Tag Archives: Love

Hell vs Love

“Hell”, photograph by Robert Doisneau, 1952

Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.

Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ” [1] Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….” [2] Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” [3] But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.

  • Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
  • Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.

Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.”[5] The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.


[1] David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
[2] Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
[4]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”,  a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.

What I Found

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Atheists will sometimes ask what it would take for a Christian to walk away from Christianity. I think Paul addressed that in his letter to the Corinthians when he stated that if Jesus was not raised from the dead (i.e. bodily, as an actual historical event occurring in space and time), then our faith is in vain, we are to be most pitied of all men, and we should abandon this then-false religion, for we would be false witnesses against God by saying God raised Jesus from the dead if He didn’t [1Cor 15:14-19]. This emphasis on actual, objective, historical events that could be investigated is a really bad way to start a false religion, but a great way to proclaim truth. Per the apostle Paul, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.However, an atheist probably would not be content with a Christian leaving Christianity simply to turn to Judaism.  For, of course, refuting Christianity would still not eliminate the need for God. But the desire, nonetheless, is still for us to leave all religion and join their atheist ranks. So that got me thinking: what have I found in Christianity that I would be leaving if I were to oblige the atheist missionary? Well….

I have found Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover[1]; Aquinas’ First Cause[2]; the “Highest Good” that the ancient philosophers sought for; Anselm’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” [3]; the Necessary Being upon which all else depends for existence; the Fine-tuner of the universe that explains the Goldilocks dilemma we face when we examine the universe; the Enabler of abiogenesis, without whom life cannot come from non-life; the Source of all the information we find encoded in our own DNA; the Designer behind all the “apparent design” in biology that frustrates Richard Dawkins; the Mind that explains the consciousness of our minds that scientists can’t explain; the Truth that explains objective transcendent truth [Jn 14:6]; Love that explains how and why we love [1Jn 4:19]; the Grand Artist that explains aesthetics[4] in what should be a cold, cruel, survival-focused universe; and the Author of life [Acts 3:14-15 ESV]. It would be intellectual suicide for me to give up all that. But the atheist is asking me to do far more than just drop an intellectual stance.

I have also found the One who loved me from before the beginning of time [Rom 5:8, 2Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4, 1Jn 4:9-10]; a perfect Father [Rom 8:15-16]; the Savior of my soul [Lk 2:11, Jn 4:42]; my Redeemer who rescued me [Ps 19:14, Job 19:25]; the One who made me in His image and gives me intrinsic value [Gen 1:27, Gen 9:6, Matt 6:26]; my Mediator before a just and holy God whom I could never satisfy in my sinfulness [1Tim 2:5]; my Counselor, Advocate, and Intercessor [Jn 16:7-14, Rom 8:26-27]; my source of freedom – truly beautiful, joyous freedom! – [Jn 8:32,36]; my Comforter in times of trouble [2Cor 1:3-5]; the delight of my heart [Ps 35:9]; my Peace when all around me is turmoil [Jn 14:27, 2Thes 3:16]; my steadfast foundation in the tumultuous craziness of life [Lk 6:47-48]; my Hope of glory [Col 1:27];  and the Architect of my eternal home [Heb 11:10]. Yeah, I found all that, too.

Christianity is not simply a rational intellectual viewpoint, but a relationship with my Creator. It isn’t simply some sterile, isolated idea or opinion, but rather the very presence of my Creator. And you ask me to give up that relationship, and all those answers to life’s questions to boot, and be content with the loneliness and unanswered questions of atheism? Are you crazy?! Maybe, but I’m not!


[1] “Aristotle has an argument … which he makes in Book 8 of the Physics and uses again in Book 12 of the Metaphysics that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.” Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Metaphysics”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[2] “It is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. I, Question 2, Article 3, 2nd way.
[3] See this previous post for a refresher of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, based on Plantinga’s reformulation of it last century.
[4] Or, “that best and most systematic Artisan of all”, as Nicolas Copernicus would say in his preface to “On the Revolutions”. See Nicolas Copernicus, Complete Works: On the Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 4.

A Two-Pronged Attack

Infantry land on Utah Beach on the east side of Cotentin Peninsula, while Airborne parachuted in from the west. US Army Brochure.

