In the United States, we tend to think of Jesus as kind, loving, accepting, and gentle. What He offers is life with Him, and this life is lived abundantly (John 10:10). This, however, is understood as a life that is happy and comfortable, which generally means a well-paying job, nice family, and very little in the way of suffering. So many sermons preached today explore "what God has for you" and "what God wants for you." I italicize "you" to illustrate that we tend to think of God in terms of how He serves us. The secular philosophy of "living your best life" has been translated to Christianese.
There is obviously an element of truth in this. Being in Christ gives us access one-on-one to the Creator of the universe, and we behold by faith of His wondrous glory and beauty and are invited to partake in all of the blessings which are ours in Christ Jesus. The joy of that newfound relationship is eternal and constant. As Paul prays for the church at Ephesus in Ephesians 3:20-21 (NASB):
"Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen."
It is true that, often, the limit to God's blessings for us is our imagination. At the same time, however, it seems like Christians in the West have lost sight of the truth of the claims of the Christian worldview. This is a major reason why I'm doing this series, since I can't assume that all of my readers adequately understand the Christian worldview and felt the need to make these things clear.
In my experience, Christians are also often uncomfortable with certain Christian doctrines. They'll share the posts about God's love and the joy of serving and loving Him, but they won't share the hard things. The difficult teachings. The teachings that tend to anger people. Jesus was fully aware that His teachings would not make people happy. In fact, He was crucified because of them. Of course, hateful professing Christians exist, and unfortunately, certain people grossly overemphasize certain doctrines over others and present a skewed view. At the same time, to present what I might call a "sissified" Christianity-a soft and squishy Jesus who just wants us to have a nice and comfortable life of relative financial abundance, in which the most we do is tithe and try to be nice to others-is just as skewed. Hear me in that: just as skewed as Westboro Baptist Church. And, in a completely different way, just as dangerous.
As a Christian apologist, whose passion is to explain the Christian worldview and defend it, I hate that hateful professing Christians have stolen our confidence in the doctrines of sin and hell. In this post, my aim is twofold. The first is easier to establish, and the second, I imagine, will be much more difficult. First, I want to show you that sin and hell are taught in Scripture. Second, I want you not only to believe and tolerate this doctrine, but to see it as good and actually glory in it. To praise God for it. Let's get started.
In the survey, there are four statements, which bear relevance to this topic and that, I think, show that Christians are very uncomfortable with discussing sin and hell and have been impacted in this way more by American culture than the Christian worldview. I'll list each statement with their results, represented by "A" for "Strongly Agree or Somewhat Agree" or "D" for "Strongly Disagree or Somewhat Disagree." This is among all professing Christians, without respect to denomination. Here are the statements and their results:
#11: Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. (A: 67%; D: 26%)
#12: Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation. (A: 24%; D: 68%)
#18: Hell is a real place where certain people will be punished forever. (A: 55%; D: 30%)
#19: There will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all the people who have lived. (A: 63%; D: 23%)
These results are somewhat surprising and puzzling. One the one hand, Christians seem very uncomfortable with sin, as is shown by the results of the first two questions, yet the majority of Christians believe in hell and the final judgement at the return of Christ. I wonder why this discrepancy exists, and I'm honestly not sure. It could be that the language of the first two questions are such that they actually influenced skewed results. Christians, by and large, might agree that sin deserves punishment, but they have a child molester or Hitler in mind, not the child who tells a "little white lie." They see that most people are decent, but "those people," the ones that rape, murder, steal, they deserve what they get. Even moral relativists become moral realists when it involves that sin, whatever it may be. There is a mentality of comparison. "Oh no, what they do is awful, but not me."
In order to address this topic concisely, I need to cover multiple doctrines under a kind of umbrella, or a concept under which all of this can be bracketed. Three points come to mind. First, in order to understand sin and hell, we must understand that the claims of the Christian worldview are interrelated; we have to understand one doctrine to understand others. Second, in order to understand sin and hell, we must understand God's holiness, moral perfection, and justice. Third, we need to understand God's original creation and the goodness of it that was tainted in the first sin. I will begin there for this discussion.
