Woe is me…
This is the last in a series I have written in response to various reviews of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. In this blog I will address the holiness of God, and whether there is post-mortem hope for those who do not know Jesus. Kevin De Young’s review says, “Bell’s vision of heaven and hell doesn’t work because his vision of God is false. I cannot imagine the angels singing ‘holy, holy, holy’ or Isaiah crying out ‘woe is me’ at the feet of Bell’s god. I see no place for divine wrath or divine justice in Bell’s theology.” Many people, in defending the doctrine of eternal torment, talk about the holiness of God, implying or claiming outright that the only way one can be confident in the holiness of God is if God punishes those who do not “get saved” before they die in the eternal flames of Hell. They simply cannot imagine that God might have some other plan in mind than the one they have been taught. Let’s look at an important passage of scripture about God’s holiness, Isaiah 6:1-8, and other scriptures that clearly refute the idea that death is the cut-off for salvation, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6.
First, Isaiah, like all other men besides Jesus Christ, is a sinner. He is tormented by his own sin in God’s Holy presence. God responds with fire, a symbol of God’s holiness in action. Many orthodox believers associate the fact that “God is a consuming fire” and different passages that deal with God’s-holy-fire-ness as something that results in utter devastation, but our God is one who can bring life out of the ashes; He can animate dry bones. “Everyone will be salted with fire” and fire will “prove every man’s work.” God compares Himself to a refiner, and we are the ones purified by the fire. Isaiah’s lips were touched with the burning coal, and not only was he pronounced clean, he was given the authority to be a spokesman for God! The holiness of God produces a response toward sin – to remove it, destroy it, burn it up. And He will not give up until the “whole earth is filled with His glory.” Isaiah’s sins were forgiven in what R.C. Sproul refers to as “hard mercy.” But it is mercy, nonetheless. God’s holy response to sin is mercy that is as hard as it needs to be, it is measured. We know this because “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Look at how Jesus, the Holy One of God responded to sin – always with compassion, ready to forgive. The only people He dealt with harshly were the religious leaders. <— (religious leaders… you might want to take this into consideration)
Second, we need to put to rest this idea that death is the cut-off for salvation. I am only focusing on two scriptures, because these deal explicitly with post-mortem evangelism. There are many, many other scriptures which just do not make sense unless one discards the erroneous traditional teaching that once a person dies, that’s it. The first scripture says, “Christ once for sin did suffer – righteous for unrighteous – that he might lead us to God, having been put to death indeed, in the flesh, and having been made alive in the spirit, in which also to the spirits in prison having gone he did preach, who sometime disbelieved, when once the long-suffering of God did wait, in days of Noah – an ark being preparing – in which few, that is, eight souls, were saved…” And a little later in the same letter, this idea is reaffirmed: “…also to dead men was good news proclaimed, that they may be judged, indeed, according to men in the flesh, and may live according to God in the spirit.”
Apparent Contradictions (like God’s breadcrumbs)
Now the orthodox enthusiast will immediately protest the clear meaning of this scripture using Mark Driscoll’s approach, which I covered in yesterday’s blog. I have two problems with this. First, just because there is another text which supposedly contradicts the first text, this does not solve the problem. Any student of the written Word knows both of the texts must be reconciled. We can’t just pick which one we like best, which one seems right according to our current understanding, which one agrees with the tradition of our church friends. God is in the habit of using apparent contradictions to draw our attention to important truths – remember Galileo’s wandering planet? How convenient it is for one who is more concerned about winning the argument than having an accurate understanding to just say, “Yes, well, you see, man dies and then judgment, thank you very much and have a nice day.” We must think it through. If the judgment that follows death is as the orthodox tradition says it is, then why do we see Jesus preaching to the disobedient people who were wiped out in the flood? If they die and immediately experience judgment (which the orthodox mind sees as something as simple as “smoking” or “non-smoking”), then what is the preaching business about? Is Jesus there to remind them that they are in Hell and that it is too late for them, since they are already dead? If so, I doubt His sermon will go over well.
The Purpose and Result of Judgment
Perhaps the way we can makes sense of this is to reconsider judgment itself – its purpose and its end result. What is judgment? According to Psalm 98:4-9, it is something we ought to look forward to saying, “Shout to Jehovah, all the earth, Break forth, and cry aloud, and sing. Sing to Jehovah with harp, with harp, and voice of praise, with trumpets, and voice of a cornet, shout ye before the king Jehovah. Roar doth the sea and its fulness, the world and the inhabitants in it. Floods clap hand, together hills cry aloud, before Jehovah, for He hath come to judge the earth, He judgeth the world in righteousness, and the people in uprightness!” If judgment means the majority of mankind will burn in Hell forever, then it is hard to imagine how even the most devout Christians can actually be happy about it. I have a very hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that the blood of Christ wasn’t sufficient or effective enough to save these people who were slaves to the sin of unbelief during their lifetime. Ultimately, the only reason someone ought to dread this judgment, this chastisement for the purpose of correction, this holy-fire baptism, is that a guilty conscience makes an enemy out of God, it feels only wrath. However, when all is said and done, even these people will praise Him.