73 years ago, on June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history hit the beaches of Normandy, France, to begin a slow marathon to Berlin, the seat of Nazi power. To facilitate gaining a foothold on the Nazi-controlled continent, the landings at 5 separate beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast were also coordinated with airborne infantry dropping behind enemy lines to clear the way inland for the (hopefully) successful beach landings. The foothold was costly and took time, but it eventually led to Allied victory over Hitler. But what I want to discus today is a different kind of attack: one on a grander scale even than D-Day; an attack with bigger objectives than the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation; an attack formulated by a greater Supreme Commander than General Eisenhower.

What I’m writing of is God’s assault that He launches against the walled fortress of each human heart. You see, we are rebels every one, fit only for court-martial and subsequent execution by a perfectly just Ruler over all.  When the standard is perfection, there are no “little sins”, no peccadilloes, no “white lies”, no minor indiscretions. Not acing that test is the same as failing, and since none of us are perfect, we all fail. But God, in His sovereignty and amazing love and grace, doesn’t leverage His omnipotent power against us, obliterating us like so many flies in a nuclear blast.  Instead, His purpose was not to destroy us rebels, but to redeem us, to transform “children of wrath” [Eph 2:3] into “adopted children of God” [Eph 1:5].  How does He do that? There are many ways to analyze His strategy, but I see a two-pronged attack of reason and love at work.

We find justification for believing in God’s existence and in the truth of what the Bible records about Him through science and philosophy, or our observations of the world around us and our critical thinking. We can apply logic to the question of God’s existence in the form of arguments such as the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, among others, and rationally deduce that God exists. With the Cosmological and Teleological arguments in particular, we can support those premises with our scientific observations of the universe around us. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us that God’s eternal power and divine nature can be clearly seen from what is created, so that men are without excuse [Rom 1:20]. We can examine the historicity of the biblical manuscripts, their supreme coherence, both internally and with the external world,  and their explanatory power in comparison to other religions and ideologies, and see that Christianity provides the  most reasonable explanation of human history, of our paradoxical greatness and wretchedness, as Pascal would say.

Not everyone would surrender based on evidence and reasoning, though. Some might shy away from those avenues to God, thinking they were too complicated to bother with, or beyond their abilities. Some on the other end of the spectrum would dig in their  heels all the more in response to reasons contrary to their views. They would feel the directness of cold, hard logic, and batten the doors of their fortress all the more. Childishly, we can resent being told anything contrary to our desire for personal autonomy, even when it’s for our own good. But defenses strengthened against one attack may yield to another. And God has a flank attack:  He loves us. Not with some momentary warm fuzzy kind of so-called love that soon passes, but with a sacrificial love for those who hated Him. For, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” [Rom 5:8, I Jn 4:10,19], “the just for the unjust” [1 Pet 3:18]. Because He created us in His image [Gen 1:27], we have intrinsic value, even if the rest of the world tells us we aren’t smart enough, attractive enough, cool enough, or any other comparison they can find to feel better at our expense.  And when people look at our past mistakes and ask, “Who could ever love someone like that?”, the answer is, God. He did, He does, and He will. Love is a powerful craving in all of us, and we seek it in all the worst places sometimes. And those pursuits don’t satisfy, so we keep running to the next big thing that we think will be the end of our search. All the while, our loving Creator awaits, extending an invitation to each of us, not desiring that any should perish {Ezek 33:11], but still obligated by His perfectly just nature to punish all who reject his loving offer of salvation [Rom 2:4-6].

Some yield to God’s logic and others to His love,  but they are just two sides of the same divine battle plan to redeem a chosen people. For me, 25 years ago, my sinfulness, God’s perfection, and my need to come to Him on His terms rather than mine were as obvious and rational to me as 2+2 equaling 4. There was simply no justifiable reason to reject God’s gift. And the deeper I have dug, and the more I have researched other worldviews and religions, the more I “know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” [2 Tim 1:12]. Whatever way God uses to reach you, don’t reject His offer. It does require unconditional surrender on our part – something our prideful hearts bristle at – but like the Nazis in WWII, we’re actually on the wrong side, and the best thing we can do is surrender to our just, but loving, Lord.

