Hell And A God Of Love (5)
One issue is whether or not Scripture teaches that the wicked are finally annihilated, resurrected to everlasting pain; or is immortality the benefit only of the righteous through Christ? Or, as Moltmann said, is it that the second death is ‘eternal damnation after the Last Judgment – the final separation of God from the men and women who are damned’? Grudem asks if hell is a ‘place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked?’ Is the last judgement to be understood as God’s final and irrevocable rejection of some and his eternal reward of others, or is it an interim stage which prepares people for heaven?
For Edwards, the ‘traditional idea of hell has been banished to the far-off corners of the Christian mind’ Like Wenham, unending torment may speak to you of sadism, not justice. Fudge believes that ‘the ultimate punishment of hell is total everlasting extinction’, while Bonda declares that ‘God does not have in mind the destruction of evildoers, but their redemption and healing; they will repent and turn back to God – Israel first, then all nations’.
MacQuarrie says that the view he has tried to formulate himself is similar to the belief that ‘we survive in the memory of God’, and that God is gradually healing and transforming the past, so that ‘the past can find its place in the final event of the future’.
What actually is hell? The issue often centres around the Greek word aionios and its meaning – is it an unending duration of time or some unknown quality of the age to come? Or both? (Or neither?) Is the body temporal while the soul is immortal in either heaven or hell?
What kind of hell is hell, anyway? Does Jesus ever encourage us to try and find an exhaustive answer to this question? Or are we trying to theologise something that is not for us to put in black and white theological terminology?
The notion that a God of love must ultimately save all people is surely flawed. Does love always get what it wants? As Paul wrote, love does not insist on its own way. If love does not insist on its own way, then another way is possible; not another way that is outside love, but a way that is outside the community of love. God is love, but human beings are not love. They are, however, capable of love relationships. But nothing is guaranteed in love relationships. There is always the element of choice. A choice that always ends in only one way is no choice at all.
Is death really the end of hope, or may we yet be saved when we are beyond the grave? How far does God’s mercy extend? If there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved other than the name of Jesus, what if we do not hear of him or receive any meaningful communication which may reveal him to us during our lifetime? If hearing the message of the gospel is the only way to be saved, what of those who cannot hear or do not hear?
Is death, therefore, really the end of any chance of being saved? Or will God somehow give us another chance? There are the issues (as explored by John Sanders) of Universal Evangelization before the individual’s death, Eschatological Evangelization after the individual’s death, and Inclusivism which consider a universally accessible salvation apart from evangelization; these are all attempts to reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. What, then, shall we conclude from all this?
We all have choices to make in life, and none more so than that who or what we will worship. These choices have consequences, and love’s justice must allow these consequences to be reaped, or free will is nothing but a game in which all travellers arrive at the same place whether they wanted to or not. But God does not play games, and neither are the consequences of our choices hidden from our eyes.