Oh, Hell.

In the early days of my walk with Jesus, I did not believe in Hell. Or at least, I did not want to acknowledge the reality of Hell. I had heard about Hell and even prayed a prayer to Jesus to be saved from Hell as a child. But by the time I began to live seriously for Christ in my early 20’s, I had pushed that aspect of the gospel to the margins of my thinking. I was more interested in knowing whether God existed. I was attracted to Jesus because of the message of God’s love. I came to Him for the relationship.

I knew about the cross, of course. I understood that it as the preeminent proof of Christ’s love. I knew that it was the remedy for my sin and I did believe in sin. How could I not? The evidence was right in front of me. Indeed, it was in me. Like the apostle Paul, I was unable to do the good that I wanted to do (Romans 7:19-21).  I suppose the experience of my own sinfulness combined with the stark reality of Christ’s death should have made ask whether the cross even made sense if the threat of Hell did not exist. But somehow, I was able to ignore the question.

Except, I kept coming across Hell in the Bible. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that Jesus spoke about Hell in the Scriptures in a way that suggested that it was more than a metaphor. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” Jesus says in Luke 12:4-5, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Jesus, it turned out, had more to say about Hell than anyone else.

If I was serious about following Jesus, I couldn’t affirm those aspects of His teaching that I liked and ignore those that made me uncomfortable. I realized that the same was true of the rest of the Bible. If I was going to accept it as God’s truth, I had to accept it all. There was no room to cherry-pick, holding on to the truths I liked and setting aside those I didn’t.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis suggested that those who find themselves in Hell choose to be there. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” One of the most insidious effects of sin is that it compels us to flee from the lover of our souls. Without the grace of God bestowed upon us in Christ, we would do so forever.

The cross is a symbol, but it is more than a symbol. I was right to see it as evidence of God’s love. But it is also a blunt reminder of the penalty that sin requires. The cross is proof of our need to take sin more seriously than we do. Only a grave condition could warrant such an extreme remedy. The cross is a warning. Jesus’ cry from the cross foreshadows the agony of all who will experience separation from God for eternity because of their sin (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

It is almost impossible to speak about the reality of Hell without seeming glib. I think this reflects a kind of denial. If it is hard for us to fathom heavenly things, it is even more difficult for us to grasp the danger of Hell. For one thing, we do not want to think about it. It is all too easy to put any thought of it out of our mind. We do not really believe that we deserve it. Most of us harbor a secret hope that in the end, God will change the standard, the way our teachers sometimes did when everyone flunked the exam in school.

The reason so many of us do not believe in hell is that we do not believe in righteousness. Despite all our contemporary talk about “justice,” we have no real conception of justice, at least where God is concerned. We still believe in evil. But only as a hyperbole. Evil is an unrealistic extreme that we see in a handful of others. We do not think of evil in reference to ourselves. Ironically, was true for me, we are happy to claim the cross for our own benefit. But deep inside we can’t help wondering if all the blood and brutality of the thing was really necessary. We chalk it up to the meanness of human beings. Such thinking sentimentalizes the cross, reducing it to a mere symbol. The cross has become a meme for us. We certainly do not see what it has to do with Hell. Or with justice, for that matter.

In the end, the cross and Hell are inevitably related to one another. Hell is the ultimate exercise of divine judgment. Hell is proof that our sin ultimately has reference to God. It is to Him that we must answer. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” David declared after his sin with Bathsheba (Psalm 51:4). Sin is more than selfish petulance. It is more than a moral offense against our neighbor. Whether we are willing to recognize it or not, sin is an offense against God, and He will call everyone to account.

This may be the most disturbing aspect of the cross for those who reject its message. It is a picture of what is owed. The cross is an emblem of God’s love. But it is also the ultimate reminder to any who refuse to accept Christ’s payment, that their debt will one day be called in.

A Hunger for Justice

I have a confession. I have been binge-watching the first season of the Netflix series Daredevil. I know, I know. I am supposed to be doing something more constructive with my spare time. Perhaps reading great literature. Or maybe writing great literature. Instead, I am hunkered down in my chair in front of the television. Don’t judge me.

Ok, go ahead and judge me. What do I care? There is something appealing about the show’s blind hero with his soft-spoken manner. He is a warrior for justice. Which, as far as I can tell, means beating the crap out of people. This seems to me to be a vision which resonates with our age. We have become a vigilante culture. If we don’t like the outcome of due process we simply take matters into our own hands.  This is a view which essentially equates justice with bullying. Since Daredevil does not actually exist, today’s justice warriors must take their own measures, which more and more look like the punishment of the mob. This is true whether it is the virtual mob, whose posts on social media endeavor to shout and shame, or the literal mob that surrounds someone whose views they oppose in an effort to intimidate.

This modern view of justice is sharply discordant from the one described in the fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). The New Testament word which is translated “righteousness” can also mean “justice.” The difference with Jesus’ view is not His vocabulary so much as His angle of vision. What passes for justice today focuses primarily on what others are doing. It aims to call them to account. Jesus’ beatitude seems to turn the spotlight in the opposite direction.

Indeed, Jesus’ vision is not a spotlight at all but a hunger that gnaws from within. The righteousness He describes is a burning thirst that longs to be slaked. It is a compelling desire focused not on where others have gone wrong but upon myself. Instead of being imposed from without, this is a vision of a justice which springs from within. It is the picture of a world where I want to do right. More than this, it offers a radically reconfigured view of myself. It suggests a new creation where I not only do right but I am right.

I am not. At least, not in the way that Jesus describes it here. Perhaps that is why I can be so captivated by a cartoonish vision of justice. The fantasy is a momentary distraction from the harsh reality that my own hunger and thirst for righteousness are tepid and infrequent. Oh, I want you to do good, especially where your dealings have to do with me. But I do not always want to be good. I need more than a different moral agenda. I need an entirely new moral constitution.

What I need is the righteousness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes. It is a righteousness He promises to provide for anyone who hands their diseased and diminished moral appetite over to Him. Jesus’ promise of righteousness puts the lie to the comic book fantasy that we can overcome the darkness by taking up its own weapons and turning them against it. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Don’t fear the darkness, overcome it. But before you can do this you will need to be overcome by something else. It what Jesus calls a hunger and thirst for righteousness.