Rethinking Hell: A Clearer View of God’s Judgement

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of modern Christianity is the idea of hell. The common notion is that those who aren’t following God (including those who reject Him and those who never knew Him) miss-out on their chance at salvation and are tormented forever in a burning place. Few want to talk about it, many have rejected it, but most don’t agree on an alternative. It’s something Christianity has to address, though. What happens after death for the people who are not followers of Jesus?

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I’ll be honest with you, this is something I thought I “knew” the answer to because of the teachings I heard growing up. The more I studied it, though, the less positive I feel that I know exactly what’s going to happen. For believers, the questions “What happens when we die?” has some pretty clear answers in scripture. We’re not sure exactly what life in God’s family will be like, but we know that we’ll be resurrected and “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” For other people, things are a bit more ambiguous.

My purpose today isn’t to give a definitive answer, but rather to look at some different readings of scriptures talking about eternal judgement. There are some things we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty, but there are others that I just don’t know the answers to (and I’d rather acknowledge that than take a stance I’m not reasonably confident lines up with God’s revealed word).

What is “hell”?

The word “hell” is used in the Bible, but not with the same connotation we have for it in English. Western ideas of hell come from Medieval imagery (think Dante’s Inferno). Most uses in the New Testament, though, are translated from the Greek word ghenna (G1067). When people of Jesus’ time heard this word they didn’t think of a burning place with a pitchfork-toting devil where eternal souls writhed in torment. They thought of Ghenna — a rubbish heap outside Jerusalem “where the filth and dead animals … were cast out and burned,” which Thayers’ dictionary notes is “a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.” Read more

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The Foundation: Eternal Judgement

We’re wrapping up our series on the foundational principles of Hebrews 6 today. “Eternal judgement” is the final point the writer of Hebrews lists as a “principle of the doctrine of Christ.”

Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (Heb. 6:1-3)

The Foundation: Eternal Judgement| marissabaker.wordpress.com

There’s a good reason why Christians have to live lives of obedience and service to God. We will give account of ourselves at the end, and receive a judgement whether we were good or evil.

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Eternity Has Begun

“Eternity has begun for us.”

That phrase was used in a message on the First Day of the Feast of Tabernacles this year, and it kept cropping up in conversations and sermons throughout the rest of the week where I was keeping the Feast.

In my churches, we teach that people who are not called today will get a chance at salvation after the second resurrection. The books will be opened, giving them understanding of the Bible, and then after an unspecified period of time they’ll be “judged according to their works” (Rev. 20:11-13). For those in God’s household today, though, judgement has already begun. This is our chance at eternal life.

Eternity Has Begun | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Great Responsibility

Those of us who’ve responded to God’s call and entered a covenant with Him have been given great gifts of understanding. After we receive an invitation to become firstfruits, God teaches us “things which angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12). The kingdom of God is a mystery that isn’t shared with just anyone yet, and for a very good reason.

And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:47-48)

The more someone knows, the more they’re accountable for. Today, God is working with a select few — people He knows can make it if they will truly follow Him and love with all their hearts, minds, and souls. Even so, we’re warned quite clearly that there will be people in the churches who think they’re serving God but still don’t “get it.”

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matt. 7:21-23)

We can’t follow God however we want, even if it looks good from the outside, and expect to make it into His kingdom. We have to follow God the way He commands, and cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Run To Obtain

As God gets to know us on our walk with Him, He’s purifying and molding us into a “new creation” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). At the same time, we’re being judged to see how we measure up. Are we growing? Do we desire a relationship with Him? Will we submit to His headship in our lives?

In Matthew 25, Jesus says that when He “comes in His glory” He will gather people before Him and divide them into two groups. By this time, the judgement is already made — He knows who is a sheep and who is a goat (Matt. 25:31-46). When we stand before Christ, it will be too late to try and convince Him you really were a sheep who just acted like a goat sometimes. We have to commit ourselves to His way of life now.

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

God isn’t going to make you or me a firstfruit just because we showed up for church. There isn’t a participation prize. Not everyone who runs a race wins, and not everyone who claims to follow Jesus will be in His kingdom. We have to discipline ourselves to run in a way that qualifies us to receive the ultimate prize.

God wants people in His family who are teachable and humble — who respond to His work in their lives and take an active role. Only God can transform us, but we can chose whether or not to let Him. We can choose to strive for “an imperishable crown.”

