Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is there any bad news in the good news?

I am holding my tongue about the Rob Bell issue for the most part. I don't mind telling you that I haven't read the book Love Wins. I would read it if I didn't have to purchase it. Unfortunately I think all the pre-pub hype about the book has only stimulated more interest in it, and it will sell wildly, leading the author and publishers to think that the world needs more hamster-cage liners like this. I don't want to add to that. But if you want to send me a free copy, I will read it and chime in on it. Suffice to say that when every like-minded scholar whom I respect and learn from consistently are in lock-step agreement that the book's contents are heretical, I will not likely differ from them (though I did differ from some of them on The Shack, but here I think I would not). But like The Da Vinci Code and other books that have stirred up the waters in recent years, I can give thanks that this one also forces a difficult subject to the top of the agenda in public discourse. This time, one of those subjects is hell, and that of course is part of a larger discussion on the Gospel and what we believe about it.

The word "Gospel", we all know, means "good news." And it is not just good news, but the best news imaginable, that God has reconciled us to Himself in the cross of Christ. The miracle of justification, that a wretched sinner such as I can be covered in the perfect righteousness of Jesus, still brings me to pieces when I meditate upon it. It is unfathomably GOOD NEWS. But I want to ponder the question, "Is there any bad news contained within this good news?" Some would say, "Of course not. God is love and a loving God gives every story a happy ending, so there's no bad news at all. All roads lead to the same place. Or maybe just one road does and we are all on it whether we know it or not. Or maybe some roads lead to a bad place, but it is not going to last long and then it will be over and the only flames that will last forever are the ones at the big campfire in the sky where we will all hold hands and sing 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore' for eternity."

On the flip side, there is the position that says, "Of course there is bad news inherent within the good news." I have said this very thing for years. It goes something like this: "The bad news is that we are sinners, and because God is holy He must punish sin. And if we don't come to Christ, we will spend eternity in hell." That is not just bad news, it is like a trifecta of bad news, isn't it? For almost 20 years, I have said that this is all very bad news. But today I'm thinking that I have been wrong. Not wrong in the sense that I no longer believe these things and I'm going to don some hipster specs and stand out in the cold and make a video about how we are all going to heaven. No, I still believe what I believed before. We are all sinners, and a holy God must punish sin, and if we do not personally turn to Christ in repentance and faith, then there will literally be an eternity of hell to endure. I'm just not sure that any of that is bad news. In fact, I think it is all good news. I'm not sure there is any bad news in the good news.

I think more than ever as I get older that the fact that God punishes sin is not just "un-bad", and not just "good." It is what we long to wake up every morning and read about in the newspaper. The more hurt and brokenness we see in this world, the more we want to know that God is going to do something about it. We want to know that He is holy, He is just, He is righteous, and He is good. In fact, I think more than longing for more evidence that God is loving, we want to see more and more evidence that God is holy and good. After all, the atheist's strongest argument is what? The problem of loneliness? No, the problem of evil. The atheist thumbs his nose at Christianity, not because there is no apparent answer for all the unloveliness or lovelessness in the world, but because there is so much evil in the world and it appears from our vantage point at the moment that God is not the least bit concerned or involved in it. There is a hunger in the human heart to wake up tomorrow morning and read in the news that God has done something about the unspeakable horror that we read about in today's paper. And the Bible tells us that He will. The Bible assures us that God is holy and He is not turning a blind eye toward sin. All sin is going to receive the full justice it deserves, one way or another, directly from the hands of a righteous Judge and King.

But is this good news? After all, if ALL sin is going to receive the full justice it deserves, then that must mean MY sin will as well. And it most certainly means that, but it isn't bad news. It is good news. Because the reality is not that God WILL pour out this judgment, but rather that He HAS poured out this judgment. It happened when Christ died on the cross. He became the substitute for every sinner on the cross, and bore every sin there. And that includes you. And it includes me. So is it bad news that you are a sinner? Only if no one ever loved you enough to tell you. It is glorious news because if you are a sinner, then you are the very person Jesus came to save. I often say, "We have good news for sinners, and nothing to offer anyone else." If you are too proud to confess that you are a sinner and that your sins deserve a just condemnation from a holy God, then I just don't know what to tell you. But if you will confess that, then I can point you to a Savior who died for you, who wore your sins as He bore the wrath of the righteous Judge, so that you might wear His perfect righteousness in exchange.