God is Holy, Morally Perfect, and Just.
God is holy. This simple expression, this short statement, is probably, in my estimation, the statement that Christians in the United States have lost sight of the most. God's holiness does not merely describe His moral perfection and justice, though it includes those things. His holiness, probably more than any single property, describes as a whole who and what God is.
Have you ever experienced the presence of God? Just a taste of His presence, for a moment, creates an unmistakable experience that defies comprehension and to which nothing in this world can compare. C.S. Lewis described it as joy. It is not merely joy. Terror is often described in the Bible. Humility. Light, purity, and transcendence. Love that is freeing and lifts every burden, leaves the heart satisfied and at ease and peaceful. I'm not talking about new-age nonsense that can be induced through drugs. I'm talking about an encounter with I AM. The biblical authors spend a lot of ink and use many words trying to express this kind of encounter. I remember once experiencing it so clearly that I wept over my sin for an hour straight. I couldn't help but to kneel and pray before this holy God and to thank Him for having saved me about seven years ago. When Isaiah encountered the living God in a vision of His heavenly throne room, he cries out in Isaiah 6:5 (NASB):
"'Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.'"
Notice the first thing that Isaiah says in the presence of God. He points to his own sin. Our sin represents corruption, uncleanliness, ugliness, before the very definition of purity, cleanliness, and beauty. God is the source of all that is good, but we are the source of what's wrong with it all. In comparison to Him, we are unworthy. This fact, which hits Isaiah with such force in the presence of God, ruins him. He can't help but confess his unworthiness.
In light of the holiness of God, we are unholy. In light of the purity of God, we are impure. In light of His perfection, we are imperfect. In light of His worthiness, we are unworthy. In light of His unity, we are fragmented and broken. I love how Paul relates our sin not to the rules and regulations set out in the Law but to the glory of God. He writes in Romans 3:23 (NASB):
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
When we sin, we fail to appropriate our actions to who and what God is. We fail to reflect His glory, which is evident in the world through what He has made.
Why, then, is God just? All people at all times have had some concept of law and justice. There is a general sense among people that bad actions deserve some sort of punishment. We may not agree on the particular mode of punishment (e.g., the death penalty), but people tend to agree that justice should be served. This sense that we have comes from the God who made us. If He is the source of all that is good, then evil is a drastic deprivation of His good. That deprivation hurts people. War, famine, greed, lust, rape, abuse, bigotry; all these things fall short of the source of love, holiness, goodness, and beauty. If God didn't deal with evil, then He would not be good. Sin, then, must be dealt with. In other words, God's just nature requires that sin must not go unpunished. His justice must be satisfied. This is why God's presence causes incomparable joy for those who are His and the deepest terror for those who are not His. God hasn't changed. We have.
The Old Testament, from beginning to end, focuses on the holiness and just nature of God. I suspect that this is why so many Christians avoid the Old Testament. The simple fact is that, if you don't understand the holiness and just nature of God, then you will not grasp so much of what He is doing in the Old Testament. So let's discuss God's original creation and what went wrong.
The Beauty of God's Original Creation
I won't be able to go through all of Genesis 1-3 in detail, but I'll hit a few points along the way. I'll highlight four main points:
All that God made was good.
Human beings were created to reflect God's image into the world.
Human beings were created to be with God and each other in relationship and to enjoy His creation.
All that God made and our vocation were corrupted by sin.
First, all that God made was good. In Genesis 1, God creates everything: space and time, light and darkness, the stars and planets, the animals, mountains, trees, oceans, and, finally us. After creating the man and woman and giving them their vocation, the text says in verse 31 (NASB):
"God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good."
Christians need to lay hold of this statement. We often tend to think that the goal of the Christian faith is to leave the world and go to heaven. This neglects the idea that God made a physical world that is itself very good. When we look at creation, we see that God, the supreme Artist, formed and made it to reflect His beauty and creativity. This world is good. These bodies are good.
