Hell: Deconstructing a caricature (part 2)

Following on from last week’s post, I want to explore three further insights that Butler makes on the topic of hell in his book, ‘The Skeletons in God’s Closet’:

  1. ) ‘God’s mercy is…seen in his treatment of the impenitent’ (p.62). When we think of hell mercy is not usually the thing that comes to mind. We might connect those who are saved from the power of hell with God’s mercy but not those who end up there. Butler states that the way God treats those who continually reject him is the most merciful option. Here are the four alternatives God has if he is going to redeem the world:

i.) “Marry me and bring in your old lovers”— pretend that sin isn’t really an issue and allow it to be brought into God’s beautiful new creation. This is hardly merciful as it would allow the destructive force that tears this world apart to wreak havoc again.

ii.) “Marry me or I’ll kill you” — annihilate those who reject God’s offer of salvation, along with their sin, to put them out of their misery. This is impossible as Christ’s resurrection conquered death and so removed the option of staying in the grave. It is also hardly merciful to kill someone who rejects your marriage proposal. Rather, the merciful thing would be to let them go their own way.

iii.) “Marry me or I’ll lock you in the basement”— beat us into submission and purge us of our sin until we finally learn to love him. This misunderstands the nature of sin as that which stands in opposition to God. It is also hardly merciful for God to force those who have chosen to reject him into loving him. Rather, the merciful thing would be to let them go their own way.

iv.) “Marry me or go your own way”— allow those who choose a life apart from God to have what they choose. He hands them over to themselves and their desires. God does indeed do the most merciful thing and let them go their own way.

2.) ‘I can be tormented by my sin; and this is something radically different from God torturing me’ (p.76). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has often been used (and abused) to make it support the ‘underground torture chamber’ caricature. It must be noted that it is a parable which uses imagery to challenge religious leaders of the day rather than a literal picture of exactly how things will be one day. The point of the parable has nothing to do with God torturing people and everything to do with the torment that sin causes people. The Greek word translated ‘in anguish’ at the end of v.25 can also be translated as ‘grief’ or ‘anxiety’ and expresses a state of emotional turmoil rather than physical pain. So the rich man is experiencing an emotional distress that arises because he realises he has lost something he loves — his riches.

So, for Lazarus, and for all who choose to put their trust and devotion in something other than God, hell is the eternal realisation that these things, these idols, these self-centred treasures do not satisfy but destroy us. As Tim Keller states: ‘Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centred life, going on and on forever…In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity’ (The Reason for God, pp.77–78).

3.) ‘Life with God is big. Life without God is small. Life without God is hell’ (p.99). So, hell is God giving us what we want — life without him, endlessly. And such godless life which is curved in on ourselves rather than curved outwards in selfless love for God and neighbour is binding and destructive. It causes a loss of a sense of identity because we do not enter into the affirmation of our Father God that we were created for. And the end result of such godless living is a shrunken existence. That is what hell is, endlessly, in comparison to the vast expanse of the God-centred liberated new creation.

And God invites every one of us to step out of our self-centred restrictive hell into his God-centred liberation in the here-and-now. And then to continue enjoying his freedom forever.

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