get what’s coming to him (or her) – and it’s judgment day. For the sake of illustration, let’s call him Otto: an international leader who has launched preemptive wars and terrorized nations with his arrogant dominance, leading to the death of thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children. He prepares to go into the presence of God. His attitude smacks of rebellion, anger, and hatred because he knows the time for payback has arrived. He just knows that God is going to judge harshly and throw him in eternal torture as punishment, and he hates God for it.

Otto comes into the throne room of God. Glaring flames of fire, so bright and hot that he cannot see, confront him. His anger and rebellion turn to sheer terror. He moves closer to the flames, and as he does so, he realizes that the blazing fire is God. The closer he gets to God, the more deeply he feels, not God’s hatred or judgment, but God’s love. It is a love of such magnitude that, with its abundance, it acts as wrath, judging him for his deficiency, and with its purity, it serves as a hell, punishing him for his depravity. God’s love and mercy, both acting as judgment, are so extravagant, so abundant, so incomprehensible that they completely overwhelm Otto. Then he hears a voice from the fire. He does not hear ‘You evil, vile murderer! I am going to get you now. Revenge, punishment and torture forever and ever!’ Instead, he hears God say with sorrow forged from love, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. But look at your life; what have you done?’

Totally undone by God’s unorthodox approach, Otto falls to his face, still afraid but with his hatred replaced by remorse. As his life flashes before his eyes, he sees all the victims, mothers crying for lost sons, children begging for the return of their murdered fathers, the eighteen-year-old boy dying alone on the battlefield, crying for his mother. Otto hears their screams, seeds their bloody and battered bodies, listens as they cry out for mercy. And he knows he gave none. Yet here he stands in the fire of God, receiving what he never gave. He looks to his right and sees his victims. Still in the fire, God makes him go to each one and lay his hand upon their hearts. As he does so, he feels all of their pain, all of their disappointments, all of their fear, and knows that he has caused it all. Within the crowd of victims, the last one he has left to touch, he sees Jesus.

When he places his hand on Jesus’ heart, he not only feels the pain, sorrow, and the disappointment he has caused Jesus; he also feels the unconditional love that Jesus has for him, Otto. All the while the fire of God burns, devouring Otto’s wickedness and evil deeds. Lest you think he gets off too easy, this is hell for him. With gnashing teeth and uncontrollable weeping, his heart breaks, and he cries out in utter remorse, in unmitigated repentance, knowing he can never undo the damage he has caused. Seeing his repentance and the unendurable and seemingly unending pain he feels as the fire burns off the chaff of his evil deeds, the victims are vindicated. The one thing victims most often wish for is that their offender feel remorse and know the terrible pain he has caused them. Otto’s immense remorse and pain at the knowledge of his sin against them satisfy this need… Otto doesn’t get away with murder; he doesn’t get to take a walk without suffering any consequences. He burns in God’s eternal fire. The more he burns, the closer he gets to God, until finally he stands next to God, purified, free from sin, and ready to hear God’s words.

Then Otto hears God say, “I forgive you. Will you be reconciled to me and to those you have wronged?” Barely able to answer, Otto nods his head in utter disbelief. Much to his astonishment, God asks Otto’s victims to draw near to Otto and to put their hands on his heart. As they touch him, each one feels Otto’s pain, his fears, his disappointments; they can hear his cries as a child, know his shame as an adult, and understand who he was as an evil ruler. Themselves forgiven and embraced by the love of God, they extend that same kind of grace to Otto, forgiving him his sins against them. At last Jesus stands before him, touches Otto’s heart, and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love, and I forgive you. Will you enter into my kingdom and be restored to God?” And Otto accepts. He has been judged by the fire of love; he has walked through the fire of God’s wrath; he has been purified by the fire of God’s mercy. He receives forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, and he enters the kingdom of God, tested by fire, forgiven by grace.”

I think I can live with that.

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