Vessels of Wrath

Sinners_in_the_Hands_of_an_Angry_God_by_Jonathan_Edwards_1741

Lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks echoed through the congregation. Strong, capable men wept and clung like frightened children to pillars, pews, and peers as he preached—anything to keep them from slipping into the gaping wide mouth of hell, lest God remove the hand that holds them.

“Their foot shall slide in due time,” the preacher said of unbelieving Israelites, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35. He then applied the warning to the unbelieving in the congregation before him. “This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ—that world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”

It was summer in Connecticut in 1741. Jonathan Edwards was the preacher, and his sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was intended to jar a congregation that had been unmoved by the Great Awakening up to that point. He was successful—they were jarred. So am I.

Yesterday, more than 273 years after this famous sermon was preached, my friend Pascal and I had a conversation about hell and the just nature of God in a comment thread under this post of his. Pascal is a friend I have the privilege of knowing in written words, not in shared spaces—but he is indeed a kindred spirit. Since I know him in words, his words matter deeply to me.

Pascal asked a question that surprised me. “Why is the concept of hell so distressing to you?” He continued, “Your distress about hell is evidence that you do not presume on the riches of his kindness. Your discomfort shows that more and more you won’t presume on his forbearance and patience.”

Why did his question surprise me? It’s actually not one I’ve ever been asked. I was raised as a Baptist, which I realize can mean many things—but with regard to this topic, it meant that I was taught that hell is real and that God is just. I was taught that all who don’t know Christ are condemned to hell, because any sin of ours demands that consequence. Why? Because God is God, and I am not, and who am I to question God? Let my words be few. I was also taught about grace and mercy. God provided a way out through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the salvation that he offers. The only action required of me is to accept it. His kindness is reserved for those who do. I cannot.

So when my dear friend says that I do not presume on the kindness, forbearance, and patience of God—he’s right. I don’t. Pascal is working through Romans on his own blog, so I will direct him now to words later on in Romans that give me pause when I consider the kindness of God. Chapter 11, verse 22 speaks of the “kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen.” I struggle with the kindness of God because the severity seems so much greater. Heaven sounds wonderful—far more wonderful than anything I deserve. To have a place reserved for me there would be nothing short of the beautiful grace that scripture tells me of. Hell sounds terrible—Lake of burning fire. Eternal punishment. Eternal destruction. Away from the presence of the Lord. Weeping and gnashing of teeth—all direct quotes from scripture. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know I don’t want to go there. While a place in heaven would be glorious beyond what I deserve, I cannot say that being spared from hell would be merciful. Mercy is withholding a deserved consequence. While I certainly don’t deserve heaven, I don’t deserve hell either. To be honest, I don’t believe anyone does. No sin committed in a world bound by time is equal to an eternal punishment as severe as what scripture describes. Why would God allow this if he is just?

One of the things I appreciate about Pascal is his humility—I have much to learn from him in this area. His first response to my question regarding what I see as a conflict between the just nature of God and the existence of hell was to simply say “I just don’t know.” He does offer up possibilities that he has considered—perhaps even an “intermediary event or series of events before the eternal” during which a confession of faith could occur. He later says, “I do believe that he will restore all unto himself through Jesus Christ – – in this life or the life to come.” Pascal doesn’t know, and he knows that—these are simply speculations, and I appreciate them. I also feel that he does not believe that God’s ways demand his approval or understanding, and his ultimate conclusion to me has always been this: “I trust him with your soul, my soul and billions more.” In response to his speculations, I’ll return to the scripture he loves—to Luke 16. Here we find a rich man in hell after his death, with no mention of an intermediary event where he could realize that he was wrong, confess, and be saved. Instead, a “great chasm” prevents any relief of hell’s torment—he is not even allowed to send a warning to his brothers.

Pascal is humble enough to say he doesn’t know—to say that the mysteries of God could go far beyond our human interpretation of scripture. I am broken enough to say that unless they do, I want nothing to do with that God. Pascal loves the skeptic and interprets scripture in light of that love. I fear my eternal destiny and interpret scripture in light of that fear. I think we make a good team.

Before I ever questioned God’s existence, I questioned his goodness. How could he be good if hell exists at all? Why did he create any of us if some would perish? This is a question that scripture seems to answer directly in Romans 9—read it and weep…literally.

