Judgment As Consequence

I know it’s been forever, but Rob Bell has people all stirred up and talking about universalism and Hell, topics that inevitably lead to defining what salvation is, what sin is, and what heaven and hell are.  It’s sad that it takes controversy to get me blogging, but it is what it is.  Let’s talk about judgment!

There seem to be two streams or types of judgment in scripture.  In the OT, particularly in the Wisdom lit but also in other places, there’s a very strong notion that when you sow the wind you’ll reap the whirlwind – or in the language of Proverbs, the wicked fall into their own traps.  The natural consequences of sin is death, destruction, and dischord.  This is, of course, all worldly or earthly punishment, as there was little concept in the OT of hell or any place of eternal justice.  By the same token, salvation was thought of in physical, earthly terms (and usually communally too, rather than our emphasis on individuality).  I’m very comfortable with this doctrine; it’s really more of an observation, and some even call it a universal law.  Some call it karma.  The point is, it’s easy to say that there are negative consequences for doing evil, even if they don’t catch up with you right away.  We make our bed, and then we have to sleep in it.

My friend and overwhelming intellectual Rick has noted in a recent facebook debate that this alone isn’t good enough, that Scripture portrays God as being actively against the unjust.  I certainly can’t argue with that: any reading of the Prophets couldn’t miss the sermons against the injustice of Israel and her neighbours, and God’s promise to deal with their sins rather thoroughly.  But what we must note is His method: God deals with these sins in very earthly ways, by bringing invading armies against them.  Looking even closer, we can see that there is still an element of natural consequence involved: God didn’t fabricate armies out of midair to punish Israel for their injustice and idolatry.  Looking at Isaiah, we see that God judged them for their reliance on foreign armies by…yup, bringing in a foreign army that wiped out their allies and left them beseiged.  Looking closely at the politics that Israel got themselves messed up in, we can see that it was in their fear of Assyria that they became allied with Egypt (rather than depending on God) – but Egypt was Assyria’s ultimate target, so that by allying themselves with Egypt Israel actually brought the invading army upon themselves.  That’s not to say that God was not active in that judgment – not at all!  What it does, is provides a theological interpretation for the ruin they brought on themselves – i.e. God is actively involved when we get our deserved comeuppance.

This is very much in line with the sages of the Wisdom literature, whose doctrine of providence sees the hand of God in all events, good and bad, that we experience.  Our task is to live wisely (i.e. as God directs us to) so that we can do good and avoid evil, though we recognize and accept both as coming from the hand of God.

Somewhere along the line, people figured that that wasn’t good enough, that there were enough evil people getting away with it that, if God were to remain just, then he must have some extra source or form of justice.  In the last few books of the OT and in much inter-testamental literature we see Jewish writers developing the concept of Sheol (the place of the dead) and in some ways adapting the Greek notion of Hades, which we call Hell.  The idea is that, since justice isn’t always done on earth, it must be done somewhere – so that everyone, in the end, will get their just desserts.  This, when combined with the notion of a resurrection (which appeared around the same time), is where we get our Christian notion of heaven and hell as places of eternal reward for good deeds, or eternal punishment for evil deeds.  When you combine that notion of heaven and hell with our Christian notion that Christ has paid the price of our sin if we only believe in Him, heaven becomes the place of eternal reward for those who believe in Jesus while hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who, having rejected (or not having heard of) Jesus, lack that protection from God’s just wrath and will thus be punished for their sins.  Since God is an infinite being, and sin is ultimately against God, then it requires an infinite punishment, i.e. eternal conscious torment.

