“I feel that if God should smite me now, without hope or offer of mercy, to the lowest hell, I should only have what I justly deserve; and I feel that if I be not punished for my sins, or if there be not some plan found by which my sin can be punished in another, I cannot understand how God can be just at all: how shall he be Judge of all the earth, if he suffer offenses to go unpunished?”
– Charles Spurgeon
Recent reports of the Catholic Pope, Pope Francis, stating that hell does not exist, have stirred up some underlying discussion among Christian believers and non-believers, alike. There is still debate in the general community as to whether the Pope made such a statement or not, considering that it came from a controversial source. However, the news of the Pope’s statement brought to light a deeply rooted debate within the modern Christian community. What does the Bible say about hell? Does hell really exist? And if hell does exist, how is it possible for a truly just God to allow such a place to be a reality? I believe this last question is important to answer first, before one can truly discuss hell, itself. When one questions the existence of hell they are, in reality, questioning whether God’s judgement is just or cruel. So, in order to understand hell, we must first look at the nature of God’s justice.
The great Greek Philosopher Aristotle defined justice as “to each his or her due.” Based on this definition, what is “due” to a person can be determined through either agreed upon law or ethical obligation. However, this definition of justice is based upon modern human justice, not God’s justice. God’s justice is slightly different. As mentioned in a previous post (Back to Basics: God – Part 1), it is impossible to fully comprehend the attributes of God, such as, His justice. However, a special nuance in the Hebrew language can give us a slight glimpse into, and, therefore, a better understanding of the justice of God. In Hebrew, there are two words that seem to best embody God’s justice. First, the word “mishpat” (מִשְׁפּטָ), is specifically a judicial term which is commonly defined as “what someone is due,” such as their right or privilege. The definition of this word mirrors the one that Aristotle gives to the word “justice”.
However, the Jewish understanding of justice goes beyond a focus on the results of a decision or action. In Judaism, justice is also about the character of the person doing an action or making a decision. This leads to the second word that is important to take note of, “zeddikah” (צדְָקהָ), which is best defined as “righteousness.” This word is directly connected to the word “mishpat,” and often is used simultaneously with “mishpat” in the Hebrew Bible. This would seem to infer that these two words have a direct relationship to one another.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, author of The Prophets, makes several important observations about this inferred relationship. First, Heschel defines these two words by stating that “mishpat” should be considered the action of justice and “zeddikah” should be considered the characteristic of a righteous or just being. Second, Heschel states that though there is a clear distinction between these two Hebrew words, they must always coincide. In other words, every just, or “mishpat,” decision must reflect righteousness, or “zeddikah.” This explanation might seem to imply that “zeddikah” is similar to the modern understanding of an ethical obligation. However, “zeddikah” is much more than ethics. It is the essence of the divine involvement in the application of justice. Heschel states that righteousness goes beyond justice. With the use “zeddikah”, the prophets, like Amos, Jeramiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, take their message to the next level, the divine level. The Jewish understanding of justice seems to add this missing element to justice. In the modern understanding of justice, justice is about the end result, each person, in the end receiving what is best for them. Thus, justice might be considered an unemotional and detached process consumed by law and order or even ethics. Yet, with righteousness, it is about kindness, caring, and loving. With the use of “zeddikah,” Heschel states that the concern for justice is an act of love. Each just result of a decision or action must reflect love, both on the divine level and on the personal level. Thus, divine justice is much deeper than making sure each person gets what they deserve. It is a deep attachment to the problem, a concern that will only subside if true and Godly righteousness prevails. Understanding that divine justice is not solely about law and punishment but is centered on caring and love is key to a proper discussion on hell.
