Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Many, including me, have wrestled with the difficulty of reconciling God's love with God's wrath (specifically expressed in hell). This was not the subject of last Sunday's sermon from Ephesians 5, but I did try to wrestle around the edges of the issue in one section of the sermon: Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. Ephesians 5:6, 7 That verse raises the issue of “God’s wrath.” The subject of GOD’S WRATH is a hard one for many people today. It causes many people to struggle or stumble in their faith. On the one hand they want criminals to be incarcerated and punished. They don’t want bullies, abusers, violent oppressors, murderers, rapists, molesters, and thieves to get away with it and go free. People are deeply offended at injustice – when evil is rewarded and good is punished. But on the other hand, some of these same people, are deeply upset when God, the only totally just judge, the One who knows everything and who perfectly balances love and righteousness, mercy and justice, when He punishes sinners and warns about future incarceration and punishment for those who are stubbornly unrepentant and who refuse to be reformed. The idea of GOD’S WRATH is both comforting and disconcerting; it is both encouraging and frightening. God’s wrath is COMFORTING to all those who have been oppressed, abused, and wronged but have never seen justice done. The wounds of their unrequited victimization mark their lives and lock them in deep pain that never really goes away. To know that someday God’s righteous wrath will bring about justice is comforting. We all want to live in a just world. We want evil to be punished and good rewarded. We are offended when someone does something terrible that harms others and gets away with it. We are deeply angry if a judge shows bias, doesn’t consider the evidence, and allows an evil-doer to go free and unpunished. To believe that God’s wrath will make things right – that justice will finally be done, we find COMFORT. But God’s wrath can also be DISCONCERTING because of the difficulty of reconciling God’s love and His judgment; because of the seeming incongruity between a God of love and a God who warns of eternal punishment in hell. To attempt to resolve these seeming incongruities requires us to understand what kind of Judge God is and will be. He is the only Judge who is totally just and fair; who treats everyone equally and has no bias based on age, gender, race, economic/educational status, or personal relationship. He is the only Judge who knows everything about everything past, present, and future (theologians call it “omniscience.” He is the only Judge who knows exactly what happened in every situation as well as why it happened and any and every related and extenuating circumstance. He is the only Judge who knows what you did, why and how you did it, whether you do it again, whether or not you are truly sorry for what you did, if you’ve genuinely learned from it and changed; He is the only Judge who also knows everything good or evil you didn’t do and how these all relate to each other. He is the only Judge who no matter what you have or haven’t done, LOVES YOU and wants what is best for you, and knows what is truly best for you, what will help you and what will harden you. He is the only Judge who knows what punishment, if any, will be totally just and fair for you as well as for the victims of what you did and for all those who were impacted by what you did. He is the only Judge who knows every possible punishment – what and how long – and how each would affect you -- whether it would help you or harden you; whether it would cause you to change for the better or the worse. He is the only Judge who knows if there is any hope that you can be redeemed and reformed or if you are so hardened that the best thing that could be done is to isolate you and keep you from doing something that will be bad for you and harmful for others. He is the only Judge who knows what is the just, fair, and right thing to do and who is totally committed to doing it. That’s why God’s wrath is to be both loved and feared! Here are a few things to consider: (1) Isaiah 28:21 calls judgment God’s strange and alien work (2) Ezekiel 33:11 lets us know that God doesn’t want to punish anyone: Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. (3) 1 Timothy 2:3, 4 asserts that God our Savior . . .wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (4) 2 Peter 3:9 assures us that God doesn’t want anyone to have to be punished: The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (5) The Biblical descriptions of hell, while terrifying, in my estimation are clearly meant to be interpreted symbolically rather than literally. That takes nothing away from their reality or seriousness but cautions us from thinking that we know exactly what they mean. C.S. Lewis wrote am imaginative, fascinating, and helpful allegory about heaven and hell, not meant to be definitive, but suggestive. See THE GREAT DIVORCE. (6) The God who will judge is the One who loves us so much that He became a man to die for sin and rise again to provide forgiveness for all who would repent and believe (7) Whether I understand things now or not, I do believe what Abraham said in Genesis 18:25: Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? How God ultimately resolves all this in the end may be very, very different than what any of us now conceive or imagine, but I know this, HE IS LOVING and HE IS GOOD and that will be OBVIOUS TO EVERYONE in the end. I know this: God’s wrath is to be greatly feared and avoided at all cost, and that His love and salvation in Christ are to be joyfully embraced to rescue us from the judgment we deserve.

1 comment:

William Brown said...

Thank you, Bill. I struggle with this, too - always have. And I am glad I do. Too many Christians seem to relish in God's judgment on those who don't agree with them. Too many nonChristians reject a God who would judge anyone. Your words are great insight and blessing. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!