There is some warrant for this in reading the New Testament.  It has been commented several times recently that Jesus talked about Hell more than anyone else (which is true), so I’ll stick with what he said, but let’s be clear: even Jesus only talked about it a few times.  He referred to it in terms of images, comparing it to a burning garbage dump (Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, where people used to sacrifice their children to false gods and where people in Jesus’ day dumped their garbage and burned it).  In this dump, “their worm does not die and their flame is not quenched.”  He called it “the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” and called himself the person who puts people out into that darkness when they do not respond to his invitation properly, or are not prepared for his coming.  We get a very clear image that the alternative to the eternal life that Jesus promises to his followers is a horrible experience, and that Jesus himself will put us there if we respond to him inappropriately, but beyond that he says very little, and nothing clearly.  Can we make the jump to saying that he’s talking about eternal conscious torment at the hands of God in punishment for sins?  Not from what Jesus says.

The notion of eternal conscious torment shows up most clearly in Revelation 20:10: “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  It goes on to say that, after being resurrected and judged, all of the people whose names were not found in the book of life were also thrown into the lake of fire.  While the difficulties with taking the image of the lake of fire literally are somewhat obvious (and dealt with in an earlier post), from this we can see that those people are cast out (presumably by God) and tormented forever (again, presumably by God, but certainly not explicitly by God, and not necessarily by torture).

So what does it mean to be tormented?  In today’s language, torment is often paired with “inner” and used to describe romantic teenage goths and vampires who can also be described as “angsty”.  It refers to an ordeal, of great pain and struggle.  The reason we usually talk of “inner torment” is because it is usually speaking of something that is self-inflicted, or else relational.  In the same vein, we often speak of “self-torture”, e.g. “quit torturing yourself, she’ll never go out with you.”  That’s not to say that it doesn’t also refer to waterboarding and crucifixion, or even that the writer of Revelation wasn’t referring to literal, physical torture, but only that we must note that we often use these terms metaphorically: we call our mournful pining away after some lost love “torture” or “torment” because we want to use that image of awful physical pain to describe our emotional situation, or some other situation that is extremely painful, destructive, and even deadly.

Sin, and its consequences, are torment – of this there is no doubt.  In one sense, as we saw above, we do it to ourselves, yet at the same time we recognize God’s hand when we receive our just reward – whether good deeds or evil deeds, we almost always receive a fitting reward, and this from God.  The New Testament makes this more explicit: God hands us over to punishment for sin.  Jesus puts us out into the burning garbage dump, or puts us outside the gates into the outer darkness; He throws those whose names are not in the book of Life into the lake of fire; but it doesn’t go further than that.  Paul says it another way in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions…and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error….And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Here, the wrath of God is that God gives people over to the sins that they were already committing.  This is not passive by any means, but it surely does not involve God personally picking up the whip with which to torture people forever and ever, lighting fires that will never go out and keeping people from being completely consumed so that they can suffer the burning pain forever.

Consider the love of God, by which He loves us so deeply and desperately that He’s willing to suffer the worst degradation and death that we had to offer in order to reconcile us to Himself.  In so doing, He showed us the way to live with Him and with each other so that we can continue in relationship with Him.  God is the One Who Saves: saving people is His default.  It is allowing people to go their own stubborn way and suffer the due consequences of that choice that is his active response to sin.

I’m going to close by mixing metaphors.  I know that it’s bad hermeneutical form, but I don’t do it as exegesis, but merely as an image.  Jesus described Hell as being thrown outside the gates, into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Revelation describes Heaven as a city that descends from Heaven to Earth, in which God lives among us and there is no more sun because God himself is our light.  Inside the gates is peace and light; outside the gates is darkness and torment.  But the gates of the heavenly city are never closed!  Though God puts out those who refuse to live responsibly with Him and us, the gates remain open – they can come into the city to worship God, if they so choose.  But sin is us choosing our way over God’s way, and God’s wrath is that we are allowed to do so, to our own detriment, now and forever.  Those who reject God completely, though they are welcomed into the city when they repent, refuse to do so – and are tormented (by their own existence apart from God) forever.

Please, poke holes in this theory.  My main point here is that sin is something that we do to ourselves, and God doesn’t need to use hot needles and whips and chains to punish us for it – nor does Scripture’s revelation of Him require that we believe that He does.


