Friday, June 26, 2015

The Story of God | Is Hell a Skeleton in God's Closet?

Emmaus City Church Worcester MA Soma Acts 29 3DM Christian Reformed Church Transcultural Kingdom Multi-Ethnic Church Network of Missional Communities


How in the World Can Hell be Merciful?

Ever wondered what "the hell" someone is talking about when they speak of God's mercy and justice and hell is still somehow involved? Ever studied the Scriptures to read about what Jesus said about hell and why people choose to go there rather than welcome the reconciliation between God and humanity, and humanity with the world?

In being a follower of Jesus and trusting His words, this is something I've had to consider. One of the more helpful reflections on this subject for me is Tim Keller's "The Importance of Hell." The title of the article alone is intriguing because many times I would like hell to be less important when it makes me uncomfortable or when someone else is using it as an an exit ramp or trump card instead of taking the time and reflection necessary to consider the identity of Jesus and the truthfulness of His words. For many, Jesus stops being the One to follow when He's teaching us about hell. And yet, Jesus tells us more about hell than He talks about heaven ... if we limit heaven to simply a place above in contrast to hell below. But what if the Kingdom of heaven is the new heavens and new earth being reconciled where God and all His goodness comes to earth and He casts the hell out of earth?

Recently, I read Pastor Joshua Ryan Butler's The Skeletons in God's Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War. In one instance, the title is curious; in another sense, it can seem repulsive and make you extremely skeptical all at the same time. And yet, it has been my favorite book in 2015 so far because it has been wonderfully thoughtful, theological, biblical, and worshipful for me all at the same time.

As a preview to the book, below is a video and the manuscript for the video to help you begin to engage the hard topic of hell. But remember, this 2+ minute video isn't intended to answer all your questions. It's a teaser for much more reading and discussion that needs to be had. I know, it's hard to even go there. But I invite you, if you are curious about Jesus, and you've read enough to know He talked about hell more than anyone else in the Scriptures (Matthew 8:5-13, 10:24-28, 13:36-4322:1-13, 25:14-30, 31-46; Mark 9:42-50; Luke 12:1-10, 16:19-31) then it is worth paying attention to what He was telling us if He is the greatest teacher the world has ever seen. And if He's even more than the greatest teacher, if He is in fact the Messiah and Son of God – our Savior, Healer, Rescuer, Redeemer, and King
then He is worthy for us to listen to all that He said and not ignore the things that make us turn to ourselves or our own thoughts as more wise or righteous. Because if Jesus is the only righteous One, and He has been given all power and authority in heaven and on earth, then He is the only One who can take the hellish unrighteousness out of our hearts and our world. The good news of Jesus includes that God is going to reconcile heaven and earth completely and get the hell out of the world. And that's really good news if, like me, you feel like hell has been encroaching on your life and in your heart recently. Wouldn't it be amazing if you could never describe your life again as a "living hell"? What would your heart, your life, and the world around you look like without evil, pain, suffering, selfishness, greed, war, and rebellion wreaking havoc? And what if this is only possible if King Jesus reigns, and you welcome and trust that His justice and righteousness will cast the hell out of you and, ultimately, the world?

Is Hell a Skeleton in God's Closet Video by Joshua Ryan Butler

Many of us fear that hell is a skeleton in God's closet, an underground torture chamber that looks like a scene out of "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey." Well, that's not quite right.

Ok, some probably have this picture right now: I live here on earth and one day when I die God will either send me up to heaven or down to hell. The problem is this isn't actually how the Bible talks about it.

In the Bible, the story goes like this: heaven and earth are created as good by God. However, when we rebel, heaven and earth are torn apart by the destructive power of sin, death, and hell. But God is good and He is on His mission to reconcile heaven and earth in order to bring back together what hell has torn apart. 

 Jesus' word for hell is "Gehenna." It's a valley outside the city of Jerusalem and it's a place for child sacrifice. People would go outside the city, light the flames, and murder their children in this really distorted religious practice. And it's interesting to note, the flames of Gehenna were lit by human hands. And the people who were killing their kids were going back into the city to sleep at night.

Emmaus City Church Worcester MA Soma Acts 29 3DM Christian Reformed Church Transcultural Kingdom Multi-Ethnic Church Network of Missional Communities

So for the prophets of God, Gehenna became the symbol of idolatry, and injustice, and what's wrong in Jerusalem and in the world as a whole. But the hope of the prophets was that God was going to return one day as the good King to redeem Jerusalem and kick out all the rebellious destructive powers outside His city. The reason hell's destructive power is kicked outside the city is because of all the good and redemptive things God wants to do inside the city. So we see that hell's location is not underground, it's outside the city. And its purpose is not torture, it's protection. But is it a chamber?  

