Driving back to our campsite yesterday I listened to a radio 4 program about child abuse. It was awful. I had to keep turning it off. I found myself being glad there was a God who would punish injustice, glad there was an eternal hell from which there was no escape or parole. But was I right to think like that?
Most human beings it seems, have an innate desire and appetite for justice. Children are quick to express it when they think they have been hard done by “it’s not fair” they cry when someone else has had a toy for longer than them. Many of our stories have injustice as a central theme. I remember watching the original A-team. Every week someone does something really bad to someone. Who will help? Who will right the wrongs, who will bring justice where there is none? The A-team of course! After playing hard to get, they respond to the cry for help, the bad guys get exploded out of their vehicles, punched about a bit, humiliated and hauled off to jail. Steven Segal was the master of this too with his much harder hitting films like “hard to kill” and “out for justice”. Dirty Harry films played to my sense of justice in the same way.
But back to the horrors of real life. I think there is some insight to be had in the raging of my emotions. Hell is not just a difficult doctrine that comes along with all the good “happy thought” ones. It’s not an embarrassment to be explained away or sanitised. It’s good and right. All God’s ways are wonderful. The psalmist exclaims “I love your law!” (Psalm 119:113), presumably the curses as well as blessings; They are right and proper and just. This morning I read Psalm 94 which starts “O Lord God of vengeance”. Who can delight in a God who is indifferent to evil; A God who never shows up like the A-team or Dirty Harry to dispense justice? We worship a God who is just and will not let the wicked go unpunished. The Proverbs, the book of Godly common sense, states it again and again (Prov 11:21, 16:5, 17:5, 19:5).
Jesus too spoke a lot about hell. I must not apologise for hell or make it something it is not. It is not just separation from God, that’s only one side of the coin. It is not just “you choose to go there”, “you reject God and so he lets you go your own way”. Those things are part of the story and helpful to an extent but Jesus did not just speak in those terms. As much as hell is a Godless place, the natural consequence of rejecting God, hell is a place of active punishment. Jesus tells a story about the kingdom of God that ends with this sobering line Luke 19:27 “‘But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.'” (ESV) Jesus talks of the possibility of being Mark 9:47b-48 “thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'” (ESV)
My NIV says he is referring to Isaiah 66:24
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (ESV)
Jesus says hell is worse than anything anyone can do to you in this life.
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:5 (ESV)
There is a foundation to justice. There will be a day when all accounts will have to be paid. Jesus is the one appointed to see justice done either on the hill of Calvary or in the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). And yet these thoughts bring two things to mind.
The first is my sin. I am a sinner too. I have done things that are wrong. By God’s grace they might seem relatively small compared to some but next to God’s perfect Holiness they are rotten and foul and would have been my doom. I do think there are degrees of punishment. The law reflected it and Jesus’ parables imply it. We will be judged “according to what [we] have done” Rev 20:12. The punishment of some will justly be more than others but that will be little consolation in an eternal hell under God’s wrath. By God’s great love and mercy he has seen fit to forgive me, placing my sin on his son and punishing him in my place. I find myself being humbled and deeply grateful. This first thought prepares my heart and mind for the second.
As I read Jesus words about hell I begin to feel compassion. I don’t want anyone to go there. It’s worse than anything in this life and will go on forever. You sometimes hear people say “go to hell”. That’s a very strong thing to say and I don’t think I want to say it to anyone.
My desire for justice will be satisfied. Every sin will be justly punished. If I demand that it not be removed from one person and placed on Christ my hope for forgiveness is gone. Upon him was placed the guilt of torture and rape and other things unspeakable, and to me at least mercifully unimaginable. How it is possible for such a transfer to take place I do not know but it is. If not my sin still sticks to me. If it is then any sin can be cast on Jesus. There is hope for the vilest offender. When my anger and sense of justice rises up in me at people who do what should not be done, I need to look at what Jesus has done for me and what Jesus says about hell until mercy wins in my soul. My emotions started with anger and a desire for justice and vengeance but I pray the Spirit of God keeps moving me to thanksgiving for my own salvation and intersession for the salvation of others.
In all this emotion and pain my thoughts and prayers need to be most of all with the victims. Thank you Jesus that your gospel can heal the deepest hurts and cover the most painful shame. Thank you that you came to release the oppressed and bind up the broken hearted. Please please please please do that in many lives today.