Christians are people of faith. But let’s face it: there is good faith and mad faith. Good faith is believing in God, trusting the word of his Holy Spirit and obeying his will. Mad faith is believing in unnecessary contradictions simply because they are part of one’s religious tradition. Some contradictions are credible, when there is good evidence for both sides of the contradiction. For instance there is good reason to believe that an electron is both a wave of energy and a particle, as it can appear in both forms. However, if one of two contradictory propositions can be shown to be unworthy of belief, then it is mad to continue holding them both to be true.
There are several contradictions, or paradoxes as they are often called, in traditional Christian teaching. Those who enjoy a religious life within a framework of traditional beliefs are normally untroubled by its contradictions as they focus on what they value, namely life with a wonderful, loving, inspiring God. But those considering Christian faith from the outside often find the contradictions so baffling as to be unintelligible, and consider holding them to be not just foolish but entirely misguided. They reject a good life of faith because of the mad contradictory beliefs that it seems to entail. They throw out the precious baby with the murky bathwater.
Jesus said that good shepherds will leave their flock for a while to go in search of a lost sheep. If we love those who lack Christian faith, our love will drive us to remove all the obstacles to their faith that we can. This means attending to the contradictions in traditional Christian teaching and endeavouring to resolve them. For instance, how could a truly loving God consign any of the people he has made to the everlasting torment of Hell?
This is not a purely academic question. I was surprised recently when a friend asked me whether I thought members of his family and friends who were not Christian would go to hell. We don’t hear much about hell these days, so I hadn’t given the question very serious consideration. But he was clearly very concerned about the fate of his loved ones.
In the gospels Jesus is recorded as warning his followers about hell from time to time. The rich man who failed to show compassion to Lazarus was sent there (Luke 16: 19-31), and those who ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison were consigned there also (Matthew 15: 31-46). If we take such teaching seriously, then we have good reason to believe in the possibility of hell.
Before responding to my friend’s question, however, I thought about a central message of Christianity, that God so loved us that while we were still sinners he sent his Son to die for our sins, in order that we might be forgiven. In more concrete terms, Jesus was noted for welcoming sinners, and when he was unjustly insulted, tortured and crucified, from the cross he prayed that his Father would forgive those who killed him, not send them to hell. To forgive those who harm us, we must accept the pain they inflict upon us and offer them love in return. We know that God forgives us our sins as we see Jesus doing precisely that: suffering the worst that humans could wish upon him, yet praying for their forgiveness.
How could Jesus, who suffered so much to demonstrate his love towards those who hated him, also come again as their judge and send them to hell? You might punish someone from a loving wish to reform them. But the punishment in hell that Jesus described in his parables is eternal. It’s function is not reformative but retributive, the just desert for those who dare to oppose God. Such punishment is logically and psychologically inconsistent with forgiveness.
I told my friend that the love of God revealed in the life and death of Jesus was so perfect that I could not believe He would send unbelievers to hell. I also pointed out that those condemned to hell in those two parables were judged for their lack of compassion, not for their unbelief. That fact did not resolve the contradiction between Jesus’ loving forgiveness of sinners and his teaching about justice, but it did suggest that anyone who shows loving compassion towards those in need might be on the path to heaven.
As a result of this encounter, I began to wonder where Jesus might have got the idea that the Messiah would come again with mighty power to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. I can recall two Old Testament texts that vividly portray such an event, one in Isaiah and the other in Daniel, both books that Jesus quoted.
The Isaiah passage begins in chapter 59. The writer despairs of the waywardness of Israel, and argues that God himself will have to intervene to cleanse the nation. He begins by noting the wickedness and injustice of the people of Israel (“… justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us..” v.9), and then he points out that as no-one seems able to establish justice in the land, God himself will have to do it:
“The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He… put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes…” (vv. 15b -18).
In the following chapters Isaiah repeats his conviction that God will mercilessly punish the wicked. And he also declares that God will create a new Jerusalem that fulfils his desire for justice, peace and prosperity, a place that will glorify his name.
Isaiah could not believe that a God of justice could possibly tolerate the injustice of wicked people indefinitely. In Daniel there is a different reason for invoking the justice of God. Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) became ruler of Palestine in 175 BC, and he tried to repress the religion of Israel, requiring the people to worship a golden statue of the Greek god Zeus. He cruelly punished the Jews who refused to worship the statue by killing and exiling thousands of them, and by desecrating their temple, forbidding their regular sacrifices. Daniel foretells the destruction of unholy kings, and adds that in the end “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake; some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (ch.12: v.2) Commentators tell us that this verse refers to the faithful Jews who had suffered and died at the hand of Antiochus, and to those who oppressed them. The faithful Jews will be raised from the dead and rewarded with a new life, and those who harmed them will be raised and punished. How could a just God do otherwise?
Both Isaiah and Daniel think that God will punish the wicked because he is essentially just. The justice of God is enshrined in ancient Jewish tradition. Back in Deuteronomy chapter 28 God promises the Israelites that if they are obedient “your God will see you high above all the nations on earth” (v.1), but if they are disobedient “the Lord will send on you curses” (v.20), which are described in dreadful detail.
Later the psalmists frequently lament the injustice of their suffering (e.g. Psalms 10, 35, 69, 79, 83), but they do not seriously doubt the justice of God. Rather they appeal to him to execute justice more thoroughly. For example, from Psalm 10:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?…
Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say too himself, “He won’t call me to account.” (vv.1,12-13.)
It is little wonder, then, that Jesus, being thoroughly familiar with Hebrew scriptures, believed the Messiah would bring justice on earth, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. The problem for Christians is that his life and death, and most of his teaching, express an unqualified love for the good and bad alike. He established a new kingdom by fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy that a time would come when God would replace the Israelites’ sinful thoughts and inclinations with a knowledge and love of God’s law (Jer.31:31-34). Christians, having died to sin, enjoy a knowledge and love of God’s will through his Holy Spirit. Jesus’ established a kingdom of righteousness, not by force but by sharing the life of his Holy Spirit.
So will the wicked by consigned to hell? It is hard to know what will happen to their souls after death. People are free to ignore God if they wish, so perhaps as C.S. Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce, they will abide in a lonely place of their own making. St John seems to think that those who are not animated by God’s eternal loving Spirit will simply die, saying that those who are not related to Jesus’ life will wither on the vine. Whatever happens, Christians cannot say that Jesus is willing to punish the wicked by sending their souls to hell, for that would deny his unqualified love.
Isaiah and Daniel believed that God would punish the unrighteous and reward the faithful because they were convinced of his justice. A system of rewards and punishments is of great value in motivating people to keep the laws of the land. But from our perspective we must ask whether there is much evidence either in natural events or in historical events of God acting justly. As the Psalmist lamented, good, faithful people suffer and wicked people prosper, and this has been true throughout all ages. The life and death of Jesus, on the other hand, reveals that God’s loving mercy has no bounds.