A Theodicy of Evil – Lenten Seasons 2023
“The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:21-24 NIV).
Revelations – Day 18 “The Relational Nature of Hell”
One of my favorite types of movies is about time travel. I just love the whole concept of temporal paradoxes, corrupted timelines, and the butterfly effect (one change in the past can have a devastating effect in the future).
In fact, one of my all-time favorite movies is called Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise. He is in a battle against alien bugs and at one point is sprayed with a blue gel from the body of one of the bugs he has just killed. It takes him a while to figure it out but that blue gel gives him the ability to repeat a particular time segment so that each time he is killed, he wakes up in the past and can try again. He teams up with another woman who had the same thing happen to her (and then it stopped) and together they keep fighting until they find a way to defeat the aliens and win the day.
That’s why I don’t believe that God will ever allow us to figure out time travel. If we have the ability to go back and try again, it may be good for defeating aliens (or accomplishing some other good thing) but it is terrible for our moral character. Of course, in the movies, everyone is a hero and the true moral nature of mankind as corrupted by evil doesn’t normally play a part (except maybe in the villain). If we have the ability to go back in time and try and try again in order to get the result that we want, morality no longer means anything.
After all, the issue of morality isn’t about the result you get but the values and principles inherent in a relationship of care and respect – maybe even love. Time travel would be corrupted by humans looking for solutions to moral problems based on “the end justifies the means.”
History is a mute witness to how well that works when we are just “guessing” about how well we can accomplish our ends using a particular means. With time travel we would become masters of the process and he who controls time controls “results” without regard for people. In other words, they become tyrants, dictators, or even worse.
So why am I bringing this up in a post on the nature of hell?
Precisely because our moral choices and their consequences are essential for understanding what this “horrible” concept of hell is all about. On the one hand, we lack a true understanding of the justice and wrath of God, and, on the other hand, we simply miss the point about the nature of hell. We covered the first one in the last post and will cover the second one in this post.
But you can’t really blame most Christians for having a problem with the concept of hell and eternal punishment. We hear lots of sermons on the love of God but not very many on the justice of God. How do you harmonize these two views of God?
And lots of questions come up when you introduce eternal punishment into the picture. What about those who have never heard about Jesus or Christianity? If a person is faithful to their own religion, isn’t that good enough? What about morally good people? What about children and infants? If God is love, why does hell even exist?
All good questions, but they come from a lack of understanding of the story that we have emphasized in the past couple of posts and the nature of reality in this world we inhabit.
You have to start with the Secular Problem of Evil and accept that the problem, ultimately, is within the human heart. Then, when we introduce God into the picture, we realize that His dilemma is how to eradicate evil without destroying humankind.
We begin to see how bad the situation is and our assumptions that we are good, and he is bad, start to crumble into the dust. After all, if the only way to save even some of us was for him to personally come to earth, live as a human, and allow himself to be tortured and killed as a criminal and, ultimately, become the human representation of evil on the cross and accept all of God’s righteous wrath against sin at that moment, well, that puts a whole new spin to it.
Serious business indeed. Why should we be surprised that hell awaits those who would “ignore such a great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3 NIV)? But still more needs to be said.
With those three things in mind, the existence of evil within, the dilemma of God on how to save us, and his decision to sacrifice himself, let us talk about hell or eternal punishment.
One theologian, John F. Walvoord claims that “the problem here is the obvious lack of understanding of the infinite nature of sin as contrasted to the infinite righteousness of God.” But what exactly is this “infinite” nature of sin? I would put it in a slightly different way in order to make it a bit clearer. The problem, according to my interpretation of hell, is that the “relational” nature of sin (which is infinite because people are infinite) is based on the “relational” righteousness of God.
Let’s start with the concept of the “relational” righteousness of God. After all, it is obvious that the “righteousness” or “holiness” or “goodness” of God is relational. Not only is there perfect love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but there is perfect love (on his side) with all humans in his creation. God’s righteousness is not some cold and sterile “perfection” but rather a warm and heartfelt “perfect love” towards everyone. Remember that the love of God is complemented and expressed in his “perfect justice” which is also an act of love towards the victims.
So, when God exercises his “perfect justice” in love towards someone who has determined not to have a relationship with him, neither as creator nor father, he has a problem.
First of all, a broken relationship is simply not possible. That is part of the “fantasy world” that humans have constructed. Because of what Adam and Eve (and all of us) have chosen to do in rebelling against God, he had to create a place that did not exist before to keep us for all eternity that would be proper and right and fulfill his divine justice. We call that place “hell,” but God calls it the “second death” and the “lake of fire.”
From the very beginning, God made it clear to Adam and Eve that if they decided to cut off their relationship with the very source of life, they would not survive. They would die. Only by God’s intervention are people able to exist for a while and not face immediate death. That is the first truth they needed to know.