16 thoughts on “Judgment As Consequence

  1. “The natural consequences of sin is death, destruction, and dischord.” This is so true, and to me is plainly obvious. Death, destruction and dischord are the natural consequences of our sin.

    If you commit adultery, you bring destruction to your marriage. God didn’t really need to do anything except give you into your sin and let you do the rest.

    Where the whole universalist discussion evades my understanding is with my eye on the difference between “now” and “then”. This is the difference between our fleshly lives today and the ethereal(?) lives after death.

    “Now” mankind can choose to worship God, to obey God, to accept the gift of grace through the act on the cross–or not. “Then”, Heaven descends on the Earth and the gate is open so that mankind can choose to worship God, to obey God, and to accept his gift of grace–or not … ? … ?? How is this any different?

    In fact, if today’s scenario and tomorrow’s scenario are almost exactly the same, then what’s the purpose of Christ’s second coming? What is the purpose of judgement? Moreso, if God won’t liberate us from our sinful nature after this life, and we are subsequently subjected to an “open gate”, and that “open gate” is available to the condemned evil, what is the purpose of a pious earthly life, or seeking righteousness?

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts in various places on the subject–thanks Jeff!

    • Thanks for the comment Andrew! 🙂 I miss you.

      Good call on the (?) after “ethereal” – no such life. We are embodied now, and will be embodied in the resurrection, and there may or may not be any intermediate state – but even if there is, it’s only temporary.

      Good questions though: if the proposition remains the same after the resurrection as it does before, then what’s the point? I think that the difference has to do with sin nature and powers. The powers of this world are fallen and evil; they control us, tempt us, and basically make it impossible for us to truly be like Christ. The Cross is the only thing that actually allows us to be good in any meaningful sense, and when Christ returns we will experience the fullness of His rule – i.e. the fallen powers will be gone, so that the only thing that keeps us from relationship with God is ourselves. Ambiguity will be gone, as the powers and all people will be judged, faced with Christ, so that we will have no illusions about what is right except those that we cling to for ourselves. Today we talk about it as if it’s a yes or no proposition, but it’s never that simple; but post-judgment, it will be. At least, I think so 😉

  2. “Consider the love of God, by which He loves us so deeply and desperately that He’s willing to suffer the worst degradation and death that we had to offer in order to reconcile us to Himself.”

    I told Rick this afternoon that this is really what gets me hung up on the damnation business. I can accept that God is able and within his rights to destroy all of us–he is, after all, the creator and sustainer of life. But given the lengths he has gone to make things right, I don’t understand why he would stop short at “Only if you believe…”

    • Agreed. I don’t think we’ve done enough to address the argument that our view of eternal damnation seems to be holy doublespeak or contradiction. Arguments that say “it is out of God’s justice, which is itself an aspect of His love” kind of beg the question, like saying “torture is loving…in this circumstance.” It’s not a very satisfactory answer, and I think that the way we cling to it has driven a lot of people to positions of frustration with the Church, and even atheism. Not that we build doctrine with the desires of people in mind, but only that we darn well should explain them with people in mind – and not assuming that people won’t get it, either.

      • I would have one question…who does God love more than any other? Does God love the wicked in the same manner that He loves His one and only Son? The love of God for Himself — His Glory and Holiness — is something that we as humans tend to think is either arrogant or shameful…but the problem is that we are a sinful, arrogant and shameful people and so for us to love ourselves above all others would be wrong, but for God to do so is the greatest right and good.

        I’m also wondering why such a notion as God “torturing” should be so foreign to the text of Scripture where God’s emissaries carry out His bidding on His behalf. That He worked our redemption through the shedding of His own blood certainly testifies to the greater glory of that…but it does not deny the still present emphasis upon the punishment of the wicked. To affirm one as so radically OTHER, is not to deny the other altogether but only to affirm that it is not the primary (as I understand it).

