Wrestling with the Weight of Hell

Hell is a hard and weighty doctrine. These past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fairness and goodness of God in hell and judgment. I hope to share more in posts to come, but in this post, I want to share how two passages, Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18, have been helpful to my thought process.

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If you have time, I encourage you read the passages in full but for the sake of length, let me briefly summarize them.

In Ezekiel 18. God is responding to Israel’s complaints that they’re being unfairly punished for the sins of their fathers. He explains to Israel the principles that govern his justice: each soul dies for his own sin, not the son for the father’s, nor the father for the son’s. The righteous man who walks faithfully with God will surely live; the righteous man will die when he strays from righteous path; and the wicked man will live if he repents and turns to God. God ends with an invitation for Israel to turn from their sin and live.

In Genesis 18, God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. A distraught Abraham begs God to spare the two cities if he can find 50 righteous men. When 50 aren’t found, Abraham asks God to spare the cities if he can find 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous men. When none are found, Abraham returns to his place.

Here are some thoughts on how these two passages have helped me think through God’s goodness and justice in hell.

Question: What is God’s Heart in Sending a Sinner to Hell? — 

My Response: God is sovereign and wrathful, but also sorrowful and reluctant in carrying out judgment.

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I can’t think of anything more important in our Christian life than our view of God. It’s more than just an abstract or intellectual issue; it’s an immensely practical one. Our view of God affects the way we relate to him in our day to day lives. It changes whether we come with a heart of joy or of fear, of worship or of resentment.

In forming our view of God, we must acknowledge that God is incredibly complex. Knowing this, we need to be careful not to misunderstand God or go beyond what Scripture tells us. We also must make sure to balance each particular attribute of God with the rest of his revealed character (here’s an Ask Pastor John that I found helpful).

For me, God’s wrath, jealousy, judgment, and his sovereignty in election are some of those complex concepts that, if viewed alone, threaten to warp and distort my view of God and cause me to doubt Him. If I focus too much on his anger, for example, I begin to see him as scary and cruel, waiting to break out in anger at even the smallest offense. If I isolate God’s sovereign pursuit of his glory from the rest of his character, I begin to imagine Him calmly and coolly predestining sinners to hell for his own pleasure. When I begin to doubt God’s character, I become hesitant or even resentful when I come before Him.  I lose my love and wonder at the Gospel. I even imagine myself as more compassionate than God since I am somehow more willing to forgive and see the good in nonbelievers than He is.

It would be easy if we could just sweep his wrath or sovereignty under the rug, but that would disregard the clear witness of Scripture. God is angry, does predestine, and does delight in justice. How can we balance these different attributes as we try to understand the whole character of God? It has been helpful for me as I think about God’s anger and his sovereignty to also remember his sorrow and reluctance in carrying out justice upon sinners.

Ezekiel 18 shows me God’s sorrow in judgment. In verse 23, the Lord declares: have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked…and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Later he pleads: why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (v.31-32). Genesis 18 shows me God’s reluctance in judgment. Five times, he heeds Abraham’s request to look for righteous men in Sodom, each time lowering the requisite number needed to turn away wrath. Eventually, when no righteous men are found, we see that God’s original intent to destroy Sodom on the spot was not hasty, out of control, or an overreaction, but plain justice. The Lord would have held back his wrath for even ten righteous men if they were to be found.

Combined, these two passages show that God’s judgment is not driven by malice, nor is he disengaged with those under judgment. God’s compassion shines forth even in his wrath in the form of anguish and his patient hope that sinners might repent. God feels that same desire I feel–that none should perish; that each person made in the image of God, with a soul, hopes, longings, and dreams, would be restored to his Creator; however, he also has an infinitely greater understanding of justice and the heinousness of sin than I do. No matter how much he loves us, he cannot violate his decree that “the soul who sins shall die”; nor can he ignore that “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is very great and their sin is very grave” (Ezk 18:4, Gen 18:20). So, God judges and destroys. Yet, even in judgment, he is not gleeful or vindictive, but sorrowful and patient, preferring that the proud heart would have embraced the simple repentance that turns away wrath.

It has been helpful to let God’s sorrow and reluctance in judgment color the way I view his wrath and his sovereignty. Yes, God is wrathful, but he patiently withholds his promised wrath, not wishing any to perish (2 Pet 3:9). Yes, God is sovereign in salvation, but that in no way dampens God’s sorrow or his pursuit of sinners. I may not understand how it all works, but God knows we will fall into sin and he is surprised and indignant when we do. He knows who will repent and who will be lost and he pleads for non-elect sinners to come back and weeps for those who don’t.