Judgement Today

 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. (1 Cor. 11:31-32)

The uses of “judge” in 1 Corinthians 11:31 come from two different Greek words. “If we would judge” — diakrino, to discern (G1252) — “ourselves, we would not be judged” — krino, tried in a solemn judicial manner (G2919). If we would exercise discernment and take a good look at ourselves, we would behave in such a way that there was no need for a divine judicial ruling to correct and motivate us.

There’s still cause for hope even when we don’t exercise perfect discernment in judging ourselves. God’s first response when judging someone is to give them a chance to change, not destroy them. He judges and chastens us as a Father does His children (Heb. 12:5-11). It’s for our correction and growth.

For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now, “If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Pet. 4:17-18)

“The time has come,” Peter said, and that was almost 2,000 years ago. The house of God is still going through “a solemn judgement, a judicial trial” (Zodhiates, G2917, krima). God is looking at us right now, refining us and correcting us to make certain of our character. He wants us to fill important roles in His family, and He won’t give us those roles if we aren’t a good fit — it wouldn’t be fair to the people God’s family is serving and teaching in the Millennium.

Becoming like Christ is the key to our transformation from someone who would be judged as a goat to someone who will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We have to follow His example completely, develop a close relationship with Him, and learn to obey God’s commands. Hebrews tells us that even Jesus, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). If God in the flesh had to learn and suffer, it follows that we will as well. Indeed, the context of 1 Peter 4:17-18 is suffering “according to the will of God” without being ashamed (1 Pet. 4:16, 19).

In a proper Christian context, trials are seen as a good thing because they are a tool God uses to bring us closer to Him. Suffering, chastisement, and judgement are part of the refining, discipline process of turning us into firstfruits. It’s meant as a stepping stone — not a stumbling block — on the way to eternity.

Habakkuk’s Question

As I study the minor prophets, I’m struck by how relevant their messages are today. Habakkuk wrestled with much the same questions that trouble believers in our own culture.

O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, “Violence!” and You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds. (Hab. 1:2-4)

Why would God let a country founded on His law get so bad? How can He stomach the violence and corruption and rampant sin? Why isn’t He listening to us?

Struggling With God

The entire short book of Habakkuk is a back-and-forth between God and His prophet. After Habakkuk opened with his familiar questions, God responded. It wasn’t what Habakkuk was hoping for, though.

Look among the nations and watch — be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you. For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans, a bitter and hasty nation which marches through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs. (Hab. 1:5-6)

Habakkuk's Question | marissabaker.wordpress.comHabakkuk was understandably confused. He wanted action from God, but not this. The Chaldeans were a cruel people and God confirmed that their invasion would be “terrible and dreadful” as they “all come for violence” (Hab. 1:7, 9). Did the punishment really have to be so bad?

Are You not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, You have appointed them for judgment; O Rock, You have marked them for correction. You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he? (Hab. 1:12-13)

I find it encouraging to read this and other stories where men of God struggled to understand His will. God is not obligated to explain Himself to man, and yet sometimes He does. He isn’t threatened or irritated by sincere, searching questions.

God’s Answer

What follows in chapter 2 answers Habakkuk’s question about why God would use a heathen nation to punish His own people. It is also a general statement about how God responds to wickedness.

Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. (Hab. 2:2-3)

God basically starts out by telling Habakkuk to follow His instructions and be patient. Even when we don’t understand, God expects obedience. He doesn’t just leave Habakkuk with the answer, “Because I said so,” though.

Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith. (Hab. 2:4)

The Lord gives Habakkuk a guide we’re still using today, and which Paul quotes twice (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). “The just shall live by faith,” but that is not how Israel was living. Earlier, Habakkuk asked why God would punish Israel’s sin using a nation that was even more sinful than they. God points out here that no matter what Habakkuk thought about the Chaldeans, Israel’s sin still deserved judgement.

Chapter 2 proclaims “Woe” to people who are drunken, proud and never satisfied (2:5), to the violent (2:8, 17), to the covetous and those who plan to escape God’s wrath by their own strength (2:9-12), to those who scheme and take advantage of others (2:15-16), and to the idolaters (2:18-19). These problems were not limited to Israel or to a specific time, but God could not let His chosen people continue in such sin.