  3. Great post Jeff. Thanks. I liked your engagement with Romans 1, which oddly is often left out of this discussion.

    Your second last paragraph is reminiscent of Lewis’s vision of the afterlife in The Great Divorce, where people stranded in the Grey Town are free to join the bliss at the plain in the shadow of life; yet for the most part, it doesn’t suit them because they stubbornly impose their own desires on it rather than accept its free gift of life. For them, Hell is a better option—even a less painful option—than Heaven, because Heaven means giving up that one thing they would rather keep and defend to all eternity.

    If that’s not torment, I don’t know what is.

    • Heh, as I said at lunch today, I think Lewis has influenced my eschatology more than just about anything. Scriptural references are varied and vague, and we need a position that acknowledges the tension without oversimplifying the issue. Lewis’ position (and Bonhoeffer’s, at least as I understand it) does that.

  4. I agree with the above poster. More so i will also say that when we get into “only if you believe… correctly” (no longer just faith, but now faith and doctrine) there becomes the matter of how correctly must we believe in order to be saved. Certainaly your average believer has a lower degree of biblical understanding than a bible scholar, and certainly within humans there is a great degree of discrepancy of knowledge of god, or salvation. And lets not forget how much higher god’s ways are above our ways. How much higher is his understanding. If we are then humble peices of dust compared to his understanding, what gives us the right, or even the arrogance to say “People who believe X (like me) are going to heaven and people who believe anything else are going to hell” more so how do we get the gall to start telling people where the line of truth is that seperates sinners and saints.

    I’m reminded of what mark hawkes used to say – that we worship god with our actions, not our words. So often the man with (supposed) perfect biblical doctrine, lives in a way that shows what he actually believes, and just as much often those who we would condem to “hell” for their belief’s live lives that are beyond reproach (at least for us imperfect humans).

    • Well said, Zenon.

      I watched a play last night called The Shunning, in which a Mennonite farmer is shunned by his community because he lets slip that he doesn’t think that a loving God would send someone to Hell, and therefore (since he still believes in God, and that God is loving) Hell must not exist. The community shuns him entirely, until he goes crazy and kills himself (it’s not a great play, so don’t worry about spoilers).

      The point here is that they were rejecting him, supposedly because his lack of conformity was hurting the community. His difference of belief was labelled “unbelief”, and it was assumed that he was no longer even a Christian.

      And now, as Rob Bell asks questions about the nature of Hell (not even providing answers yet, but only asking questions) he is dismissed by many (notably John Piper) as a heretic or apostate (which are usually associated, even though they’re very different). This is unacceptable. We spend our lives as pastors trying to train people for the ministry of the Church, moaning over how uneducated and unmotivated people are, and then we discourage honest questions?

  5. I should also mention the intriguing notion that while the “gates” are left open for the nations to bring in glory to the Lord and specifically “nothing unclean” will be allowed in. I can almost hear Marc’s reply, “Christ will clean them all”, but the affirmation is that those who now practice wickedness (in this life) will not be partakers of that Life, but will experience the “second death”. And the dead will not know that city that streams with life itself.

    • I’m not sure how that changes my image. The unbelievers are put outside the walls, but they remain outside because they want nothing to do with God. If they would turn (return, repent) then they would be made clean, just like everyone else.

      I can’t comment on your previous comment, because apparently 3 is the limit in one chain, but I don’t understand what you’re saying there anyway. Can you rephrase it?

      • Perhaps you might be better served reading Jonathan Edwards brief work “The Ends For Which God Made the World” here: http://cdn.desiringgod.org/pdf/books_gpfg/gpfg_all.pdf (this is actually best read in John Piper’s “God’s Passion for His Glory” that includes a significant introduction and commentary). Sorry I could work at rephrasing, but having reread it I’m not sure what your question is? And so to rephrase what is otherwise stated in an already obscenely concise manner seems to make it even less intelligible and more likely to misunderstanding rather than more likely to be helpful. That is why I would actually encourage reading the work of Edwards on this issue.

