"For the fear even from bare words is sufficient, though we do not fully unfold their meaning. But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that 'they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction'. How then is that temporary which is everlasting"?
This past month saw the Netflix release of the film, Come Sunday. Based around events in the life of mega-church bishop Carlton Pearson's rise and fall in Christian ministry, it revolves around a big issue - should we take the matter of the existence of hell seriously?
Carlton Pearson's own story is telling.
In a TV interview (around the 3:47 mark) in which he discusses his theology, he informs us that he believed that hell had been emptied by Jesus, even before he began to preach that to his congregation. After hearing a confirmation of this from God (that, in fact, hell didn't exist), he began to proclaim that the love of God would mean that no one would ever go to such a place.
In the movie (see the trailer above), he challenges another bishop regarding what he would do to get his (presumably unrepentant) father out of such a place. His view is that if we would go to any lengths (akin to the scenario of the movie, "What Dreams May Come"), why doesn't God... "surely He's not less loving than us". This is the crux of the matter, but Pearson's conclusion actually avoids the deeper issues concerning our relationship with God, and the goal of the Incarnation.
C S Lewis examines this well in the opening chapters of his work, The Problem of Pain. In the section on Divine goodness, he seeks to unpack how God is indeed loving to us, but this love is not defined by a sentimental or miss-placed approach, poorly reduced to the most arbitrary notions of kindness we may express when we inhabit opinions removed from the real world. In the real world, we were made with free will, and that will was willingly bent to corruption, meaning our propensity now is to be wayward and, consequently, wicked regarding ourselves and others. This certainly spills over into our understanding of the character of God, projecting Him to be either too capricious and harsh or too sentimental and so devoid of genuine, meaningful love.
Lewis then examines Gods love in the light of these realities in everyday terms - the most distant being that of a love an artist has for his work, then the closer, familial love we know and share, partially with pets, and fully, with friends and family, and finally, the intimate love shared between a husband and wife. Gods love has all of these qualities, so our trouble is not, as Pearson pondered, that we love more than God, but, as Lewis notes, that we have a God who is never disinterested or indifferent, but who is truly terrible in the closeness of His love - a love that 'forgives all infirmities, but cannot cease to will their removal'.
The answer to the bishop's dilemma is found in what Jesus tells us in His discussion with the religious teacher, Nicodemus, in John chapter 3.
Here is a man, like Pearson, troubled by what he is seeing and hearing as Jesus ministers to those in need. He cannot deny what is happening, but he cannot make it fit into his theological understanding, principally because, Jesus informs him, he must undergo a spiritual re-birth.
Jesus then continues to speak about His own purpose - to be 'raised' as Moses had lifted the serpent to bring healing to the Israelites in the wilderness (14), because of God's love for the world and desire to rescue those who are perishing (16).
The intention is made clear - God will rescue those who trust in the saving work of His only begotten Son. That is what God has done to keep us from hell. The goal is to stop us from being those who "perish" or become totally lost.
Isn't that, then enough?
What more needs to be said - God rescues us... But He does so because we want it, because we come to understand our need of this.
We became free when we trust(ed) in the rescue that's provided (18).
Think about that.
God made humanity to be free. We gave up that freedom and become enslaved to sin.
God, because He loves us, has given us a way to be free once again, but He requires us to choose to accept what He has given - He asks us to come and receive His love.
There's a painful truth here that Jesus goes on to speak of.
"Judgement" has already occurred, here and now amongst us, He says, because in spite of God coming to us to save us, people have loved (preferred) darkness to the light (19) because they revel in their wickedness.
The world has, in effect, become a prison cell, because they cannot see beyond their own interests and goals - nothing is more important than their own satisfaction and comfort, and everything must be filtered through that one point alone.
The 'wrath' and judgement God brings upon us is if we reject and spurn His love, He allows us to do so. He allows us to go where we want to go. That is why hell, as Lewis notes, is a realm locked from the inside.
It is not a case of not loving us - He truly does (1 Timothy 2:1-7). It is a case that God has come, shown His love, and we do not want it. Many atheists have made just this point - even if God were shown to be irrefutably real, they would not follow, because it would mean putting aside what they have become accustomed to.
The fire and the torment of hell is the biting realization that we settled for a severance from the ever-increasing splendor of what we were truly intended for, and there is no 'cooling' of that agony.
The love of God is so vast and deep and wide that it can save anyone, totally and forever, but it has to be accepted. Love has to be real to be true, and Gods love is the greatest reality that can be known - the cross of Jesus shows us this. It offers us life in exchange for our folly of living estranged from our true Father, our real family.
We can seek to dress our determinations up as good and honorable, but if they ignore what God asks of us, to come and yield ourselves to His love so He can rescue us, then we're making those presumptions more important than what God is asking of us, and that's deadly.
Jesus came to restore us to a true place - children who are eternally loved and cared for by a Father who is the maker and finisher of all things. Reconciliation was made at a very great cost, which conveys the truth about Gods love for us.
Can we really afford to neglect such love?
Do we really want to put our aims and intentions ahead of something so great and costly, deriding and demeaning what has been offered in the process?
God has offered us the most precious gift we can ever receive - life fully defined, rich, precious and eternal. What hope is there if we spurn such love?
As Paul would summarize:
"If, because of one mans wrong death ruled us, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness rule in life through the other principal man, Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:17).