Second, human beings were created to reflect God's image into the world. For this, read Genesis 1:26-27 (NASB):
"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."
In Latin, this is called the imago dei. Our given authority over creation is a sign of the fact that we have been made in God's image. Our capacities-our given capacity for love, rational thought, discovery and creativity-reflect His infinite attributes. We were created to reflect Him more than anything else in the world, and in this, human beings are fully unique.
Third, human beings were created to be with God and each other in relationship and to enjoy His creation. Again, Christians need to lay hold of this truth. Christians tend to think of heaven as a place to go to. In the Bible, however, heaven is wherever God is. Thus, when Solomon builds the Temple, the Temple is considered to be the place where heaven meets earth. It is the location of God's manifest presence on earth. In the original creation, with the creation of the Garden of Eden, God is in intimate relationship with His creation and mankind in particular.
We see this in Genesis 2, in which we get a close look at God's creation of and relationship with mankind. He plants a garden and places Adam in it. The entire world is God's, but Eden is a special place for Him to be with Adam. He creates Eve as Adam's intimate companion, and "they were both naked and were not ashamed." This conveys full disclosure and vulnerability without fear or shame. Since sin had not entered into the world, there is no reason to fear or be ashamed of oneself. Adam and Eve could be fully known and fully loved, both by God and each other.
This and the previous point form our vocation as human beings. As image-bearers, we reflect God into the world in a joyous expression of dominion over the world that He has given us and of our capacities. As beings made for relationship, we enjoy God's blessings and present ourselves as gifts to each other and worship our Creator. This is pristine beauty. No imperfection and perfect harmony of all things. It is life as God intended it. In such a place as this, Adam and Eve would not experience the holiness of God as something to be feared, but as the greatest source of their joy and reason for being.
But, fourth, it all fell apart. God gave Adam and Eve a choice. Many, Christian or not, may wonder why God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden in the first place. If God hadn't done this-given an original command and the opportunity to break the command-then Adam and Eve could have never disobeyed God and brought sin into the world. Is this true? And if so, why, then, did God give Adam and Eve a choice?
To this point, I have two responses. First, even if God had refrained from giving Adam and Eve a command and a choice, I do not think that Adam and Eve therefore couldn't have sinned. By giving the first couple a command, God simply showed Adam and Eve that they must obey His authority and how they could do it. Notice that the command includes within it a radical amount of freedom. See Genesis 2:16-17 (NASB):
"The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.'"
Clearly, it's not that God did not want Adam and Eve to have knowledge of good and evil. By giving the command, He is teaching them how to distinguish the two, but they must do it His way and by His authority and guidance. What God is telling Adam and Eve in this command is actually profoundly freeing. He is saying, "Enjoy every good gift that I give you in this Garden, which I have made for your enjoyment. But this one thing, this one tree, I'm telling you not to pursue. Trust me." That last part-"Trust me"-might not make much sense, but it is exactly what the serpent attacks in tempting Eve to eat of the tree. He says in Genesis 3:4-5 (NASB):
"'You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'"
The serpent lies to Eve by denying the goodness of God. He says that God has given the command not for Adam and Eve's good, but to keep something good from them. This is one of the most significant and pernicious lies involved in sin. All sin, at its root, involves the idea that God is not truly good. By learning good and evil not from God and by His authority, Adam and Eve bring into the world everything that we experience as wrong and evil in the world, all of the suffering that all humans experience in one way or another. Sin, at its root, is what happens when we try to do things our way, by our authority, without God.
Because of these reasons, I'd argue that God's giving a command doesn't remove the possibility of sin. Rather, God is beginning to show Adam and Eve how to obey Him and what it means to live under His authority.
Second, relationship must involve choice. Remember that our vocation as human beings includes reflecting God into the world. We are image-bearers. Doing this rightly necessarily involves living in relationship with God, and living in relationship with God means living in accordance with His will and purpose for us. Again, all of this is included implicitly in the command. By giving the first couple a choice, God also shows them that relationship necessarily involves choice. Coerced love isn't love.