  6. Okay Rick, I’ll try to respond to what I think you’re saying, and re-phrase my question along the way.

    I’m not sure that God loves anyone more than anyone else. He advocates treating the poor, etc., better than other people – but that need not mean that he values them more than the rich. He loved us enough to sacrifice his only Son, but that is an act of self-sacrifice which need not imply preference either. Also, it is quite possible to love others as much as oneself, and as you’ve pointed out, this is not an issue of pride for God, but rather an issue of the superabundance of God’s love. So, even where God shows preference, it does not imply a lack or extra portion of love. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t see what that has to do with anything.

    The idea of God personally torturing anyone is particularly foreign to a text where God’s emissaries work on His behalf. It’s one thing to see God’s hand in the Assyrian invasion, quite another to see the Almighty personally preparing instruments of torture to be inflicted on pitiful humans. We are not told what the torment or torture of hell would involve; that it is torture at all is only implied by one translation (others include “torment” which need not be torture at all, and I’m sure there must be other variations). But if it is torture, perhaps it is done by God Himself, which would not only be unprecedented (as in Scripture he uses humans in judgment) but would also be disproportionate (God has a stronger arm than any human with a whip). It would be like a human torturing an insect, if an insect were a person that that human had made for the purpose of loving relationship.

    If it’s torture done at the hands of, say, angels, that avoids some of the disproportionality, but it does not dismiss the problem altogether. We say that a crime against God merits eternal punishment because God is an infinite being, and therefore a crime against Him is infinite. That’s the same logic that was used to justify a legal system in which crimes against the nobility had harsher penalties than crimes against the peasants, a notion that harmed human dignity. While with God this might be appropriate, we might also think of it the other way around: if God is an infinite being, what crime can a finite being do against Him?

    But we must not forget the dignity that God has given to human beings, not only in creation when He made us co-creators, but most especially when He took on humanity Himself. Having thus glorified human dignity in Christ, and suffering indignity Himself, would he turn around and inflict that same indignity on those he had just glorified? Is this not counter-productive for Him?

    But, of course, sin robs us of dignity. Those who are unregenerate, then, might not carry human dignity in the same way as they wallow in their sin and separation from God. But if punishment removes dignity and inflicts pain and torment, what purpose is there to inflict it on those who already lack dignity and wallow in the torment of separation from God? Because they have chosen such torment for themselves, God chooses to torment them even more?

    This seems not only illogical, but incompatible with the character and purpose (and rationality) of Christ. That’s not to say I can’t be wrong on it, but it just doesn’t make much sense. Nor does your comment about the OTHER – what do you mean? What does that have to do with anything?

    Sadly, I don’t have time to read more books. When I’m done my homework, if we’re still debating this I’ll give it a read 😉

  7. God oved those who were “his own” in an utterly different manner than “the world” which was not “his own” (cf. John 17:25-26). This should not be so curious to us. The love of God for “his own” is revealed in the Love of God for His only Son. The notion of an undifferentiated love of God seems to be more in line with our modern predisposition to think that all must be “equal” in every way. It is, quite honestly, a gross distortion of the concepts of fairness and justice.

    God’s emissaries are regularly spoken of as God’s hand or instrument. This is because God is active in the carrying out of such matters and not simply passive in the work of justice. In what sense this relates to hell or eternal conscious suffering…the Scriptures would be less clear, but it would be certain that in some manner if it is…than God is actively involved in it as He is a “consuming fire” (to borrow the metaphor of the OT and Hebrews). You seem to want to make this a very human picture. That would again be a gross distortion…and thus your rejection of it. Its rather easy to reject the notion of God beating someone, but how do you consider God being the one bears the “sword” but also Nebuchadnezzar? (cf. Eze.21) It is a metaphor that is intended to demonstrate that God Himself carries out the judgment that is carried out against wickedness…whoever or whatever else does so (this is also the case with earthquakes, plagues, locusts, etc.). I don’t know that I would even suggest that there are others who actually carry out anything like a “torture” of anyone in “hell” (that would be you reading too much Dante 🙂 ). So this is actually a rather moot point of discussion, but it does not rule out the very notion of suffering and torment.

