God’s Justice (and Hell) Revisited

I realize that, despite a thorough explanation of the circumstances, some people are probably still having a tough time accepting a God who ordered the destruction of entire nations. I admit, sometimes the thought troubles me as well. Surely if He is God, He can prevent destroying the innocent with the wicked. Can’t He?

I recently visited the blog “The Upside Down World” of fellow blogger Rebecca Trotter. She, too, confessed to being troubled by these Old Testament passages. So she asked God about them, and the response she received was, “I work it all out.”

Now, I just about fell out of my chair when I read this, because God had whispered the same words to me when I was doing research for my previous post, “A God of Justice.” What staggered me about the situation is that Rebecca and I hold different beliefs when it comes to God’s judgment. Yet, God’s response to us was the same. Mind = blown.

Rebecca is a Christian Universalist. Universalists believe that Christ’s redemptive work was for all of mankind, so everyone is destined for heaven–whether they lived by his precepts or not. There’s still burning in the Lake of Fire for the wicked, but only for an age. Once the wicked have been cleansed and consecrated by fire, they’ll join the throng around God’s throne. She has found scriptures and scholarly work to back up this theory.

There are other theories about God’s judgment as well. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe that the word “hell” in the Bible refers to the grave, not a place of burning torment. The saved will be resurrected to eternal life on a paradise earth (only the 144,000 elect go to heaven), while the wicked stay asleep in the ground for eternity. They have scriptures and scholarly work to back this up.

Most hardline Christians, of course, believe that people are judged upon death. Those who have accepted Christ as savior go to heaven, while the wicked burn for eternity in hell. They also have scriptures and scholarly work to back this up.

Aye, yi, yi!

As always, the struggle is to reconcile the God of Justice with the God of Mercy. Would a God of Mercy allow people to go into everlasting torment for finite sins? Would a God of Justice allow unrepentant murderers, rapists and haters of His goodness to enjoy the same eternal reward as saints and martyrs? It’s a quandary, for sure.

I’m not a Universalist, and I’m not sure I can be. It’s not that I wish to see people burn for eternity, or that I think people need that motivation to accept Christ. (That wasn’t my motivation, anyway.) It’s that I have trouble believing God would force people who had no love for Him on earth to worship Him for eternity. I believe God does not infringe on anyone’s free will; He gives people a choice and honors it. If that choice is hell, so be it. I’ve always been taught that hell is a place of complete separation from God. And since God is the source of all that is good, it is therefore a terrible place.

Of course, some people would point out that a merciful God would not allow anyone to make such a choice without full knowledge of what they were doing. Others would claim that the gospel contains full knowledge. Considering the vastly different ideas believers have about the afterlife, though, I’m not sure that statement holds water. Again, a quandary.

Here’s what I do believe, though: When the innocent perish and the wicked thrive, God knows what’s going on. And whatever He allows and however He judges humanity in the end, we’ll ultimately find acceptable and pleasing. When we die and see our Maker face to face, we’ll understand everything that happened on earth and why. We’ll see death, time and reality just as God sees them. The tapestry of humanity will be unfurled for all to examine, and we’ll see every life, every death, and every choice as a stitch in that wondrous fabric. Though the individual death or choice may have seemed ugly at the time, it will make up the picture of ultimate glory God chose to weave through us.

I personally no longer hold the hardline Christian view of judgment. I think there will be far more people in heaven than fundamentalists expect. However, I also believe those who reject God and do evil will be allowed to experience the consequences. Whether that’s sleeping in the grave for eternity or being consecrated in the Lake of Fire, temporarily or permanently, is inconsequential to me. I don’t believe God intended for the concept of divine judgment to arm-twist anyone into accepting Christ–as it’s so often used. An irrevocable ticket to heaven doesn’t negate anyone’s need for redemption on this earth, least of all mine.