Adam and Eve, instead of discovering the world God made and who He made them to be from Him, seek it on their own, and by making this choice, they choose to live not in accordance with God's will. We can't miss the inevitable result. I won't go through all of the curses of Genesis 3 in detail, but these three results sum up what I want to communicate about the results of sin:
Sin results in death (Genesis 3:19).
Sin results in ugliness (Genesis 3:18).
Sin results in broken relationship and isolation (Genesis 3:16).
You might have wondered why I chose the image of a withered rose to represent sin and hell. This rose represents very well the tragic results of that first decision made by the first couple. The rose is dying. It is not alive and vibrant. It has lost its beauty. This is not the way it should be. The rose is also alone, not connected with all that gives it life. These are the results of sin in the world. Think about it. Every list of sins described in Scripture, from that which is prohibited in the Ten Commandments to the lists that Paul gives in passages such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, display these three basic results.
God communicates in these curses a profound theological fact: separation from God means the loss of God's good gifts. That doesn't mean that we lose everything. God, in His grace, still richly blesses even those who hate Him. Nonetheless, imagine what it must have been like for Adam and Eve. Everything that they knew and experienced from God-in His created world, with each other, and with God-was now and forever affected. Those plants and fruits that the first couple ate would now take toil and hardship to produce. Adam and Eve's relationship would be impacted by difficulty and abuse. Animals must now die to atone for this sin. Adam and Eve must now cover their naked bodies in order to cover their shame, and those bodies, once in pristine beauty, would now show signs of wear and tear. They would age, suffer from physical hardship, and finally, for the first time in human history, die. Finally, and most tragically, Adam and Eve could no longer be in intimate communion with God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24).
The consequences of sin are horrible. Imagine, if you can, the lives and experiences of the first couple in intimate communion with God. The result, in the end, is described by Paul in Romans 3:9-18 (NASB):
"What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, 'There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.' 'Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving,' 'The poison of asps is under their lips'; 'Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness'; 'Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace they have not known.' 'There is no fear of God before their eyes.'"
Here, Paul brings together quotes from several Old Testament verses to show that all people have sinned. Sin, as this passage describes, ultimately corrupts us as well, bending our wills inward and causing us to be selfish and self-centered. Living outside of the authority of God brings incalculable evil and suffering into the world, and we don't have to look far outside to see this at work. It is and has been a central part of the human experience for as long as humans have existed after the Fall.
From these two points-God's holiness and His original creation tainted by sin-I want to discuss a third concept, which is the result of the first two: God's hatred of sin is our good.
God's Hatred of Sin is Our Good
To recap, we have covered three main ideas up to this point in the post:
God is holy, morally perfect, and just.
God's original creation was good and beautiful.
Sin corrupted God's original creation.
From these three ideas, we can see that God's original intention was a profound good for us. God lavished upon Adam and Eve gift upon gift, including the gift of Himself. His holiness was not a terror to pre-Fall mankind but, rather, infinite joy in their Creator. This entails that, according to the Christian view of the world, God is the source of everything good. Read that statement again and linger on it in your mind and heart. Every good gift comes from God. Sin, by necessity, entails not just loss of relationship with God but, ultimately, loss of every good gift as well. To lose the source of good is to lose what's good. Can you see, then, why God wants us to live in accordance with His guidance and authority? He wants what's good for us.
When people don't, when people instead hate God and oppose Him, and when, in the process, they hurt others and cause so much suffering and evil in this world, of course God hates it. What good God wouldn't hate it?