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,[b] but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

I have asked the question in verse 19, if God hardens hearts, how could he punish us for not believing? And in verse 20 is another slammed door: What right do I have to ask this of God?

And then I consider verse 22:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?

Vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. Created for destruction so that others could live. Dispensible. The same shepherd who would leave 99 to find one is the potter who would destroy many to demonstrate his power for the select few. Is this what I am? Does he endure me with patience before he destroys me with power? Do I hang by a slender thread—will my foot slide in due time? Even if I returned to faith by some miracle—what about those who don’t? Could I ever worship the creator of vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

I can’t write any more—just typing the last six words of the paragraph above drains me. I’m exhausted and broken and scared to the point that the most comforting thing to me is my belief that God doesn’t even exist.

Do you get it, Pascal? Show me Philippians 2:10 and I’ll show you Luke 16:26—not all will repent and be saved before it’s too late. Show me Romans 2 and I’ll show you Romans 9—am I safe in the integrity of a just God who can be trusted? On and on we could go. Thank you for being so patient with me—but I still don’t see it.

Edited to add a link to Pascal’s post this morning: On Hell

Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

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14 thoughts on “Vessels of Wrath

  1. I get it. I really do & God how it hurts.

    One possibility is that you’re grieving your fundamentalist upbringing. Another – – more likely in my view – – is that you are too passionate about God to endorse apathy. You live in Ephesus, not Laodicea.

    How can I resolve by proxy what I have struggled with for twenty years? I validate your questions and will stand with you.

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  2. Dear friend, you don’t know me but I believe there is a beautiful truth about hell which you have missed. Consider John 5:28-29 which reads, “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation.” Phrases like “resurrection” and “in the graves” clearly teach us one point. Not one single person is currently burning in the flames of the so-called orthodox hell right at this moment. Consider the tree of life. According to the book of Genesis, this is the only way which man can be immortal. “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he came.” – Genesis 3:22-24. We are here told that the tree of life is the only way by which man may be immortal. Did you know that there was no tree of life in the lake of fire? “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” – Revelation 22:14-15. If we pay close attention to these verses, we can see clearly that the tree is positioned inside the city while the wicked are out. If you search the whole of Revelation and the Bible, you will not find one verse telling you there is a tree of life in the lake of fire. With that in mind, how are the wicked to be sustained indefinitely? How are they to be tormented for all time?

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    • Thanks for your comment—you are welcome here! I have at least ten verses in my mind regarding hell/judgment, all which contain the word “eternal.” I’ll comment more thoroughly hopefully tomorrow with references. Your views seem unorthodox, although I certainly appreciate you mentioning them! I feel like your emphasis on the literal tree is a bit heavy. Scripture seems clear to me that it all comes down to Jesus and whether or not one confesses Him as Lord—eternal life for those who do and eternal damnation for those who don’t. There seems to be some understandable confusion as to whether or not merit has anything to do with this and whether or not God orchestrates this to the point where our own wills are just an illusion—but I’ve never heard anyone refer to proximity to a tree when discussing eternity. I saw much of Genesis as symbolic, and even as a believer I trusted the general spirit of it, not the letter.

      I’m glad you brought up the reference in John—interesting point, and I haven’t figured out how to reconcile that with how things appear in Luke 16.

      Do you have any specific scriptural references to support your thoughts on the timeframe of hell, or are you deriving that idea from your interpretation of the power and location of the tree of life?

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      • It can be difficult to post a massive wall of scripture in a tiny little comments section, but there are many other passages which deal with this subject. Take the parable of the wheat and the tares for instance, in the interpretation provided by Jesus he told us: “The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.” – Matthew 13:39-40. We should be able to clearly deduce from these passages that punishment of the wicked actually takes place at the end of this world, and is therefore currently not going on at this point in time. What of 2 Peter 2:9 which reads, “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the Godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.” The wicked are in their graves awaiting judgment, not writhing in agony. As far as Luke 16 goes, I would be willing to take a second much closer look at the passage myself. However, we should take into consideration that it would seem a bit outlandish to interpret this parable in a literal sense, considering the rest of the language that appears in said passages. [Abraham’s bosom, water to cool the guy’s tongue, etc]

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        • Do you interpret Genesis and Revelation literally?