What I have a problem with are people who insist that Universalism or any other theory that deviates from the hardline view is “a lie from the pit of hell.” They claim that anyone who doesn’t believe in everlasting torment for the wicked is in danger of hell himself. Frankly, that’s an unscriptural view. Correct belief in the events of the afterlife (whatever that entails) is not a requisite for salvation. There is only one thing I, or anyone else, must believe to have eternal life:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

Seriously, that is it. There are similar scriptures that mention being baptized in addition to accepting Christ, but no verse condemns those who hold unorthodox views of God’s judgment–unless they are purposely misleading others with such doctrines for their own selfish gain.

Some people claim that unorthodox beliefs fool people into thinking that they don’t need salvation–that without the concept of eternal hellfire, people won’t be motivated to accept Christ. Or that such beliefs will cause those who hold them to become lax in their devotion. But Rebecca Trotter says her Universalist views have made her a better believer–more faithful and obedient to Christ’s commands, more trusting of God, and more enthusiastic to share the gospel. Satan’s purpose in heresy is to drive people away from God, not propel them closer to Him. And Rebecca’s views on issues such as giving, abortion, abstinence and Christian responsibility are anything but lax.

In this regard, we believers really are a faithless lot, as Rebecca is fond of pointing out. We simply don’t trust that God will do the right thing when it comes to judgment. We think we have to have it all figured out to the last detail, or else people won’t approach Christ in the correct manner. What hogwash. First of all, the Holy Spirit, not scare tactics, directs believers in the way they should go. Second, whatever happens on Judgment Day will be fair and in the best interests of all. For some, judgment will bring joy; for others, it will bring great distress. There will be justice for victims and mercy for sinners. I’m just not certain what form that will take. And I don’t think it matters. What matters is this: God desires that none perish (2 Peter 3:9).

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about all of my friends who don’t know Christ, which includes my husband. They know I’m a Christian (a few of them even read this blog), but they aren’t ready to put their faith in him. I thought with sadness about being in heaven without them there. And then God said, “Don’t worry. I’m going to save them. Just wait.” My heart was instantly overflowing with joy. Whether He meant in this life or in the next, I don’t know. All I know is that they’ll be with me in heaven, finally free from the pain of abuse, rejection, addiction, loneliness, fatherlessness, uncertainty and the stress of this life. And I’ll run up to them on the streets of gold, arms outstretched, saying, “See?! I told you guys this would be great!”

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24 responses to “God’s Justice (and Hell) Revisited

  1. I am not so certain that God did order all that the ancient Israelites believed that he ordered.

    The bible is a Revelation of the on-going relationship of God with his Creation and the People elected to serve as “sacraments” of his nurturing Presence in the world. These People seemed to have a tendency to forget that they had been elected to service, not privilege–blessed to be a blessing–confusing God’s will with their own instincts to seek advantage often at the expense of others.

    It took centuries of prophetic proclamation and backsliding in which God often had to turn to the leaders of gentile nations to achieve a Divine Purpose because Israel had turned back to Baal-like rather than Yahwehistic practices.

    I am reading Rabbi Lerner’s book Jewish Renewal and it has introduced me to a new perspective on many of the OT texts.

    Excerpt from the book: In this moment Abraham must confront the central problem facing every religion and every historical manifestation of God in the world: the difficulty in separating the voice of God from the legacy of pain and cruelty that dominates the world and is embedded in our psyches. The greatness of Abraham is not that he takes his son to Mount Moriah, the Temple mount (the place where today stand both the Western Wall sacred to Jews and the Dome of the Rock sacred to Islam), so that he can sacrifice his son. No. The greatness of Abraham is that he doesn’t go through with it. As he looks into the eyes of the son he has bound for slaughter, he can now overcome the emotional deadness that allowed him to cast Ishmael off into the desert. At the very last moment, Abraham hears the true voice of God, the voice that says, “Don’t send your hand onto the youth and don’t make any blemish.” Don’t do it Abraham, says God. You can break the pattern of passing on to the next generation the pain and cruelty that you have suffered. This is the moment of transcendence; the moment in which Abraham finally accepts as real the commandment that started his journey, to leave his father’s house. The real God of the universe is not the voice of cruelty that he had experien ced and heard in his childhood; it is rather a God of compassion and justice who does not command the sacrifice of the innocent. Startlingly, the text itself points to two different voices that Abraham has heard, not one voice that has changed its mind. In Hebrew, when the text talks about the voice that tells Abraham to take his son, it is ha’elohim (which could be translated, “the gods”). But the voice that tells Abraham not to lay his hand on the young boy is a messenger of YHVH, the four letters that Jewish tradition identifies with the embodiment of God as the Transformer and Liberator from Egypt. It is YHVH who tells Abraham that the chain of pain can be broken—and that makes it possible for Abraham to recognize Isaac as another human being created in the image of God, and hence infinitely precious. “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” –Susan B. Anthony

