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 Rat’s Eye View

A lot has happened since I blogged last. There was a royal wedding. The worst tornadoes in a hundred years left bloody scars on the Alabama landscape. Osama Bin Laden was  executed. And that was just since last week. Kind of makes you wonder what is going to happen next. If I lived near the sea, I might be afraid to take a walk on the shore for fear that a ten horned beast might rise out of the water.

Events like these expand the perspective of some people. Their eyes are opened to a wide horizon of need. They feel a greater sense of compassion and even a kind of wonder. But not me. My instinctive reaction is the opposite. I want to hunker down. I feel  myself receding into my own world. I feel smaller in the face of such great events and my world grows smaller with me. I watched the pageantry of the royal wedding and wished my church experience were a little more like that. Not the gown and the funny hats but the grandeur of the music and the sense of dignity reflected in the service. I listened to the reports of the execution of Osama Bin Laden and wondered why I didn’t feel bad for him. At the same time I wondered why I didn’t feel exhilarated enough to dance in the streets. Images of the rubble left by the last week’s storms flicker on my screen and I wonder why I don’t feel sadder.

Is it because I am shallow? Am I a narcissist? Yes, I suppose I am. The malady of sin has a way of making your world small. In The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis portrayed Hell as a shrunken and shrinking realm where the damned soul is shut up in itself.  “Good beats upon the damned incessantly, but they cannot receive it” Lewis writes. “Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes are fast shut.” Fortunately, God is greater than my small heart. “Only the greatest of all can make himself small enough to enter Hell.” Lewis explains. “For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend-a man can sympathize with a horse but a horse cannot sympathize with a rat. Only one has descended into Hell.”

 That is to say, only one has descended into Hell and ascended again. Thanks be to God.

Love Wins! It Also Criticizes.

The furor over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins seems to have died down. The book is out and Rob has clarified his position. Those who loved Rob before the book still love him and those who don’t… Well, you know how these things go.

 The rumblings from this controversy have uncovered the fault lines in contemporary evangelical theology. Or at least they have revealed some of the cracks in our façade. The discussion has unmasked the functional universalism that characterizes many modern evangelicals. More importantly, this dispute has shown how many feel an aversion for anything that smells like dogma. This antipathy is most in evidence in the flippant tone of those who wondered why Rob was criticized in the first place. Their disdain is the antiphonal reply offered to those who have accused Bell of being a “heretic” (more on that in a later blog post).

 Donald Miller’s hilarious book review posted on April 1 (note the date–it is a clue) is a good example. I could not help laughing at Miller’s post. But I also had to wonder at the tone (which was mirrored in the comments of his readers). The general message seemed to be that anyone who would be disturbed by possibility that Rob Bell denies the literal nature of hell must have too much time on his hands. Don’t Jesus’ followers have better things to do than to dispute such things?

 While it must be granted that some moved too quickly to apply the “h” word to Bell, it was entirely appropriate for them to be concerned. I understand why Rob Bell might not enjoy their scrutiny but he should not have been surprised. Nor should he disdain their concern. Bell is wrong when he implies that it was un-Christian to question his views on this subject. The Scriptures command Christ’s followers to guard their doctrine as well as their way of life (1 Tim. 4:16). In the Christian life doctrine is as important as character. In fact, according to Scripture the two are related. Slovenly doctrine leads to poor character And yes, the Bible really does make that connection (1 Tim. 1:10).What is more, those who oppose sound doctrine are to be “refuted” (Titus 1:9).

 I know. It sounds “old school.” It seems “ungenerous.” But what can I say. It’s what the Bible says. Unpleasant as it sounds, doctrine does matter. And no, we really don’t have better things to do.