Second of all, there would be consequences to breaking off this relationship with God which God can do nothing about (other than die for us on the cross). What do I mean? Not only would there be physical death but there would also be spiritual death.
Spiritual death is what we mean by the breaking of a conscious relationship with God. The Holy Spirit of God can no longer co-exist with us once we have been corrupted by evil. Spiritual death results in physical death since spiritual death cuts us off from the source of all life. But God intervened to keep us alive temporarily even though we were “dead” towards him.
Think of humans as “spiritual zombies” who live unthinking and instinctually in opposition towards anything alive (like zombies do) and you will start to get the idea. The thing to remember is that after this temporary respite, after we die, our “spiritual death” will also result in eternal or a “second” death if it is not remedied.
And from everything that we can tell, that “second” death which the Book of Revelations calls “the lake of fire” and we typically call “hell” is so horrible that God, himself, was willing to endure the cross to save us from it.
We may be surprised that it was Jesus, himself, who spoke about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. After all, he was willing to go there on our behalf and he was making it clear that it was no joke.
Jesus talked about the fact that there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13 NIV) and that there would be “darkness” (Matt. 25:30 NIV) and “eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41 NIV). Not a pleasant vacation spot to say the least.
But in Matthew 7:23 we get to the heart of the matter when Jesus said that those in hell would be separated from him. Paul talks about being “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thess. 1:9 NIV).
And it makes sense.
If this world is a temporary but “uneasy truce” in which God artificially and against the dictates of his own divine justice keeps the world going, and keeps us alive, together with many of his blessings, then hell can be understood as God simply “stopping” that intervention and allowing things to result in the proper and normal consequences that would fulfill his divine justice.
Hell, understood in those terms, is simply the lack of the “artificial” providence of God that we have so accustomed ourselves to. We consider it normal (and almost our right) to be able to sin to our hearts’ content and generally not face any consequences for our actions (unless we break a human law). But there is nothing more abnormal, and nothing more outside of our rights as self-proclaimed “enemies of God.”
When it comes to degrees of punishment in hell, Jesus also indicates that one person may receive more pain and suffering than another based on their deeds in this life (Luke 12: 47,48 NIV) and that hypocrites would get special treatment (Mark 12:40 NIV). That seems right and fair. After all, we aren’t all the same in our sins and evil, but we are all the same in our rejection of God and his plan of salvation.
Later on, in the Book of Revelations, we will discuss in more detail this double judgment of hell. The first one is “relational” and the second is based on our “deeds.” On the one hand, there is the separation of the sheep from the goats based on our “restored” relationship with God through Christ (or not) and the judgment of our deeds which will determine exactly what we experience in hell. The point is that we are still in hell. And we are there because of our broken and “unrestored” relationship with God.
And when we talk about our “deeds,” we are talking really about our “relationships” with other humans. It isn’t just about stealing or lying or gossip or murder but about the fact that those things define our relationship with others. And those “other” human beings are infinite or eternal creatures that are destined for immortality. The deed may be temporal, but the broken relationship is eternal and therefore the punishment will also be eternal. Separation from those we have “not loved” will last for as long as they are alive in eternity.
In the same way that the “infinite” relational nature of sin defines our “infinite” relationship with others and God, it results in an “infinite” (and negative) relational experience of hell. We are without Christ, shut out from the presence of the Lord and also alone, cut off from any positive relationship with others, fighting with anyone we come into contact with, our eternal resurrected bodies in constant decay and putrefaction but never dying, never-ending, with no annihilation of our existence ever possible. No sun will ever shine on us again, no love will ever grace our hearts, and constant pain and suffering will be our only companion. That is the nature of hell.
Did we think God was going to put up with our rebellion and evil forever? Of course not. It was already a miracle of love, a severe mercy, that he was willing to put up with our sin and evil, our constant lack of love towards each other for the eighty years or so that each of us lives, much less the multiple millennia of years that the world as a whole has continued. Do we really need to recite a litany of the woes and evil that this world has inflicted on itself? And do you really believe that you are immune? That you aren’t so bad? That your level of sin and evil is “normal”? There is no such thing. And you know it.
In fact, it is that realization of the evil within and the spiritual consequences it must have sooner or later in this “just universe,” that is one of the greatest spurs either towards even greater evil or towards repentance. Which is one of the reasons why God allows it to continue.
And we will share this hell with the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, and all of the demons of hell. Fear will be our constant companion and despair our eternal friend.
But not because God wants it this way. Far from it.
The sun comes up every morning for only one reason, Peter says in 2 Peter 3:8,9, because God is patient with us, not wanting any of us to perish. But he can’t (and he won’t) keep it going forever. Each of us is destined to die once and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27 NIV) but the world as a whole is also destined to come to an end once God has brought in every last person that he can. Even Jesus doesn’t know when that day will be, only God the Father knows.