    “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.” ~ Anne Lamott (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

    • I’m not so sure about the genocide commands, either. Some scholars (including Jewish ones) think the Old Testament stories are legends that the Hebrews used to unite their clans and point the way to God. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that one.

  2. The concept of “Heaven” has changed for many over the centuries and especially with the evolution from Newtonian to quantum physics. “Heaven” is often conceived as a spiritual state rather than a physical place.

    It is not Revelation but our understanding that has changed.

    Scripture has given us hints of a Reality that lies beyond our space-time continuum. What to think of the biblical Revelation that Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world? We have the NT Gospel that gives a time-oriented account of the life and death of Jesus.

    Many of the OT prophets seemed to have lost a normal concept of time while prophesying.

    Suppose “heaven” is simply being open to an intimate transformational relationship with God and “hell” is the rejection of this invitation to experience Grace? There is that painting of Jesus knocking at the door with the handle on the inside. Can Unconditional/Kenotic Love be resisted forever or will its suasive power always eventually triumph even over the most hardened of hearts?

    It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. It is not just Divine justice and Divine mercy that seem irreconcilable. There is also Divine Will that desires that all men be saved and human freedom. There is also the Pauline insistence that Jesus is the Savior of the world, not just the Church. Colossians is the clearest Revelation of the Cosmic Christ in Scripture. Protestant Evangelicalism seems to me to have little interest in the Cosmic Christ, Catholicism has a weak Tradition of this teaching; but it is more explicit in the Orthodox Churches of the East.

    “God is not justice. Justice is in his nature, but love is predominant. People attach such importance to actions and their results. They do not know that above action and result
    is a law which can consume the fire of hell, which can dominate even if the whole world were being drowned in the flood of destruction; they do not know that the power of love is greater than any other.” –Hazrat Inayat Khan

    “I used to believe we do not have free will. But then I realized that we do indeed have free will as far as the will to try to make things happen. However, of all the things we try to make happen, the ones that actually do happen, that is God’s will. So, ultimately, your free will is worthless.”
    ~Jessica Maxwell, quoting the *Mystic Golfer* in Roll Around Heaven

  3. Now my mind is blown, too. I have been wrestling with this issue for a while now. The world is not as black and white as I once imagined. I suppose that knowledge comes with age. How could a good God, a loving God, a God who sacrificed His own Son be the author of such a horrible place?

    Do you remember Kathryn Baxter’s book, “A Divine Revelation of Hell”? I first read that book when I was about 10 years old. The descriptions of burning flesh melting off a person and worms eating that person from the inside out stuck with me. It terrified me, and it made me afraid of this so-called loving God.

    What about the abuser that has always only known abuse? What about the drug addict who started when he was a teenager and couldn’t stop? What about the woman suffering from PPD who takes her own life? What about the prostitute who has only been used and thrown away her whole life? Jesus’s reaction to the sinful in the NT doesn’t jive with Baxter’s (or many other’s) interpretation of Hell.

    Jesus also spoke of rewards in Heaven, such as crowns and treasure. Could it be that the faithful will be rewarded, while the unbelieving will be gracefully accepted in? The lavishness of His grace knows no bounds. And isn’t there already weeping and gnashing of teeth here?