          And as far as the “burning up” at the end of the world, I dont think the parable in Matthew definitively says that this is not an eternal punishment. I’m not sure that hell is a literal fire, either—I think of it as some equivalent form of misery. So I don’t think the Bible is implying that those who are being judged will burn until they become ashes and then it will all be over. There are places where it uses the word “unquenchable” to describe the fire, and of course many places where the word “eternal” is used.

          You are quite good at offering alternatives through your interpretation of some of the more subtle sections of scripture—but how would you address what it blatantly says?—eternal.

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          • Let us take into consideration how these terms are used elsewhere in the scriptures, this may unravel for us their meaning when they appear in Revelation and the gospels.

            Eternal: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” – Jude 7 [Sodom and Gomorrah are not on fire today.]

            Unquenchable: “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.” – Jeremiah 17:27. [See Chronicles 36:19-21, Jerusalem was burned to the ground and is not currently burning today. In fact, it was later rebuilt.]

            Forever: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.” – Jonah 2:6 [“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” – Jonah 1:17. The word “for ever” in these passages is a kind of Hebrew poetic language.]

            With that in mind, consider terms such as “death, destruction, die, and perish.” You will find these terms all over the place when describing the fate of the wicked. There is not one verse in the entire Bible that would even remotely suggest that these passages are not to be interpreted literally. We are nowhere told that these passages have some kind of spiritual sense [you will hear people say, “Its a spiritual death!” But where does the Bible say that?]

            Essentially, I see the results of the punishment as being eternal.

            I admit that I interpret Genesis literally, as I have yet to find any reason to look at it in a symbolic light. Revelation is a different story, as it would be a bit ridiculous to interpret things like dragons, people standing on moons, and multi-headed beasts in a literal sense. However, there are some passages in Revelation which I believe are literal descriptions [such as the descriptions of the Holy City/New Jerusalem.]

            As far as the wheat and the tares are concerned, this passage merely establishes the timing of events. I believe this is a key factor, as this tells us that nobody is currently burning today.

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  3. Have you considered passages such as Malachi 4:1, 3 which read “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.” – Malachi 4:1 “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.” – Malachi 4:3. These passages here describe the fate of the wicked, and how they will be destroyed and NOT tortured. There will be nothing left of them. Dear friend, the purpose of the lake of fire is to purge sin and sinners for the universe that justice might be served. The descriptions which you have gleaned from this 1700’s sermon are straight from Greek Mythology. The mere idea of attempting to scare people into obedience is completely destroyed by the testimony of scripture which reads: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grevious.” – 1 John 5:3. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:18. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” – John 14:15. “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge that if one died for all, than were all dead.” – 2 Corinthians 5:14.

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    • Yikes—Malachi?! I’ll have to do some serious context-gathering before I can fully answer this, but my initial re-reading has me wondering the same thing I wonder about many prophetic passages—Is this really a prophecy of “Judgment Day,” or does it pertain to the time period in which it was spoken? This I will probably not have time for tomorrow, but I definitely have some respect for someone who gives a challenge that makes me study Malachi…stay tuned. Probably till mid-December 🙂

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  4. My friend, I will pray for you. I do not wish to attack any beliefs which you or your friend Paschal hold in any way. I merely wish to reiterate the fact that God is your best friend, and would never torture anyone throughout ceaseless ages. That sermon is a product of the enemy designed as the perfect “atheist machine” if you will. The foundations of such teachings should be critically examined to see whether they pass the test given in Isaiah “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” – Isaiah 8:20.

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    • I agree that Edwards took some creative liberties, but we can’t just ignore what scripture says about hell. Believe me, I want to—but if I am ever going to believe and worship, it will be because I decide that 1) God exists, and 2) His actions are justifiable. It will not be because I dismiss what I find uncomfortable or stretch an interpretation to the point that the seams could burst at any moment. I can assume based on your thoughts about hell that the idea of eternal damnation doesn’t sit well with you—I am glad that we have that in common!

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      • Edwards actually took a lot of creative liberties, to the point where his sermon was nothing short of ludicrous. I find it interesting how his descriptions don’t really match that which are given in the Bible concerning the subject, but rather they sound like something out of a bad horror film. We do in fact have that point in common, and I would love to continue communicating with you concerning the subject. I may post about it on my blog as well in due time.

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