In Part 1 I shared some stories about homecomings—tragic stories in which some did not make it home, and joyous stories in which everybody was reunited or rescued.
Some will say that these stories are only anecdotes, not theology, and you can’t draw such analogies to God’s plan for humanity. "The Bible doesn’t teach that all people will be rescued," they say, "it’s just wishful thinking." We wish for assurance that all those we love will be in heaven. And some find joy in the thought of even terrible sinners being redeemed. We have heard testimonies of murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and abusers who have been pardoned and transformed, and each one is a testament to God’s grace and a source of joy to us and to the angels. We want to hear more of those stories, and we assume that if it is good for one sinner to be saved, it must be better for two to be saved, or ten, or a million, or a billion. We imagine heaven filled with redeemed sinners all praising God.
But of course it’s not true that all people will be saved: “You’re trying to impose your own desires on God’s Word, which makes it clear that some people will be forever separated from God, as the majority of godly and learned Christians over the ages have understood.” “Believing that God will save everybody in the end is tantamount to saying that ‘all paths lead to heaven,’ an accommodation to the liberalism and ‘tolerance’ of our age.” “The ‘Universalist Jesus’ fits in very well with the tolerant, pluralistic spirit of postmodern culture.” “You think you are ‘enlightened,’ so you reject the idea of eternal damnation simply because it doesn’t make sense to you or because it offends your enlightened moral intuitions.” “Telling yourself that a loving God can’t possibly torment or reject anyone for all eternity may help to ease the psychic pain of parents whose children are unbelievers, but certainly the idea that He will redeem everyone cannot be supported from Scripture.”
Obviously, wishing that something were true does not make it so. But the fact that you wish for something that seems too good to be true does not mean that it is untrue either, especially not when it comes to the purposes of God. The argument from “emotion”—that there is a universal longing for the restoration of all things—proves nothing, but I don’t think it should be entirely discounted. Let me explain.
Everyone knows that something is desperately wrong with the world. We all long for something better, and most religions offer hope of a better life after we die. In most belief systems, including the traditional Christian view, the rewards (whatever they are) belong to the “believers” (whoever they are), while the punishments are for unbelievers (infidels, the wicked, the ungodly).
Throughout much of church history, this paradigm has been taught—that unbelievers will suffer eternal condemnation, while believers will experience eternal bliss. This doctrine has been maintained for centuries, despite the fact that many feel a nagging sense of uneasiness when giving the standard reasons for eternal condemnation. Most treatments of the topic acknowledge that the idea of people suffering everlasting hellfire is disturbing and heart-wrenching. Francis Chan, author of Erasing Hell (a defense of the traditional position), describes the anguish he experienced:
The saddest day of my life was the day I watched my grandmother die. . . . According to what I knew of the Bible, she was headed for a life of never-ending suffering. I thought I would go crazy. I have never cried harder, and I don’t ever want to feel like that again. Since that day, I have tried not to think about it. It has been over twenty years (pp. 13-14). [My note: Maybe you can forget about what happened to you, but the same thing happens multiple times every day to other people.]
C. S. Lewis said of hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power” (The Problem of Pain). One Christian friend told me, “Hell has ruined my life.” Sinclair B. Ferguson, a contributor to Hell Under Fire, admits,
. . . [E]very right-minded Christian should surely have a deep sympathy with John R. W. Stott’s comment on everlasting punishment: “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable.” There is, surely, a profound sense in which this ought to be the reaction of all of us. . . . That such creatures [humans made for fellowship with God] should be banished forever into the outer darkness, with no escape exit, should fill us with a sense of horror (p. 220).
Gerry Beauchemin likens the doctrine of endless punishment to the “‘crazy uncle’ that the Church, with justifiable embarrassment, has kept locked in the back bedroom” (from Grady Brown’s foreword to Hope Beyond Hell.) Even the title of a recent book about hell acknowledges the repugnance we feel to the idea of never-ending suffering: Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It).
Does all this resistance stem from bleeding-heart liberalism or rebellion against God and unwillingness to accept what He has revealed? Perhaps it’s a desire to create and peddle one’s own religion, or a sinister attempt to undermine the truth of God’s Word and scam His church. Maybe people just want their ears to be tickled with pleasant ideas, so opportunists promote myths that ignorant people latch onto: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
OR could it be that our feelings are telling us that something truly is terribly wrong with the idea that a loving God could torment people for all eternity or cast them out of His presence forever? When I was a younger Christian I struggled with this idea, but I believed that as I matured and developed a deeper sense of God’s holiness and the abominableness of our sin and became more in tune with His heart and His justice, I would be better able to accept the idea of eternal punishment for our offenses against God. It didn’t happen. As I grew in my understanding of God’s character and my compassion for people, the distress only increased, and I saw that God would no more torment His creatures forever than a good human father would cause his children permanent harm.
God gave us a mind, a conscience, and a heart, and He expects us to use them. There are many mysteries that we will never be able to fully comprehend with our minds, but we can use our minds to take all that God has revealed and try to put it together into a clear picture of God's character, work, and purposes. In fact, that is precisely what we all do when we formulate the theology by which we live. We are not to follow our sinful human logic but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can understand God's good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
God planted in us a conscience that enables us to discern right from wrong. Unless their conscience is completely seared, even those who do not know God have a basic understanding of good and evil (Romans 2). And those who do know Christ and have the Holy Spirit develop a sanctified conscience that is even more sensitive to God's standards of right and wrong. They know, for example, that it is right to forgive others and it is wrong to harm others. If something seems terribly wrong to someone with a healthy conscience, it probably is.
And as we get to know God better, our heart will be more and more in tune with His heart for people. Any love, compassion, and kindness that we show toward others is only a pale reflection of His enduring mercy and lovingkindness. We are loved by Him, so we can love others: "As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Colossians 3:12-14).
I'm not suggesting that simply because we feel bad about people going to hell, therefore it shouldn’t or doesn’t happen. But I do think we should consider whether these feelings have any meaning; we ought to at least ask whether it’s possible that our resistance springs not from rebellion but from a sanctified understanding of God’s true heart. There’s nothing wrong with trying to imagine what heaven will be like. We know that it will be spectacular beyond our wildest dreams; as it is written, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Why not go ahead and picture the most glorious vision of heaven we can possibly imagine; our vision will still fall short of what God will actually do. Would He be displeased if we, by faith, picture Him drawing countless multitudes to Himself? What if we picture the most hardened sinners drawn by His love? What if we were to believe that none will be left behind? Is it possible that our imagination could go beyond what He will actually do? No! His Word says He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. He is more than able to bring all His children to a grand and glorious homecoming!
In this pair of blogs I have explored some of the emotional issues related to the idea of eternal condemnation. I want to reiterate that our feelings are not accurate indicators of truth, but at the same time, they are not to be neglected. God cares about our feelings, and He doesn’t expect us to repress or deny them. I believe that His plan will fulfill our deepest longings and be completely satisfying to our hearts. In other blogs I have discussed the biblical reasons for believing in ultimate restoration; the fact that this doctrine is thoroughly satisfying emotionally simply reinforces the beauty and consistency of it.