Now that we understand that God’s justice is different from human justice and is based on love rather than law or obligation, we can now look at the purpose of hell through the eyes of God’s justice. In last week’s blog, (Restoration through Resurrection) in order to better understand what Christ did for us when He was resurrected, we took a brief look at why Christ needed to die in the first place. When man pursued power on his own, He brought upon himself the punishment of death. A punishment that is said to exist for all eternity in hell. Therefore, hell is where true death resides. In Christianity, hell is the ultimate punishment after our earthly death. In hell, nothing good exists only suffering and punishment. All Christians who believe hell exists can agree upon this very general definition of hell. However, many question the existence of hell because they cannot grasp the idea that a loving God who sent His son to save humanity would also punish people through eternal punishment and suffering. Over the years, Christians have begun to question this definition for there are a couple of concerns that must be addressed if this kind of hell exists.
The first concern is how could a just God be so cruel? The answer to this question is simply that He is not. In R.C. Sproul’s book entitled Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Sproul states that it is impossible for God to be cruel. Cruelty would be unjust because it would involve inflicting a punishment that is undeserved. So the idea that hell does not exist because it would mean that a loving God is cruel, is misguided. Hell can still exist. It just will not be a place of cruelty because God’s justice cannot be cruel. This idea has led to a very famous definition of hell: hell is simply a place of separation from God. However, this definition, alone, is wrong because, as R.C. Sproul points out, what more would one who is ungodly want than to be without what is truly Godly. Therefore, the punishment of hell is not the absence of God but the presence of God through His divine wrath. This is nothing to take lightly. God’s wrath is meant to be feared. Hebrews 10:31 states “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Also, Jesus himself describes hell through the symbolism of “a burning furnace,” “eternal punishment” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Most scholars consider these descriptions of hell to be metaphors. But if these are simply metaphors how much worse is the real thing? So if hell does exist as a place of God’s divine enactment of His divine justice, then we must understand that it is not a place of cruelty or the absence of God but a place full of the wrath of God.
So if the existence of hell is not disproved by God’s lack of cruelty then we must look at the opposite viewpoint, how could a merciful and loving God allow hell to exist? To answer this question we must first understand God’s mercy. Mercy and justice are often confused. Justice is getting what we deserve, Mercy is not giving us what we do deserve. Humanity deserves to be punished by God because all of humanity has broken the commands of God and sinned. Romans 2:5 says, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed.” Humanity deserves the wrath of God, and if hell is, in fact, the full presence of God’s wrath, then hell is what humanity deserves, no more and no less. Therefore, hell is a just punishment. However, God is merciful. R.C. Sproul states that God often tempers His justice with mercy. However, God is not obligated to be merciful. This is what makes God’s mercy merciful and not simply His justice. The prime example of this is that God showed humanity grace, and through His Son we can be forgiven of our wrongdoings, released from the impending doom of punishment and take refuge in the mercy of God. This is why it is important to distinguish between human justice and God’s justice. If God’s justice was like that of human justice, “to each their due,” then we would all be sentenced to the punishment of God’s wrath. However, because God’s justice also involves righteousness, God showed mercy upon humanity by giving mankind a way to escape His wrath. The mercy of God may not be the justice of God but it is a representative of God’s righteousness, which as stated before must always coincide with justice. Because God is a just God, sin must be punished. Therefore, hell must exist. Because God is not only just, but He is also righteous, He showed us mercy and gave us salvation through grace. So God’s mercy does not discount the existence of hell. God’s justice must be enacted through His wrath. However, God’s mercy does give humanity a way to escape the wrath of God and, therefore, evade hell.
God is a God of Justice. Every breaking of God’s commands must be met with His just punishment, a wrath that is enacted through the destination of hell. However, God’s just actions must always coincide with His righteousness. Through God’s righteousness, He shows mankind mercy, and it is through His mercy that His love for humanity is revealed. This is why God sent His son to suffer the wrath of God for humanity and save humanity through His mercy revealed through His grace. All that humanity has to do is believe that God did this for them and they will be saved from His wrath. Yet, those who refuse to accept the mercy of God must face the justice of God through the place of His wrath, hell. We must never forget that because God is a righteous and loving God, we have a choice as to whether we face the wrath of God or embrace His mercy.