All For Us

Chapter 3 records a prayer that my study Bible notes was intended for singing as a Psalm and isn’t part of the exchange between Habakkuk and God. Given the subject matter, though, I suspect Habakkuk did write it after mulling over his talk with God and the answers he was given.

O Lord, I have heard Your speech and was afraid; O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. (Hab. 3:2)

Though he accepted God’s answer and knew his nation deserved punishment, there was nothing wrong with Habakkuk asking for mercy. We can do that today as well. His mercy is abundant (1 Pet. 1:3), and He has a long history of pardoning iniquity and holding back His wrath if we come to repentance, and of protecting His people in the midst of trouble.

If you have some extra time, click here to read all of Chapter 3. It’s an interesting picture Habakkuk paints of God — one full of power to execute vengeance, as well as one of a God full of glory and worthy of praise, who always acts for the good of His people even if it’s not how they expected.

You marched through the land in indignation; You trampled the nations in anger. You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for salvation with Your Anointed. You struck the head from the house of the wicked, by laying bare from foundation to neck. (Hab. 3:12-13)

Habakkuk's Question | marissabaker.wordpress.comNo matter how bad it gets, Habakkuk says, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:18). We can do the same thing, secure in the knowledge that God is committed to saving us who stay committed to following Him.

The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills. (Hab. 3:19)

 

God’s Anger in Nahum

God's Anger in Nahum | marissabaker.wordpress.comYou usually only hear about Jonah, but there’s a second book in the Bible that’s concerned with the destruction of Nineveh. Since Nineveh repented after Jonah’s warning, its destruction was held off about 150 years — until 612 B.C. According to my study Bible, Nahum probably wrote his prophecy around 620 B.C., and this time Nineveh’s destruction really was just around the corner. The city’s repentance hadn’t translated into continued faithfulness through the generations, and the people’s return to wickedness meant it was time to fulfill the prophecy of destruction made originally though Jonah.

The burden against Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. God is jealous, and the Lord avenges; the Lord avenges and is furious. The Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies; the Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked. (Nah. 1:1-3)

Studying a book wholly concerned with a fulfilled prophecy might seem like time that could better be spent elsewhere, but while reading through Nahum I realized it actually has quite a bit to teach us about who God is and how He works.

When God Gets Angry

In the first verses of Nahum, God is called “slow to anger” in the midst of a passage describing His wrath and vengeance. It might seem odd, but actually God’s fury at this time is an example of His being “slow to anger.”

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him (Ps. 103:8-11)

David’s Psalm is talking about God’s dealings with His own special people, but this is also what happened with Nineveh. Though the city was populated with unbelievers who oppressed God’s people, He held back His judgement when the city repented. He was “slow to anger” for 150 years, but this time there was no repentance and justice demanded a reckoning for sin.

Behold, I am against you,” says the Lord of hosts, “I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions; I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall be heard no more.” Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery. Its victim never departs. (Nah. 2:13-3:1)

In Jonah, we weren’t given a list of Nineveh’s transgressions, but we have one here in chapter three: Lies, robbery (v. 1), warfare and slaughter (v.2-3), harlotry, witchcraft, the selling of nations and families (v. 4), and general “shame” (v. 5).

Your injury has no healing, your wound is severe. All who hear news of you will clap their hands over you, for upon whom has not your wickedness passed continually? (Nah. 3:19)

It’s one thing to commit sins that hurt you, but wickedness that spreads out and injures or enslaves other people is something God will not tolerate. He is slow to anger, but this sort of thing does make Him angry and will be removed. When the wound is incurable, it must be cut out to prevent further infection.

Hope For The Repentant

Even in the midst of prophecies about destruction and the outpouring of God’s wrath there is still, as always, hope.

Who can stand before His indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by Him. The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knows those who trust in Him. (Nah. 1:6-7)

God's Anger in Nahum | marissabaker.wordpress.comEven in troubles that come as part of God’s just vengeance, He is still a stronghold for those who trust in Him. In fact, getting close to God is the only safe place to be as the world draws nearer and nearer to judgement for its evils.

See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:25-29)

Though the events described in Nahum took place long before Christ was even born, there are parallels for Christians today. Just as Nineveh was destroyed, the world we now live in will be shaken and removed at Christ’s second coming. Whether that happens in our lifetimes or not, our responsibility now is to listen to God and actively draw near to Him as we strive to serve Him “acceptably.”

