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.

Same Story, Different Players

When it comes to the Bible, does it ever feel like you are reading the same story over and over again? In his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, author Robert Alter observes that one of the most common features of the narratives in the Old Testament is their use of repetition. He sees this as an indication of “literary purposefulness” on the part of the authors. Alter writes,“The most crucial case in point is the perplexing fact that in biblical narrative more or less the same story often seems to be told two or three or more times about different characters, or sometimes even about the same character in different sets of circumstances.”

No doubt he is correct. But I think there may be an additional reason. It is because people do the same dumb things. Any pastor can tell you this. Not only do different people do the same stupid things but people often make the same mistakes repeatedly. Actually, you don’t have to be a pastor to spot this. If you’ve attended more than one church, you’ve probably already noticed that it seems like the same story is unfolding with different faces. “Really?” we are tempted to say.  “You did that too?”

It’s a comfort, in a way. There is a certain warm familiarity in driving past the same broken down barn every day. The wreckage is a landmark, part of what makes the landscape feel like home to us. The same is often true of our lives. Over here is the secret drunk. Over there is the important man, whose voice must always be heard. And there is the queen of the kitchen, who likes to tell everyone else how things are done. But after a while, it starts to feel like a cliché. We grow weary of the storyline. This is especially true once we spot ourselves among the cast of characters. “Really?” we want to say to ourselves. “You did that again? Will you ever learn?”

In view of the Bible’s Old Testament narratives, the answer might actually be no. But if this is the case, the point is not our own stupidity. The message is something else altogether. This repetition is intended to draw our attention to the other main character who shows up again and again. It seems that the story was not about us after all, but about God. He does not always rescue us from the consequences of what we have done. Sometimes, He lets us complete the narrative arc of our foolish choices. He does not show up at the last minute to save the day. Instead, when He enters the story, it is to save us.