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
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