Nov 26, 2007

Two Reactions to the Doctrine of Hell

I have found that people react in two very different ways when they learn about the traditional Christian doctrine of hell. The doctrine, of course, is the biblical teaching that unrepentant sinners will suffer eternal torment in a place called hell (cf. Matt. 25:46, etc.). The first reaction that I will describe is by far the most common one today. The second one is (IMHO) the correct one, but seems to be strongly disfavored in our contemporary postmodern culture.

The first, more common, reaction to the notion of hell goes like this: "Ugh! God must be a mean, sadistic ogre!" The basic idea behind this popular reaction is that the doctrine of hell, if it's true, casts negative aspersions on the character of God. That is, hell is seen as inconsistent with the idea that God is good and loving.

Now, those who react to hell in this first way can wind up in one of two positions. (1) they can become atheists or agnostics. These, like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), believe that the Bible does teach the doctrine of hell and that the God of the Bible must therefore be really bad and unworthy of serious belief. Alternatively, (2) they can convince themselves that the Bible doesn't really teach the doctrine of hell--perhaps the texts that seem to teach this are not to be taken literally or are simply not true--and they continue to believe in a good and loving God. For the latter group, God (as they understand him) simply would never consign anyone to eternal torment.

The second (I think correct and biblical) reaction to the doctrine of hell is: "Whoa! I must really be bad!" The idea here is that the doctrine of hell, if it's true, casts negative aspersions NOT on God, but on us! Hell, on this view, is perfectly consistent with God's goodness and love. In fact, on this view, if hell did not exist, God would be wicked! He would be unconcerned about justice; uncaring toward the victims of our unrighteous deeds. He would be someone who simply winks at sin and never holds people accountable for the evil that they do. Hell, then, is an indictment against us. It points us to the sad truth about our sinful condition. It points us to the biblical teaching (confirmed in our daily experience) that human beings are morally corrupt, depraved, desperately wicked.

Those who react to hell in this second way are not disposed to see an inconsistency between God's goodness and hell. Rather, they are strongly inclined to feel an inconsistency between God's goodness and the gracious and merciful way he treats us deperados. That is, there seems to be a "problem of God's goodness"--why and how can he be so kind and good to us who are so bad? Why is it that we are not all cast into hell from the moment of our first breaths? (This was the question and the theme of Jonathan Edwards' great sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God").

The problem with the first reaction to hell is that it starts with the assumption that human beings are basically good (or, if bad, not all that terribly so). No wonder then that a God who makes a hell is seen as a malicious ogre! But, if we begin with the assumption that human beings are basically wicked (an idea taught on almost every page of Scripture (cf. Rom. 3:10ff., Eph. 2:1-3, etc.)), one will cry out with Paul, "Oh wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24). And one will stand awestruck and eternally grateful when one finds that the God who owes him only His eternal wrath casts his sins into a sea of everlasting forgetfulness. Then one will know just how amazing God's grace truly is.