So, then, is there a place of eternal torment called hell where unrepentant unbelievers will perish forever. Certainly. The Bible makes this so abundantly clear that one has to engage in hermeneutical yoga to avoid that conclusion. No one was clearer about it than Jesus Himself. But is it bad news? Is it bad news even for the ones who will end up there? I am inclined to think that it is not bad news, not even for them. I think even the fact that there is an eternal hell where the unrepentant and unbelieving will be tormented forever and ever is in itself "good news" because it assures us of the holiness and justice of God. And it drives home how awesome His mercy must be to save me from that end. And one of the amazing things about this is that even in hell, those people will realize that this all really amounts to good news.


Jesse Watkins said...

Here's a question Russ, and I think you know my heart enough to know I am not being cynical or playing devil's advocate, just asking an honest question - If eternal torment in flames awaits those who sin, why did God not mention that to Adam and Eve? Maybe that would have changed the story a little bit for them. It was one thing for God to say, "you will die." It is a whole other thing to say, "you will be tormented in flames for eternity."

Russ Reaves said...

Jesse -- It's a fair question to ask, but not an easy one to answer. See, we can't really answer questions that begin with, "Why did God not say ...?" I can think of several possible explanations but none of them would be certain. My confidence is in what God did say, not in what He did not say. And as I read the entire Bible, keeping in mind the principle of progressive revelation, I see a continuing unfolding of information about life, sin, salvation, heaven and hell that culminates in the NT teaching (which is plainly stated in the very words of Jesus Himself, and also very clear in John's Revelation) that there is a place of eternal torment for the unrepentant unbeliever. The question I have to ask myself is do I want to believe what "makes sense" to me even if that runs contrary to the Word of God, or am I willing to say that the Bible is the authority and I will trust what it says without choking on the reasoning for why it doesn't say what I think it should say. I think it comes down to a simple issue: Am I going to believe the Bible is the Word of God, or am I not? If I am, then I can't pick and choose which parts I am going to believe and which parts I am going to spin to a more comfortable interpretation. I must take the whole bundle. I think in every servant of God's life, there has to come that "moment behind the woodshed" where we get alone with God and say, either, "This book is truth and I am going to stand on it forever," or else say, "I think I can probably pull some better stuff than this out of my own head."

more ...

Russ Reaves said...

Now, what about the specific question you asked? Like I said, can't say for sure why God did NOT say something, but in order to illustrate that it is not unthinkable that there could be a place of eternal torment and at the same time God not warn Adam and Eve about it, here are some possibilities and suggestions:

A) God also did not tell them that there was an eternal place of joy.

B) The "death" that God pronounced included (as we understand through progressive revelation) the spiritual, the physical and the eternal. This is not the only case in Scripture where the first mention of something is like a seed, and it is much later that we see the full flower in bloom.

C) This is entirely speculative, but it could be that God did not mention hell to Adam and Eve because He knew that they were not going to end up there. He knew that He was going to provide salvation for them and that they were going to receive it, and it seems from the text that this indeed was the case. I am not saying this is the reason, I am saying that this is one of many possible explanations.

D) When you say, "changed the story," you are making several assumptions that are not warranted. (A) that the story could or should have changed. Not saying that this is wrong, just saying it is an assumption we cannot make. (B) that the story of man's fall and Christ's salvation is God's "Plan B". Again, the text doesn't give us the liberty to make that assumption. (C) that fear of punishment is sufficient to deter someone from sin, and that degrees of punishment are more effective in deterring them. There is actually only a handful of examples that we could cite that would validate this. The issue was never, "Is this a chance I am willing to take?" It was always, "Do I believe what God said?" I don't think it would be possible to say, "I better believe it or else I am going to die," or "I better believe it or else I am going to go to hell." The fact is, I can't decide to believe something based on factors like that. Imagine someone put a gun to your head and said, "If you don't believe that monkeys are purple and sprout grapes from their armpits, then I am going to shoot you." You can say you believe that to save your own skin, but you don't really believe that. The gun can't make you believe. Belief "happens" to you when you become convinced of a truth, it is not a decision you make. So, do Adam and Eve believe what God said? It seems that the threat of degrees of punishment would have little if any effect on that question.

Those are just some initial thoughts off the top of my head about your question. Maybe there are some better explanations out there that would make more sense.