The point is that this is serious business.
Our rebellion against God, which we agree with and ratify every day of our lives, has eternal consequences. And those eternal consequences mean that we ultimately get what we insist on getting. True and final separation from God. And we won’t like it.
In this life, we have separation from God relationally but not physically and we have lived with that dull ache that some philosophers have called our “existential angst.” We live with the realization that we are unprotected and at risk in a world that is not always friendly but like a dog sitting on a nail, we hurt enough to complain about it but not enough to do something about it.
So where does that leave us?
With some terrible truths about the real world that even God cannot (and won’t) change.
- We are eternal creatures in body and soul. Yes, I know that the concept of the immortality of the soul is originally a Greek concept, but the Bible is in agreement. They got that part right. And not only the soul but the body as well. The body will die but then both the wicked and the righteous will receive resurrected bodies.
- Rebellion against God has eternal consequences because it has to do with the “natural” and “necessary” consequences of cutting ourselves off from the source of all life, light, and goodness.
- Our sin and evil are relational and therefore have eternal consequences since people are immortal.
- Finally, the only “restoration” possible is through a new relationship with God because of the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
But here is the thing.
That “restoration” has to happen on this side of the grave. Once you die, it is too late.
Have you ever wondered why God stays “hidden” for the most part? Sure, he is all around us in one sense, and sure, he shows up when you least expect it, but he isn’t in your face about it. He is “hidden” from our eyes most of the time. And there is a good reason for it. The fundamental problem at the beginning of time was that Adam and Eve simply did not “trust” God when he told them “not” to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
He didn’t give them a long-winded explanation of “why” he was “testing” them in this way to deepen their love and commitment to him even when they didn’t understand what was going on. He simply told them plainly and simply what the consequences would be. They would die. And they didn’t trust him. Plain and simple. They figured he had ulterior motives and was keeping something good from them. Suspicion, distrust, lies. These things are not a great context for a relationship.
On the other hand, there was also the intervention and influence of the Devil in all of this, since he deceived the woman and then later the man. God recognizes this to be true. And because of that, he was willing to find another way back to paradise, another way to “restore” the relationship with him and with each other.
But that “restoration” would necessarily include the need for trust (or what we also call “faith”). And this is true of our human relationships as well. Without trust, you cannot love someone or relate to them in an effective way. Trust, or the lack thereof, is at the heart of all of our experiences of “the other” people in our lives.
Once again, you can’t force “trust.” You can’t just tell someone to have “faith” (although we try) and it isn’t something that we just turn off or on at will. It is built into a relationship in which we are convinced that the other person truly loves us. If we didn’t believe that they had our best interests at heart, we could not trust them.
So, once again, God has a dilemma to unravel. How to create trust in someone before the relationship is developed. God found a way through the ministry of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Because Christ was willing to die on behalf of others, that “righteousness” could be granted to another simply by decree. By declaring someone to be “righteous” using the “righteousness” of Christ as demonstrated on the cross, God could allow the Holy Spirit to co-exist in us even though we continue to sin. Normally, of course, that could never happen.
All of our sins, past, present, and future, would be dealt with by exchanging them with Christ and he would suffer the punishment for our sins, and we would benefit from the rewards of his righteousness. We call that “substitutionary atonement” and it was grossly unfair to Jesus but fulfilled the divine justice of God. Just the way Jesus wanted it.
We call this process “realized eschatology.” It is “realized” today, in time, before we die but based on something that was guaranteed to happen in the future after we die and face the judgment of God, which we call “eschatology” (literally, the study of the end times). After all, if God declares something to be so in the future, we can take it to the bank today. When we stand before God in the final judgment and are declared guilty of all of our sins and evil, we have the ability to call on the name of Jesus to come to our rescue.
But it isn’t a magic wand or a special codeword that is there to get us out of trouble. It is a relationship that started in time and would save us in eternity. And the only reason that calling on the name of Jesus will save us from the wrath of God is because we have the “seal” of the Holy Spirit, as a guarantee of our salvation (Eph. 1:13 NIV).
So, the Holy Spirit could be given to humans now while they were still alive based on the work of Christ over two thousand years ago that would be applied in the final judgment of God in the future.
Heady stuff this “realized eschatology.”
But what it means is that God could give us this gift of “faith” in him (Ephesians 2:8,9 NIV) as the first step in our restoration. We still need to respond to that faith and then “prove” that relationship is real by becoming his followers (or disciples) but the first step is taken by God, himself.
Now here is the rub.
God cannot give or develop faith in us if we are filled with fear. That’s why he remains hidden. He isn’t trying to scare us into heaven. He isn’t obligating us to follow him. He isn’t carrying a big stick and just waiting to clobber us if we get out of line. It doesn’t work that way.
