Amid news about the new war in Libya and the ongoing aftermath of Japan’s tragedy, a theological issue caught the attention of the general public this week. Secular media outlets communicated the controversy about hell fire sparked by a new book from author/pastor Rob Bell. Specifically, is there or isn’t there a hell?
One of the media websites (I forget which one) offered the opportunity to post a Twitter-type comment. I composed the following Tweet (to the limit of the 140 characters allowed):
Hell will be real but not eternal. The wages of sin is death—not eternal life in hell. If so, our Savior would have had to suffer eternally.
Well, what do you think about hell? Does God have the right—perhaps even the responsibility—to not only put an end to sin but to punish sinners?
Some Christians have a difficult time accepting the reality of divine justice. But Scripture is full of both narratives and prophetic promises that God will take judicial action against sin and those who cling to it.
The patriarch Abraham pleaded: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Two observations from that text. First, the Judge of all the earth will not just watch but do. Second, He will do right–that is, operate along consistent principles in harmony with His government of love.
God is more than the supreme celestial onlooker, wringing His hands in helpless sympathy for the oppressed. By definition, the Lord God Almighty is the governor of the universe and so has the ability and responsibility to act: not just to be loving but to maintain a government based upon love; not just to be good but to execute goodness–and reward it; not just to avoid oppression but to confront it–and punish it.
Consider the operation of a corporation. Suppose the CFO becomes corrupt and diverts employee payroll funds to his own account. Should the CEO let this sin run its course, allowing hard-working employees to be cheated? Or should she step in and put a stop to it, disciplining or ultimately removing the corrupt treasurer? Can sovereign God do any less?
Sometimes the enforcement of justice is delayed so that constituents can see for themselves the wisdom and fairness of the executive decision. Such is the case in the Great Controversy between God and the devil. The pioneer of deception charged that God was arbitrary and selfish in His government. When for the sake of heaven’s own security it became necessary to evict Lucifer and his disaffected rebels, the divine eviction bore the appearance of a power play, apparently confirming the devil’s accusations. Since God’s government of love operates on the trust and goodwill of his constituents, it became necessary for Him to allow sin to play itself out, running its course until all the remaining celestial beings could see that He is consistent and fair, and “There is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11). There is nothing arbitrary, whimsical or egotistic about divine justice.
Neither is there anything selfish. The gospel demonstrated His willingness to sacrifice not just His own honor, but life itself, by dying on the cross so that we will never need to suffer punishment for our sins. Indeed, for believers in Jesus, “mercy triumphs over justice” (James 2:13).