    I don’t know where this particular truth struggle will take me. I’ve even read some writings on Christian Universalism, but am not ready to fully embrace it yet. I do know this: He will make all thing right, and He is the author of all good things. He has convinced me of His goodness over and over again. I also think that we are going to be floored and speechless when we realize just how far His mercies and love go. That being said, let’s say Christian Universalism is true. I agree with the blogger that you mentioned above. That would not make me want to live in any fashion I please, but rather to run to Him, ashamed of my sinfulness but amazed by His love.

    • I do remember Baxter’s book, and also read it at about that age. I remember feeling so depressed when I read about the wayward minister’s heart that lay hemorraging in a coffin while demons stabbed it with pitchforks. Disgusting.

      When it comes to damnation, this is what I think: Anytime scripture mentions those who will not “inherit the kingdom of God,” it’s always those who are violating the first and greatest commandment to “love your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself”–liars, fornicators, adulterers, abusers, murderers and the like. Since Paul condemns these sins in the church, I believe he was speaking of those who sinned in these ways after receiving knowledge of the truth. Those who are ignorant of the law are not bound by the law, as he said. So I believe those who die without hearing the gospel will be judged according to whatever knowledge of right and wrong that they had.

      • Not having been raised in a church-going family, I have been spared such pathological theological/spiritual conditioning.

        As an adult convert I have found that secular people often grasp the concept of Unconcitional/Kenotic Love more quickly than cradle Christians. I believe it is the “fire & brimstone” image of God that keeps many professing Christians from getting the “Unconditional” part about Divine Love.

        “Religious creeds encourage some of the craziest kinds of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and favor severe manifestations of neurosis, borderline personality states, and sometimes even psychosis.” – Albert Ellis

    • I want to add that after reading some of Rebecca Trotter’s compelling posts on Universalism, I’m beginning to lean in the direction of believers being rewarded in heaven while unbelievers are graciously allowed in…perhaps after some consecrating work on God’s part. Still chewing on this idea, as you can probably tell. I’ve got more to read and pray about. But I also believe that some mystery will always surround this issue of eternal redemption. I’m not sure our earthly minds can fully comprehend it–which may explain why the disciples struggled to communicate it a way that seemed clear and consistent to everyone.

      • I doubt that rewards and punishments will even be an issue in Eternity.

        Even here, in this less-than-perfect world, there are some people who would like to see an emphasis on victim/offender reconciliation rather than retributive justice, wherever possible, as part of a serious rehabilitative program.

        What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.
        Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 153

  4. Wow! Your blog sure receives some lengthy comments. I guess people have a lot to say to defend their beliefs or support others. I just wanted to let you know that I read every word of this post and that I agreed with every word. Being very distant from religious groups and denominations within church systems, I am not familiar with all these different interpretations. I do know that God speaks clearly to those who’s hearts are close to Him and that one day Every Knee Shall Bow! That is more than enough proof for me, and more than enough motivation to keep on steadily towards Him. I wrote a series recently called “Gaining help from above” The post titled ‘Nourishment’ is all about the Word of God and how we can grow towards Christ from it, and why some are divided by it. Maybe you would enjoy it, I hope so. Thank you for sharing all these view points, Blessings to you!

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting! I just wanted to say that all the comments so far from other readers, while lengthy, have been overwhelmingly positive. Out of the 100+ comments I’ve received, I think only one has been negative. I’m fortunate to have intelligent followers who wish to add their thoughts to mine and engage others in conversation. It’s quite nice! 🙂

      I’m looking forward to exploring your blog. Be blessed, and welcome to the site!

      • That is fantastic! I thought when I began blogging that I would come up against a lot of opposition especially as I am quite upfront on my feelings about Religiosity and the hypocritical, Judgmental nature of the churches I have attended and the church goers I have come across. I was prepared for it, but it never came. I have had nothing but support from my readers and it is refreshing to finally feel connected to other believers, as I have felt alone with The Lord for much of my walk, especially since my Dad passed away. I have plenty of faithful friends and many who aren’t, but something was always missing until I began writing…I enjoyed looking through your site yesterday and looking forward to future sharing. 🙂

        • An awareness of the problem of “sins against charity” is beginning to be recognized.