    Who is “glorified”? Those who are justified, called, predestined (Rom.8:30). In other words, I wouldn’t use the term so loosely personally (though I think you are using it only of an elevation above being merely animals…which does little for this conversation…in my opinion). So those who are glorified is not “humanity” in general…but only those who are actually “in Christ”…and not simply everyone who is human.

    Not only is it actually logical that God does in fact give humanity over to their waywardness, but it is Biblical (per for instance Rom.1).

    The radical “OTHER” is the Love of God…the YES if you will. This is of an altogether greater nature than the ‘no’….but it is not antithetical. It does not exclude it even though it is of such a nature as to be radically OTHER than. Does that make sense. It is to say that God’s judgment is not like God’s mercy. His judgment is deserved…His mercy is not. His judgment was borne by Him at the cross for us…His love is borne in us by His Spirit in resurrection life. His no was to wickedness…His YES to His own.

    • I’m reluctant to weigh in here again, but I wonder about this, Rick:

      God oved those who were “his own” in an utterly different manner than “the world” which was not “his own” (cf. John 17:25-26). This should not be so curious to us. The love of God for “his own” is revealed in the Love of God for His only Son. The notion of an undifferentiated love of God seems to be more in line with our modern predisposition to think that all must be “equal” in every way. It is, quite honestly, a gross distortion of the concepts of fairness and justice.

      There are a number of questions that come to mind here (not least that the grace of God is not really in any sense “fair” from our perspective–cf. the parable of the workers in Matt 20).

      Is God’s love differentiated? Maybe, but I certainly don’t see it in that John passage. Remember, too, that Israel as a people were chosen for the world, not just for themselves, and that God’s love was extended to humanity while we were still sinners. Does God’s love change or increase after conversion?

      Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I don’t see the difference. Another blogger today linked to a Wikepedia article (I know–be careful with those) on Christian views on hell, which suggests Augustine as saying that “the suffering of hell is compounded because God continues to love the sinner who is not able to return the love.” Now the point I’m trying to make here is not what Augustine says about hell, but what he says about God’s love.

    • As for God loving “His own”, as Marc points out below, there are also several texts that refer to how God loved us when we were yet sinners, or even his enemies. If I were a good Calvinist I could write that off by saying “obviously he’s talking about the elect before they answered the call, and those created as objects of wrath don’t fit in there at all.” But I’m not, so I have to find a way to hold this in tension.

      I’m okay with God using human agents to punish humans. I’m not okay with God himself getting his hands dirty, not that he is less active when working through an agent but that for God to personally punish a person through torture would be disproportionate and beyond any sense of justice – and furthermore, that torture itself is not justice. Nowhere does God suggest that torture is a good thing, and though you seem to wave the concept of torture in hell away in your last comment, you brought it up earlier – and torture is a common conception in the version of hell that I was arguing against.

      I was talking about the glory that God conferred on the human being in the most general sense, because by taking on human flesh God Himself has become human, granting a new type of dignity on our very race and flesh. That being said, some of us reflect Christ’s true humanity more than others, and it is one of our greatest hopes to become more and more like Him through the influence of the HOly Spirit.

      It is very logical that God gives humanity over to their waywardness…that’s why I referenced Romans 1 in my post. That’s my whole argument, that “hell” is this very thing, God giving a sinner over to the consequences of their sins, which in this passage means…more sin! And the depravity and emptiness that comes with it.

      I’m still not sure about the otherness argument. I see that mercy and judgment are not the same, and need not be equal in measure, and that’s partly what I’m arguing: that though justice and judgment are there, mercy far surpasses them for those who choose to receive it.

      Please see my argument above about how for God, whose default setting is as “the One Who Saves”, allowing someone to experience the regular consequences of their sins is not passive at all, but an act of will on His part.

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