The Down Low

The Good Samaritan - Vasily Surikov (1874)
The Good Samaritan – Vasily Surikov (1874)

In the Christian view, every person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic value.[Gen 1:27] This doctrine, sometimes referred to by the Latin term imago Dei, is serious enough that God gives it as the basis for capital punishment when someone murders another human.[Gen 9:6] That each person really does have such high value, as an essential characteristic of their humanity, is nice in theory, but how does that play out? Are the nobodies really as important as the bigwigs and high rollers? While God certainly can use both, it seems like He uses the low people and the “foolish things of the world” to accomplish His work more than the wise and powerful.[1 Cor 1:27-29, James 2:1-5] So, in treating the passed-over people with dignity and respect, we may be closer to working in God’s plans than we are when working with the great and mighty.

Consider that the first disciples called by Jesus were not religious teachers, law experts, or powerful princes. They were only simple fisherman, but notice how God used this fact, as people hearing Peter’s speech were amazed that these weren’t “learned men”.[Acts 4:13]  What they were was honest, humble men, able to report exactly what they saw and heard of the events of Jesus’ ministry on Earth.[Acts 4:19-20] And that’s exactly what was needed of those first disciples – honest eyewitnesses to tell the story. God later used the exact opposite of those rough and tumble fishermen when He selected Saul of Tarsus to be His ambassador. Saul was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in devotion to the Jewish Law, with a familial and educational pedigree to match. [Acts 22:3, 26:4-5, Phil 3:4-6] Yet his stature and accomplishments blinded him to seeing God’s witness, and ironically, he persecuted the people (Christians) that had found the fulfillment of the Jewish Law he so zealously followed. God had to bring him low before He could build Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle. Once that happened, however, God used Paul’s understanding of the Jewish Law and prophecies to explain His plan of salvation via rich, deep theological treatises like Paul’s letter to the Romans, among others. Paul counted all his previous accomplishments as insignificant compared to the knowledge of Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] Each type of person God called had their purpose, but all needed humility before they could be used to full effect. In fact, God’s entire plan of salvation for the human race wasn’t brought about via the juggernaut of the Roman empire (although He used them to enable the quick spread of His truth when the time came). Nor was it accomplished by Alexander the Great, or any other “great” rulers. Instead, His plan revolved around a small nation, a small tribe, and a nondescript family from a small town, all to bring forth a Savior who would change everything! Indeed, in God’s economy, He chooses to exhibit His power and accomplish His goals specifically through our weakness [2 Cor 12:9], that it may be evident to whom the credit is due.

This inherent value of all people, no matter their position in life, has had significant implications for every Christian. How God values people is how we should value people. Consider the long history of Christians reaching out to those neglected and rejected by the rest of society. Christians started (as in, originated) charitable hospitals in the 4th century to minister to any of the sick at a time when only certain rich or privileged citizens could get medical care.[1] They started asylums to at least try to care for the insane.[2] Christians, as a whole, have consistently opposed infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion from the beginning, recognizing the worth of these most defenseless members of society, and working at great cost to themselves to protect them.[3] They started schools to teach people to read and write wherever they went. In fact, Neil Postman points out that 17th century New England had “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.” Equally impressive was women’s literacy rates that far exceeded the best male literacy rates in England at the time. What caused this anomaly? Says Postman, “the religion of these Calvinist Puritans demanded that they be literate.” In addition, Postman also notes that almost all early New England towns passed laws requiring schools be established to teach reading, writing, and grammar, for the express purpose of combating the schemes of Satan.[4] The pilgrims believed that if God has graciously provided His plan in writing, it behooves us to be able to read and comprehend it. But when we read it comprehend it, we are confronted with challenges through the Bible to care for, defend, and help those who can’t take care of themselves. And I couldn’t even begin to list all the Christian charities dedicated to helping orphans, the poor, the starving, the sick, the illiterate, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, and on and on. But why? Are we simply “scorin’ points for the afterlife” as Weird Al Yankovich once sang?[5] On the contrary, “we love because He first loved us.”[1 John 4:19] We bless others because of how richly God has blessed us. And no, I’m not talking about that offensive, false, “prosperity gospel” that focuses on fleeting, fickle fortune.  If I lost everything in life, up to and including my life, God’s grace would still make me more blessed than all the riches of all the billionaires in the world. With that in mind, how can I not want to share whatever I do have with others, but especially the free – yet priceless! – good news of salvation through Jesus?