O Judah, keep your appointed feasts, perform your vows. For the wicked one shall no more pass through you; he is utterly cut off. (Nah. 1:15)

The Cure For Evil

In Micah, the prophet speaks out against immorality and injustice. The book also contains some beautiful Millennial passages, since ultimately the solution to the evils Micah talks about is the rule of Jesus Christ. Even so, he doesn’t tell us to just sit around begging Jesus to come back and fix everything. We’re still responsible for our actions, and God still expects the immoral and unjust to repent or face the consequences.

The Problem

Woe to those who devise iniquity, and work out evil on their beds! At morning light they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. (Mic. 2:1)

A friend recommended the TV series Hell on Wheels, and in the pilot episode there was a conversation where one character says, “there were certain lines that I crossed, lines of morality I didn’t think myself capable of crossing. But that’s what men do in war.” The main character replied, “Moral men don’t.”

This scripture in Micah 2 is talking about that first kind of man — the kind who crosses lines of morality when they think there won’t be consequences. The kind who plots how they can get away with evil things, and then does whatever they want as long as they have the power to do it. God hates that sort of thing.

The Cure For Evil | marissabaker.wordpress.comAs Micah goes on, God promises that those who covet, steal, oppress, and lie will be destroyed because they have hurt God’s people while they defiled and polluted their lives (Mic. 2:1-11). This refers to anyone walking contrary to God; the next chapter moves on to a more specific group of evil doers.

And I said: “Hear now, O heads of Jacob, and you rulers of the house of Israel: Is it not for you to know justice? You who hate good and love evil; who strip the skin from My people, and the flesh from their bones; who also eat the flesh of My people, flay their skin from them, break their bones, and chop them in pieces like meat for the pot, like flesh in the caldron.” Then they will cry to the Lord, but He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, because they have been evil in their deeds. (Mic. 3:1-4)

This isn’t just talking about civil leaders either. The religious leaders were also corrupt.

Now hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build up Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with iniquity: her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the Lord, and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us.” (Mic. 3:9-10)

These were the leaders who were supposed to guide the people to God, and instead they plotted to increase their wealth at the expense of others. They thought that merely by virtue of being in leadership among God’s people that God would protect them, but He doesn’t protect those who exploit the authority He has given.

Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest. (Mic. 3:12)

The Challenge

Though the leaders are harshly judged — “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48) — the people don’t get off without correction. If we forsake the Lord, we’re responsible for that even if we were “just following” whoever’s in charge.

Hear now what the Lord says: “Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. hear, O you mountains, the Lord’s complaint, and you strong foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a complaint against His people, and He will contend with Israel. “O My people, what have I done to you? And how have I wearied you? Testify against Me.” (Mic. 6:1-3)

The Cure For Evil | marissabaker.wordpress.comThe Lord asks Israel if they have anything to reproach Him with, any reason they can give for forsaking Him. They really can’t accuse Him of anything, but they do reply in verses 6-7.

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Mic. 6:6-7)

The fact that they even suggested a human sacrifice shows just how far away the people had strayed from true worship. It’s like the people are saying they’ve given up on following God because it is too hard and He never seems satisfied. God shuts that idea right down.

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8)

So the answer to Israel’s questions is, “No, God will not be pleased with thousands of rams or rivers of oil.” He wants you. In some ways, that’s harder than just going through rituals, But its also reassuring. You might feel you don’t have anything to offer God, but you have the one thing He really wants — you.

The Solution

Today, God works on a small-scale to win individual hearts to Him, but the permanent solution to the problem of evil men is still in the future.

Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.”

For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Mic. 4:1-3)

The Cure For Evil | marissabaker.wordpress.comThis is still in the future, but the first steps toward God’s kingdom on earth have already been taken. Micah 5:2 prophecies the coming of “One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” this verse is quoted in Matthew 2:5-6 in reference to the birth of Christ. Because Jesus lived and died as prophesied, ultimate victory is assured.

Therefore I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; when I fall, I will arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He pleads my case and executes justice for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I will see His righteousness. (Mic. &:7-9)

Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Mic. 7:18-19)

God is where we must look for the solution to sin — both our sins, and those of the people around us. We can’t fight against injustice or immorality on our own, but we can stand firm knowing that the commands of God are true, and that the victory He has promised will come.