There is a joke within my religious tradition that goes something like this: two grade school boys were having a theological argument on the playground. The first boy, who attended the United Methodist church, said to the other “there isn’t a literal hell!” to which to second boy, who attended First Bible Baptist replied, “the hell there isn’t!” I find this quite humorous because as a young boy this was actually the content of my first theological argument. I attended Sunday School at the Methodist church and our teacher told us that Hell was not a real place but the human experience of “being far away from God.” A couple of my playmates at the time came from a devoutly Baptist home and they were certain I was going to hell for not believing there was a hell. There wasn’t a lot of yelling and arguing in our theological debate, just fists and shoving. In other words, we were behaving as if we were bishops at one of the early Ecumenical Councils of the church where theology was not just hammered out, but punched out and kicked out as well. Not very saintly to be sure, but for me, theological truth is actually important enough to merit a sock in the nose if you’re going to be a damn heretic about it! But, I digress.
Hell most definitely is the orphan-child doctrine of evangelicalism in America today. American Christians are only second to Canadians in niceness. Church must be nice, sermons must be positive and very biblical, and nothing should ever happen that would make someone uncomfortable from not having the air-conditioning turned down enough to telling someone they can’t drop their baby off in the nursery with green mucus dripping from its nose (especially if they are ‘a-first-time-visitor’). People need to feel glad they took the time to come to church and in fact should be honored for doing so because they turned down one hundred other options they had to spend Sunday morning. So needless to say, the topic of hell and judgment clash with our current mental furniture much like bright avocado green shag carpeting does with a plaid chesterfield couch (and if you think those two things go together nicely you should probably stop reading at this point and ask God to please give you some fashion sense). But, whether or not hell is something that makes us uncomfortable to think about or talk about, it is an idea deeply rooted in the Gospel of Christ and if it doesn’t exist, God as we know Him is probably not God.
Typically the ‘anti-hell’ party platform goes something like this: God is love. A loving God would never send a person to hell because that is neither lovely or the loving thing to do. Therefore, hell must not exist. It must merely be the creation of some benighted medieval mind to scare people into going to church and giving their money away. Obviously, all people must go to heaven when they die. The problem with this line of thinking is a misunderstanding of God’s love. God is love and this is the direct teaching of the Bible (1 John 4:8) but, as any parent knows, love is not the same thing as permissiveness and total indulgence of a person’s whims. To never discipline or punish a child for wrong-doing and let them get away with anything or do anything they want usually creates a monster. Not only does the scripture suggest this is a form of hatred under the guise of love (Prov. 13:24) but our society patently understands this concept as sure-fire recipe for creating a sociopath. Even in human relationships such as marriage, if I say I love my wife, and then do things I know will break her heart like love someone else’s wife on the side or threaten her well-being by spending my paycheck on gambling, most people would conclude that my idea of love is either quite twisted or is not even real. Love that has any real value does come with boundaries and limitations of one kind or another. In applying this to the love of God, what I’m saying is God does love all people but His love does not preclude the necessity of justice.
Changing perspective just slightly, what we need to understand more fully is the nature of humanity and the gravity of what is called sin in the Bible. God is the creator of the universe. As Creator, the universe runs according to His laws. His laws do include physics, but more importantly they include laws of love and moral rectitude because goodness is at the heart of who God really is. When God made man, he did make him flesh and blood but also with a rational soul. This means there are appetites and instincts within mankind such as hunger, thirst, and the desire for sex. But man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) which means that man is rational, relational, and religious in addition to being flesh and blood. The Christian way to look at human beings is that they are embodied souls; both are important, both are united by design. There is a high purpose in man being an image-bearer of God. Man’s raison d’etre is to rule and steward the earth as God desires and so honor God and make the world a place where all life flourishes. This higher level of consciousness would enable man to learn to discern the good and evil and to choose to do the good. The choice to do the good being the choice to act, think, and work according to the way God has ordered the universe.
But clearly things have changed because of the catastrophe often called “the fall” where our forebears became corrupt by believing the lie of Satan that if they chose the path of disobedience with respect to God’s law, they would become gods in their own right. The temptation of Satan was not to eat some good tasting fruit, but to make a deliberate choice to spurn the law of God (the very goodness of the universe) and become a law unto themselves. Since that time man has continued to possess his rationality and consciousness but has what Anselm of Canterbury calls a natural indigence when it comes to discerning good and evil and choosing the good. Not only is there an unwillingness to discern, but the consistent choice is to do the evil which is to spurn the law of God.
With all this said as prologue, let me deliver on the promise of this essay’s title. The fact is we do not live in a just world but we do live in a just universe. In this world and within the span of anyone’s life, it is quite possible that grievous evil can be done to you for which there is no remedy. I will not rehearse a bunch of possible scenarios here, but if you’ve lived long enough, you know that life doesn’t always work the way it does on TV. People do get away with things and it seems that justice is unable to touch them. This is actually a common objection many have to believing in God. If God is real and God is good, how come this bad thing happened to me or this good thing was taken from me? The answer is that God is real and God is good and because this is true, there must be justice in the universe that goes beyond this life. If God is omniscient, he most certainly knows the truth of all matters and will be able to mete out justice perfectly. But if there is perfect justice, there must be a way for you to receive it (either as an offender being punished or a victim being avenged) and therefore this would necessitate a continued life beyond the grave in either case. Heaven and Hell exist for the reasons of God’s love and justice. If God is loving, there would be no way he would permit evil to go unanswered or unpunished. If God is just there is no way he would not bless those who have faithfully suffered in this life in a measure greater than their suffering. Therefore there is a link between justice and eternal life that there might be sweet aequitas in the universe.
In a way this is very comforting but it does beg another question: are there any of us who have lived so blamelessly, so lovingly, so unselfishly, as to only merit being recipients of God’s justice and not his punishments? To think so is not only hubris but really an act of willful blindness towards your own faults. The scripture clearly teaches that all people, no matter how good we (or they themselves) think they are, are in fact sinners (Romans 3:23) and are therefore liable recipients of the penalties of a just God (Romans 6:23). This is where the Christian message is particularly unique. What if God can show love and accomplish justice simultaneously? The message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is the son of God sent to live the life you should have lived and to die the death your sins deserve. In so doing God shows his love in providing a means of forgiveness and salvation, and at the same time satisfies justice in that yours, mine, and everyone else’s sin was taken upon himself when he died on the cross. It is unusual, but certainly not unorthodox that the one who would judge us, would also take our penalty upon himself which is exactly what happened on Good Friday so long ago. From that day until judgment day, there is an offer from God for you on the table. I will pay for your sins, or you will, but justice will be done. That choice is entirely up to you.