When we think of hell, what often comes to mind is something out of Dante Alighieri's Inferno. In reality, however, hell is much more terrifying once we realize what it signifies. It signifies an experience without the presence of God. And if God is not present, then no good gift is present either. No life. No beauty. No community. Souls in hell are utterly alone, self-absorbed, and denied all that God calls good. But here's the thing: God gave us a choice. Ultimately, no one in hell could rightly blame God for what He does to them. Given that He offers us salvation, God's given choice is very clear. Accept life, which must include living under His divine authority, or don't. It is an unspeakable tragedy that so many people choose not to trust in Christ and live under God's authority, but God, because He is just, must punish sin. He offers a just alternative, the death of His Son Jesus Christ for our sins! We can have our sins forgiven and accept the life that He offers! Hell is not our only choice! God is under no obligation to make this offer, but He does anyway because He loves us. That is grace.
Let me try to pull all of these strands together for you. God's nature is such that, when He created the world, He created something very good. The beings made in His image were created to delight in Him, each other, and the world He had made. Since He is the source of all good, then His image-bearers had to live with Him and according to His will in order to have that good, and within His will, they could delight and have their fill of everything He gave them. When Adam and Eve tried to live in a way that denied His goodness and authority, the inevitable result is the loss of relationship with Him and, therefore, the tainting of His good gifts. Humans have gone their own way since then. God, in the richness of His mercy and grace, offers us another way, but as a just God who hates sin because of what it does to His creation and image-bearers, He must punish sin. Ultimately, those who finally reject relationship with Him get what they want: the absence of His presence. They lose all that is good with it.
Even with this explanation, you might find the subtitle offensive. You may think, "How is God's hatred of sin our good? How does people going to hell result in their good?" This speaks to the quotation of Romans 3:23 above. All have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. All of us want world peace. All of us want a world without war, famine, hatred, bigotry, murder, slavery, poverty, etc. We all want a world without evil. The problem, which is offensive to so many, is that we're part of the problem. I am part of what's wrong with the world. We all are. We all intuitively know that we cannot stand before a just and holy God. His presence results in terror, not infinite joy. The idea that God hates sin for our good is offensive because we know that, if God is to guarantee a world without evil, we deserve to go. I can't be part of God's world without evil because I am part of it. How, then, can we get out of this?
Jesus. That's what He came to die for. But I can't go into salvation yet. Not in detail. That's not in this post. Suffice it to say that the Christian worldview has an incredible answer for that question, and it lies in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Hopefully, you're beginning to see how the various doctrines of the Christian faith come together. God's perfect nature, which we discussed a few weeks ago, is part of the doctrines of sin and hell. I know that this post is particularly long, but I found it necessary to go through these issues in detail.
Finally, did I meet my goal? Perhaps you can see how sin and hell are part of the christian worldview. Should you, as a Christian, actually glory in these doctrines? Let me be clear. God's just wrath against sin is not easy to take in, but we have to grasp it as part of God's goodness and love toward His creation and image-bearers. Ultimately, God wants to create a world without sin, without any of the suffering involved in sin. And He wants us to be a part of that world! This incredible concept, the restoration of that which was once corrupted by sin, is called redemption, and God's inviting us to be redeemed along with the entire world. Sin and death will be destroyed. Hell, tragically, is God's answer to those who don't want to be part of that world.
If you can't tell, I'm teasing a sequel. That sequel, which I'll cover next week, is salvation. How is it that God ensures that we, sinners destined for death, are instead part of His new world of redeemed life and light? I'm very excited for next week and hope that this post, as difficult as it might have been to think about, was very edifying. I hope that, if you are a Christian or not, this post has helped to explain these admittedly difficult doctrines to you. If you are not a Christian, then I sincerely hope and pray that you will choose to be part of God's new world, His Kingdom. If you don't know what that means, then come back for the next post!
If you find yourself continuing to come back to the blog, please consider subscribing to it, so that you will get notified of each new post. With a subscription, you can also comment below and start a discussion! Also, please consider sharing these posts on social media, since that is the easiest way to ensure that more people will find their way to this content. As we get the word out, my prayer is that the blog will continue to bolster and advance the Kingdom of God. Finally, if you have any questions or comments about the blog, then you can send me a message from the bottom of the homepage. I look forward to receiving messages from you. Thank you for reading!
If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018.https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.