          I have not been back to formal worship service since the last election cycle. The Eucharist is not just a participation in the live of Christ, it is a participation in the faith community and I just don’t feel connected to the Church in America after experiencing all the fear and hate from Christians in the last election.

          You might find this link interesting:

          http://frankviola.org/2013/01/14/warning/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wordpress%2Fviola+%28Beyond+Evangelical%29

        • P.s.I am Australian and we don’t mix religion in with our politics here. Not much anyway. Our Prime Minister is a confessed Atheist. Praying for her to find Christ everyday!

        • If it’s meant to be it will be. When Israel “played the harlot”, God just worked through a Gentile person or Nation. Jews and Christians have the “right of first refusal.” If we exercise it, another will receive the blessing of participating in the Big Story. Some people, including professing Christians, prefer to be big frogs in a little pond instead of little frogs in a big pond. Egoistic narcissism has I lot to do with it, I guess.

          There is a difference between Churchianity and Christianity:

          “The institutions of Churchianity are not Christianity. An institution is a good thing if it is second; immediately an institution recognizes itself it becomes the dominating factor.” — Oswald Chambers

          Being a Methodist, a Catholic, or a Baptist does not make one a disciple, it only makes him a Methodist, a Catholic, or a Baptist, who may or may not be a daily follower of Jesus Christ. –Michael Phillips

          Plenty of kind, decent, caring people have no religious beliefs, and they act out of the goodness of their hearts. Conversely, plenty of people who profess to be religious, even those who worship regularly, show no particular interest in the world beyond themselves. -John Danforth, priest, ambassador, senator (b. 1936)

          “Once ‘the religious hypothesis’ is disengaged from the opportunity to inflict humiliation and pain on people who do not profess the correct creed, it loses interest for many people.”–Richard Rorty, Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance

          I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse. . . . Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil. ~C.S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec.20 1961

  5. Waterbearer, Martin Luther said, “Where God builds a church the devil builds a chapel.” Unfortunately, even American Lutherans are not as wise as their Founder.

    A politician in Tennesee ran for election as a “family values” Christian. After winning, it came out that his wife had two abortions. His explanation/justification was basically they weren’t getting along and/or the pregnancy just wasn’t “convenient.

    There are many Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics in the US for whom a Christian profession of faith is the only qualification they care about when going to the polls. That is why we have a dysfunctional Government.

    Politics is not about “values” it is about interests: who gets what, when and how and keeping the give and take balanced enough to keep everyone invested in sacrificing for the common interest. The good news is that, while values and short term interests tend to conflict, values and long term interests tend to converge. We don’t need to elect impractical idealists (either religious or secular) to achieve the maximum good that circumstances permit. We just have to elect pragmatic visionaries with the wisdom and patience to discern and persuade the electorate to give up their short term interests for the greater common good, i.e. enough justice to sustain a stable society. It is not a good omen that so many Americans resonate to the story of Les Miserables. Many European Nations are on the verge of anarchic revolutions and it could happen here. Doing away with the draft had the unfortunate affect of turning our citizen army into a professional army. Professional armies have much less reserve about firing on protesting civilians than citizen armies. I fear for my country.

    • I understand and thank you for your input to that. …And This is why I avoid politics as much as I can…My flesh fears for all countries, my limited understanding fears for all countries… but my faith trusts that in the end all will be as God intends and therefore for our good. My relationship with Him is all I can control and so all I need to focus and depend on. Sending prayers for His plans to unfold and for the truth of His righteous Love to be accepted by all. Every Knee Shall One Day Bow! Amen…

      • Yes, the theological virtue of hope is not “wishful thinking.” It is a certain hope:

        For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? – Augustine, Enchiridion (Marcus Dods translation, 1876)