Asking around campus for personal opinions about the reality of hell we were shocked at the variety of opinions, few of which were derived from the Bible. “Well, God loves everyone, so how could He send someone He loves to a lake of fire,” or “It seems so unloving for God to make someone suffer forever.”
Believers seem to be humanizing God, minimizing the awfulness of sin and romanticizing God’s love. Have we recreated God? Is this approaching idolatry by making God in our own image?
Holiness of God
We love to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but do we know what that means? It is not just that He is sinless or unique, but that sin has no place in His presence.
God invested an unbelievable preparation for the creation of man including a “book” in which the formation of every man is prescribed as “being formed in utter seclusion, as I [he] was woven together in the dark of the womb” (Psa 139:15 NLT) and then “Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written,” (Psa 139:16 NKJ).
From eternity past to the climactic moment of the creation of man the greatness of His majestic plan suddenly crashed. Between Genesis 2 and 3 a tragedy occurred. All was “good” until this moment. With the freedom to choose, a third of the angelic host rebelled under Satan or Lucifer (the “shining one,” Isa 14:12-14; Rev 12:4, 9) to begin a plan to destroy God’s creation. Now Satan describes himself as “patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.” (Job 1:7 NLT) and Peter describes him as one who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1Pe 5:8 NKJ). Adam and Eve were his first victims.
Adam had lived in a perfect environment with every need provided, an ideal mate, and enjoyed amazing times with the God of creation “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3:8), but this time it was different. They had succumbed to the deceit of Satan (Gen 3:1-7) and chose to trust his lies rather than obey God’s single command to not eat of a certain tree. Satan blatantly denied that they would die if they ate of the fruit, then he humanized God into a selfish being not worth taking too seriously or trusting. He would not do what He said He would do.
Jesus later said, “If you love me keep my commands” (John 14:15). They chose to disobey their only command because it became “pleasant to the eyes” and “desirable to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). They had no idea how serious one act of disobedience was to God.
They did not know that, because of the rebellion of Satan, a place called hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41) and for those who believed his lies.
As a result of Adam’s one sin, he was driven from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24) and from God’s presence to work the soil. He also began to die physically to return to the dirt from which he was made (Gen 3:23). Worse than their inevitable physical death was the fact that their “iniquities have separated [them] from [their] God; And [their] sins have hidden His face from [them], So that He will not hear” (Isa 59:2 NKJ). They were no longer welcomed in His sight, but now were rejected as sinners, a state later described as spiritual death (Rom 5:14; 6:23; 7:24; 8:2).
Probably as a visible lesson, one of the first theophanies occurred when God took on physical form, killed an animal, likely a sheep, skinned the carcass and “made garments of skin” (Gen 3:21) to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. Sin is so offensive to God it requires the life and blood of a substitute sacrifice to cover its shame. The awfulness of taking the life of an innocent victim pictures the horridness of sin to a holy God.
They learned the hard way that whatever God says, He will do. They died spiritually the moment they disobeyed. They learned that God cannot allow a single sin in His presence. Sin must be dealt with at the horrible price of the blood of a substitute victim.
The awfulness of sin
We live in sin so commonly that we can easily think that God shrugs His shoulders and blinks His eyes at sin as a mistake or momentary lapse, as we tend to do. God, however, is not human. His nature is so opposite to our sinfulness that everything in Him finds any sin to be repugnant and deserving of His immediate wrath.
His hatred for sin cannot be minimized or humanized. He is not like us. When Jesus, “the one who did not know sin” even contemplated having to be “made… sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21) so He could justly suffer the wrath of the Father against all our sins, “His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44 NET). We cannot even imagine how awful the evening before His crucifixion was to Him.
Any sin, all sin, is so wicked to a holy God that only the life and blood of the God-man, Jesus, could annul the wrath of the Father against it. Hell is no comparison to the filthy wickedness amassed on the cross and God’s wrath being poured out on the innocent, perfect Son of God for our sins. No suffering even for eternity in the torment of the Lake of fire could compare to the torment of Christ on the cross.
Mercy has never been so magnanimously displayed. Only as we begin to comprehend God’s disdain for any sin, and more specifically the wretchedness of our own sins, can we begin to understand His love for sinners? There is nothing in us that is appealing to our holy God. His love for sinners is not an emotional or romantic love like we tend to think it is.
God’s love for sinners
If our sinfulness makes us totally unacceptable in His sight, how could He love us? We have so humanized our God that we think He ignores our sins as we do and somehow we are naturally friends with God because we worship Him.
When the Scripture says, “God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Rom 5:8 NET) it does not mean an emotional love or a “warm and fuzzy feeling” for us. It means that He overcame every negative emotion that He has for sinners, and personally paid the wretched price of suffering God’s wrath against all sin so He could forgive us of all our sins and give us His righteousness. Only in this manner enables us to become acceptable in His holy sight. Without His guilt-payment on the cross and the gift of His righteousness, we would be condemned forever.
This is a love beyond what humans can imagine because He loves what He cannot stand. He loves what He does not like (emotionally), and this is what He calls us to do. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they?” (Mat 5:46 NET) He challenges His followers to give their lives to those who do not like them, and perhaps they do not like either. Our feelings cannot dictate our actions if we are going to love sinners as God does.
The price God paid for sinners to become acceptable to a holy God is so beyond human imagination and yet so free to any sinner willing to trust His payment alone for their sins, that to reject His grace or ignore His offer is tantamount to the worse sin of humanity. No amount of suffering can ever compare to this renunciation of what God did on Calvary.
The tragedy of the ages is the masses on earth that have never heard of this incredibly gracious God, leaving them all guilty of all their sins (John 3:18, 36). Their ignorance is largely because His followers have chosen not to be similar to their Savior who said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21 NKJ). He overcame all His holy feelings against sin to give His life as a ransom for sinners. Now He asks us to do the same by carrying the message of His grace to the entire world.
The cry of those who realize too late the reality of sin and hell is a plea to send as many messengers as possible to the ends of the earth “so that they don’t come into this place of torment.” (Luke 16:28 NET)
If the avoidance of hell was a motive for the cross, it certainly should be a motive for the mobilization of the churches of Christ to make sure everyone hears the incredible story of God’s grace, love and mercy for undeserving sinners, even those in the last tribe, tongue or distinct people group on earth.