Thursday, August 9, 2012

Happy about Hell?

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about whether Christians should be pleased with people going to hell:

Q:  Why do some Christians seem so happy to declare that other people are going to hell?  Doesn’t Jesus forbid this kind of judging, and if hell is a real place, wouldn’t it be cruel to be pleased that another person going there?

The Biblical teaching about eternal punishment is one that has caused a large amount of distress in recent church history.  Because the reality of the subject is so horrible, people often find it difficult to deal with, and unfortunately, they often do so in inappropriate ways.

One inappropriate response to the Bible’s statements about eternal punishment is to deny its existence.  In spite of severe warnings by New Testament authors about eternal punishment, including very clear statements by Jesus Himself, about the subject, it has been common, especially during the past century, to deny that eternal punishment is real.

Some adherents to this position would cite verses like John 3:16 that “God so loved the world…” and others to deny that God would ever punish anyone, and thus dismiss the possibility of eternal punishment.  In order to achieve this, it becomes necessary to consider the Bible verses about eternal punishment to be inauthentic or to explain them away as meaning something else. 

One variation of this position is to acknowledge the existence of eternal punishment, but insist that only the very worst tyrants of human history, such as Hitler, Osama bin Laden, or various serial killers will actually be sentenced to it.  The trouble with any denial of eternal punishment, either in whole or in part, is that for a Christian to hold such a position, they have no choice but to admit that their position is contradictory to the position expressed by the Bible’s authors.  In addition, it also implies that salvation is a matter of human behavior rather than a result of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The opposite inappropriate response, as mentioned in the question, is to defend the reality of eternal punishment to strongly, that it overshadows the Gospel itself and gives the appearance to the casual observer that the preacher is pleased that certain individuals will suffer eternal punishment. 

On very rare occasions Christian groups have arisen that do seem to genuinely take pleasure in the condemnation of others.  Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas, has received significant publicity in recent years for taking just such a stance, as evidenced in their protests at American soldiers’ funerals condemning our nation for allowing various sins that they consider particularly objectionable in comparison to others.

An appropriate response to the Bible’s claims regarding eternal punishment by Christians is concern and sorrow.  For a person who claims that the Bible is a factual account of Christian Truth, it is impossible to deny the reality of eternal punishment, regardless of how uncomfortable that acknowledgement is, but the Bible’s claims about it should never result in joy or pleasure on the part of the Christian. 

Instead, it ought to drive Christians to greater humility concerning their own position before God as forgiven sinners and greater urgency at making others aware of Jesus and His free gift of forgiveness as the only remedy for the consequences all people rightly deserve.  Because the Christian acknowledges that salvation is solely the result of Jesus living and dying as our substitute, and not at all from anything in himself, it would be completely inappropriate to take personal pride in one’s salvation while rejoicing in another’s punishment. 

In my work as a pastor, I sincerely avoid any attempt to judge a person’s unseen thoughts or beliefs, especially regarding their eternal reward or punishment when this life ends.  However, a person’s words and actions are an indication of what they believe, so Christians can speak concerning what we see and hear—although never out of pride or by our own standards.

My typical response in such a circumstance is to say, “Based on what he has said…” or “If he truly believes the things he has written…” what a person would expect to face in eternity as already declared by God in Scripture, while at the same time allowing for the fact that those words or actions may be inconsistent with the beliefs of a person’s heart, or that the Holy Spirit may intervene during the final minutes in a way I am not capable of observing. 

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