In the Bible, we see the gospel of Christ reaching out across all borders and divisions that typically separated people; gender, class, race, nationality, age, status, education – the invitation was open to all.[Gal 3:28, Col 3:9-11, Rom 10:11-13] In Christ, there are no castes, no untouchables, no one off-limits to reach out to. There is no minimum amount of wealth to “buy in” to heaven, no minimum (or maximum) IQ or educational knowledge to serve God, no minimum number of years invested or minimum number of good deeds required to be saved. He truly makes it so that whoever will can be saved, from the poorest beggar to the richest king, from the grade school dropout to the rocket scientist, from the sweetest child to the most hardened criminal. We all approach the cross of Christ on the same low footing. Without Christ, we are all equally guilty, and yet, all still intrinsically valuable and loved in God’s sight.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.
[2] ibid., p. 160.
[3] ibid., pp. 48-60.
[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (Penguin Books, 1986), pp.31-33.
[5] Weird Al Yankovich, “Amish Paradise”, 1996, the nevertheless cleverly funny parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

 

Marriage

love-of-a-lifetime-2Some people feel the Bible is antiquated and “out of touch” with our changing times. One example often pointed to is the biblical command for wives to be subject to their husbands. It is assumed that this is opposed to women’s equality, women’s rights, and seeks to enslave women in some barbaric, repressive, man-centered system. Here is the verse as typically provided in this case:

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”[1]

However, this is one passage out of a letter, so it’s worth considering that there might be more to this. Let’s see if Paul has any instructions specifically for husbands. In fact, Paul typically uses pairs of commands addressed to each party when talking about human relationships (i.e. parents and children, masters and slaves, and in this case, husbands and wives).[2] So what is his direction for us husbands?

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.[3] This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.”[4]

Looking over both passages making up this set of instructions for marital relationships, two things are asked of wives: submission and respect. Sometimes this causes some resentment, but is this really anything more than what most of us are expected to give our commanding officers in the military, our bosses in the civilian workforce, our law enforcement, our governmental leadership? As I was told in the Army, I was to respect the position even if I couldn’t stand the person in charge. In contrast, what is asked of the husband? Perfect, unconditional, self-sacrificial love that nourishes and cherishes our wife as if she were our own body. Men: we have the greater obligation here. To love our wives like Christ loved the church is a high standard, and an impossible one to meet without the supernatural power of Christ in us.  Something else to consider guys – if you have the verse about wives submitting underlined in your Bible, you need to quit sticking your nose into the verses directed to her, and work on following the verses directed specifically to you. This is like the case where Peter asked Jesus what would happen to John, and Jesus told him “What is that to you? You follow Me!”[5] If we loved our wives like Christ loved the church, I doubt there would be a woman on the planet who would have an issue with their part of this deal. I’ve had good bosses and bad bosses in my life, and respectfully submitting to the good ones that I knew had my best interests at heart simply wasn’t a struggle. It came pretty easy, actually. And this highlights another point: if a husband and wife are both aiming for God, they’ll always be walking the same direction, never away from each other.

There is also an exemplary aspect to this biblical hierarchy. We see in the Trinity that God the Son (Jesus Christ) is equal to God the Father, yet subordinated to the Father in role. [6] As Christians, we don’t claim that Jesus’ subordination to the Father in any way diminished His deity. In marriage, both husband and wife are equal in identity, in worth, and in rights before God. Both are created in His image. Both are also selfish sinners He died to save and make new. But even if both are equal, ultimately, there needs to be distinct roles for each, and an agreed upon leader responsible for a final decision when there’s disagreement. It’s not a matter of inequality of identity or worth or rights, but rather the practical need for defined roles and responsibilities. That word responsibility is one guys have been wanting to overlook ever since Adam first tried telling God “it’s not my fault! It’s that woman You gave me!”[7]  Guys, don’t pull an Adam; being “head” of your household should be a sobering realization of your responsibility before God, not a power trip.

The biblical model of marriage has taken a beating in recent years, perceiving a low value of wives by looking at only half the model in isolation. Yet this passage paints a different picture when we look at the whole, complementary model together. We highly value that which we love, and Christ calls us husbands to love our wives like nothing the world can even understand. And that, my friends, is a model for marriage that never goes out of style.


[1] Ephesians 5:22-24, KJV.
[2]Compare Ephesians 5:22-6:9 with Colossians 3:18-4:1, NASB.
[3] Quoting Genesis 2:24, NASB.
[4] Ephesians 5:25-33, NASB.
[5] John 21:19-23, NASB.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 257.
[7] Genesis 3:12, NASB.