Ask any woman who has been abused by her husband how she can ever trust him again. Impossible. In the context of fear and abuse, there is no trust, and without trust, there is no relationship of love. And it is a heart full of love for God that is the restoration that we are talking about.
It is the opposite of Eden. Instead of the deception of the Devil, we are given the truth of God’s love for us on the cross. Instead of distrust and a broken relationship and hiding in the bushes we are given a seed of faith, a new relationship, and called out of the bushes to walk with him throughout our lives.
Just as Adam and Eve were given clothes made from the skins of animals killed on their behalf and developed into a full-blown sacrificial system to represent what Christ would do on the cross for us as the Lamb of the world, so we are also called out of the bushes, out of our shame and rebellion, and given new white robes to wear symbolizing the righteousness of Christ and asked to follow him in this life and enjoy him in the next. And it is this new relationship of trust and faith because of the Holy Spirit within that saves us from the second death.
There is no purgatory to go to where we can finally get our act together and repent. If you want to put it that way, this life is our purgatory. This life is the in-between place where decisions have eternal consequences.
Once we see God and we know that he exists and that he will rightfully judge us, there is no room for trust or faith since we will be filled with fear. There is no fear in perfect love (I John 4:18 NIV) the Bible says but it is also true that there is no love in perfect fear. If restoration is the goal, this life is all the opportunity we will have to receive and respond to that faith in God.
But the opposite is also true.
Once we see the truth, once we see God with our own eyes and realize that we are under his judgment and do not have the protection of Christ, we will be filled with “perfect fear” that will never abate for all eternity. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, when we hear his voice, we will run and hide in the bushes and no matter how much God calls out our name we will never respond because there is no more room (or time) for the development of faith.
In the famous chapter on love, Paul says, “Now these three remain – faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13: 13 NIV). Faith and hope are only necessary in this life but once we have what we hope for, we no longer need to hope for it. Once we see with our own eyes, we no longer need to have faith. Only love lasts for eternity. And that makes sense. But that also means that if you don’t have faith, hope, and love in this life for God, there is no more opportunity to develop it in the life to come. It will be too late.
So, what is hell?
Hell is the absence of God with all the consequences of what that implies. Shut out from the presence of God and knowing it. We will have immortal bodies as a necessary evil based on the nature of our existence as sentient beings made in the image of God. We are not angels who can exist only in spiritual form (although the demons will also suffer in hell). We are not merely animals who exist only in physical form. We are a body-soul hybrid made in the image of God as a sentient, moral being.
We are far more important, far more significant, far more powerful than we can ever think or imagine. Our rebellion has eternal consequences that cannot be avoided, and the only solution is “restoration” through the righteousness of Christ. Without that, we cannot stand in the judgment of God, and we will suffer the eternal second death.
One final thing needs to be said.
We have here presented a scenario that even God cannot avoid, and that God wishes we would not have to suffer, but the Bible portrays God as the actor, the judge, the punisher. How do we reconcile the two perspectives? God doesn’t want anyone to perish. He loved us and died on the cross to save us but, at the same time, he judges us and sends us to hell. How does that make any sense?
We have a similar situation we our earthly judges. They may not wish to sentence us to life imprisonment, but they are also subject to the law. In the case of God, he is both the judge and the lawmaker. The thing to remember is that these laws are not “arbitrary” but rooted in the nature of who we are as beings made in the image of God.
They are rooted in the necessary and unavoidable relationship between the Creator and his creation, between the Father and his children.
They are rooted in the immortality of the soul and the eternal resurrected bodies that we will all receive since we are body-spirit entities (unlike animals on the one hand and angels on the other).
They are rooted in the divine justice of God which demands restoration as the only true justice (and expression of perfect love).
They are rooted in the divine love of God which demands a relationship of trust and faith as the only true bases for providence and protection.
They are rooted in the reality that God is rightfully angry at sin and his wrath is entirely and completely justified.
What we have a hard time understanding is that God’s “immutable laws” of creation and the relationship between God and man are not merely external to him but fully integrated into his character. God acts because he is right to do so. He punishes because it is good and proper to do so. He sends people to hell even though it is also the natural consequence of our own decisions and actions.
The two things are not separate as they are for us. We are not God. What he has decreed to be so, he enforces to be so. He has the power to put off his divine justice in anticipation of the plan of redemption and he has the power to enact his divine justice in this life and the life to come.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all just yet. We are touching on the divine after all. What you need to remember above all is that God weeps together with the weeping prophet for all of his children, and he doesn’t want to lose even one. He is still the judge, and he will still sentence everyone to their proper and fair eternal punishment but, in his heart, he grieves for each one.
And that is the truth of the matter.
The Desert Warrior