We see wrath and sovereignty mingled with sorrow when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem:

[41] And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, [42] saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. [43] For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side [44] and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

Jesus wholeheartedly accepts the justice of God’s wrath against Israel for their sin. He knows God has sovereignly hidden the truth from their eyes. He knows that many in Israel will reject him, persist in their sin, and be lost. He knows that God will judge them by destroying the temple. And he still weeps for them. He still spends three years pleading, inviting, begging for them to come and accept the Savior they’ve been waiting for. He still wished they knew that day what made for peace with God.

Question: Is it okay to wrestle with the idea of Hell? —

My Response: Yes, we can bring our questions honestly if we will also bring them humbly.

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In Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18, both Israel and Abraham ask questions regarding the justice of God. In Ezekiel, Israel asks, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?…the way of the Lord is not just” (19,25). In Genesis 18, an anguished Abraham cries out, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (23-25).

How does God respond to each of these questions? We find that God takes their questions seriously and also their sin seriously.

In Ezekiel, He rebukes Israel for their question: Hear now, O House of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” The children had focused on their unjust suffering, instead of taking a serious look at their sin. But God is also patient with the children. He could have responded only with a question as Jesus often did with the Pharisees, but he repeatedly explains his ways to them and extends this heartfelt invitation:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the LORD GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions. Cast away from you you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the LORD GOD; so turn, and live. (18:30-32)

How does God respond to Abraham? Abraham speaks to God with surprising boldness. Yet, God does not rebuke him, but patiently hears and accepts his request. At the same time, God does not absolve Sodom and Gomorrah because of what Abraham might have felt or believed about their righteousness. He took their sin seriously and dealt with them accordingly.

I could be wrong, but I believe God treats us the same way when we wrestle with his justice and goodness in sending sinners to hell. He takes our questions seriously and he takes sin, both ours and the world’s, seriously as well. If there are sinful roots and assumptions in our questions, God will not be afraid to call them out. And if God’s justice demands punishment, he will not change or compromise because of our feelings or preferences.

I believe this give us a helpful paradigm about how we should ask questions to God. Namely, we can be honest with God but we also must be humble before him.

Since God takes our questions seriously, we can come to him with boldness and emotion.  We can say things like: Far be it from you! Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? We can give expression to our questions and have their complexity acknowledged. Our God is not an insecure tyrant who allows no questions; he is a patient and loving Father who welcomes his angry and perplexed child into his arms. We in turn can give full vent to our questions and still trust our Father holds us and is good.

I think bringing our honest questions to God can be more than merely acceptable; it can actually be a beautiful expression of faith. I love Abraham’s question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (v. 25). The ambiguity of questions allows for tension between certainty and uncertainty. I believe there is a sense in which the question is rhetorical for Abraham: he is thinking to himself, “of course, the Judge of the Earth shall do what is just!” And yet, I also believe there is a genuine struggle in Abraham’s heart: “Will you do justice God? Because it doesn’t feel just, O Lord” Questions allow for certainty and uncertainty to exist simultaneously. When we use our questions not to accuse God but to plead before him, I think it’s a profound expression of faith.

We can be honest before God but we must also come humbly because of our sin.We must remember that our judgment can be clouded by sinful emotions and by our finite human understanding. This means that even when we feel strongly about something, we can be wrong. For me, this is comforting. I don’t want to come with infallible knowledge to a bumbling and inept king. I want to come and learn at his feet. Sometimes I feel like my doubt is too great and I’ll never make sense of my faith. I don’t want that feeling to be right! Praise God that I’m often wrong.

We can be honest and direct with God, but we also must remember he is holy and awesome. We must ask as Abraham did: “Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak…I who am but dust and ashes” (27,29). God is gracious, but he is the king, and we are the beggar. He is the one with understanding and we are the ones who have come to learn. We are asking for God’s patience of us, not the other way around, and God’s answers to our questions are all of grace.

Finally, we must humbly accept the answer we receive from God. In the end, we must trust God’s character and accept his designation of those who are righteous and those who are unrighteous, as well as the punishment which the unrighteous deserve. Abraham, at first, believed that there were righteous men in Sodom. However, when God found none, he trusted God’s judgment. In the same way, we can, like Abraham, anguish about the destruction of nonbelievers and the good things we see in them, but we must learn (and study and restudy) God’s standard of righteousness and unrighteousness. We must trust the justice and sorrow of the God who sent his very own Son to save us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking around. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you wrestled with the doctrine of hell? If so, how have you made peace with God’s judgment? what passages have helped you and how?

[22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God… (Romans 11:22 ESV)

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Wrestling with the Weight of Hell

  1. Pingback: The Wide Road and the Sovereign God | Joy Inexpressible

  2. Pingback: Judgment, Worth, & the Humans of New York - Reformed Margins

  3. Pingback: Judgment, Worth, and the Humans of New York | Joy Inexpressible

  4. Pingback: Humility and the Mystery of Hell | Joy Inexpressible

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