The irony is that we want hell. We want life without God and we choose destructive things all the time that are tearing our world apart. Take sex trafficking, for example. Most of us want that out of God's world. I spent a summer overseas working against it and was disgusted by the exploitation of kids for sex. As I read my Bible, I realized that Jesus wants sex trafficking out of His world, too. Only He takes it a lot more seriously than I do. I want to prune back the problem of sex trafficking. 

Emmaus City Church Worcester MA Soma Acts 29 3DM Christian Reformed Church Transcultural Kingdom Multi-Ethnic Church Network of Missional Communities
Jesus wants to dig out the root – the root of things like pride, lust, rage, and greed – things we all struggle with. Jesus' question for us is not, "Are you good enough to get into my city?" His question is rather, "Will you let Me heal you?" God wants to forgive. Hell is not locked from the outside. It's locked from the inside if we refuse to be healed. Lots of people feel hell is a skeleton God's hiding, something that makes Him look vindictive and vengeful, but I've actually found it to be one of God's greatest acts of mercy. 

Concluding Thoughts and an Invitation to Discuss

So to answer the question at the top of this post"How in the world can hell be merciful?" – it can't. Hell has to be out of the world to be merciful. And Jesus is the only One with all the authority and power to cast it out. But do we want Jesus to have all the authority and power in our lives today – in our thoughts, our actions, and our relationships with others? Do we want Him to confront our selfish motives and self destruction and heal like a surgeon when a healer must cut out and remove cancer in order for the body to be restored? Or do we want our own kingdom by ourselves without Him outside of His Kingdom where He reigns and offers perfect shalom for anyone who trusts Him and believes in His grace and power to do all of this and more?

If you'd like to further think on this, below are some quotes from one of Joshua Ryan Butler's sermons. Again, these quotes will not answer every question on the subject, but they can provide an introduction to help
you reconsider how hell might be merciful in connection to what God is doing to restore His relationship with humanity and His creation, and to get the hell out of the places and people who welcome His dwelling with them as He covers them and protects them with Jesus' righteousness, holiness, and love.

"While God created the heavens and the earth good, we would rather rule the world without God, without Him rather than with Him. Our sin unleashes a destructive power. Satan's destructive power is unleashed through our rebellion into God's world."

"One of the problems with the caricatured story is that earth is now and heaven and hell are later. One is yin and the other is yang. One is the positive side of the battery and the other is the negative side of the battery, sort of these co-equal counterparts that are competing for my eternal destiny. And this is not the way that Scripture actually talks about them. How many times does Scripture actually mention heaven and hell together in the same verse? The answer is zero. Scripture talks about heaven, and it talks about hell, but not in the same places. If hell is not heaven's counterpart, then what is? How many times would you guess heaven and earth appear in the same Scripture verse? One hundred ninety-five times. Roughly two hundred times in Scripture heaven and earth appear together. From Genesis to Revelation, there's this thread of heaven and earth running through the biblical story. I think one of the reasons we get hell wrong is because we get heaven and earth wrong. If we reclaim the biblical story of heaven and earth, I think we're going to reclaim a healthy understanding of how hell fits into the story."

"Before the fall, God walks in the garden with us. But after the fall, He rules from heaven. It's not that God is not involved. God is still present and interactively involved with His world, but there is a distance. There's a rupture between heaven and earth's relationship that our sin has unleashed. And we see them on massive levels today in genocide and sex trafficking. And on a personal level with our greed, our pride, our vanity, our rage. These are the sparks that set these huge wildfires raging in our world. We have unleashed this destructive power of sin that has torn heaven and earth apart."

"The problem with Gehenna was not just that the idolatry, child sacrifice, and injustice was outside the city of Jerusalem, it wanted inside, and it worked its way back into the city. The people who are killing their kids and worshiping their idols came back into Jerusalem to sleep at night. And before long, the idols that had been set up out there were set up in the very temple of God, which is sort of like the marriage bedroom. This is the place where God's presence dwelt most intimately with His people, where heaven and earth were reconciled. It's like the affair that started in the cheap hotel outside of town wanted back in and wanted to lay claim to the marriage bed. And so eventually, God gets justly angry and says, 'OK, I'm leaving. You want life with these other lovers. I've tried to pursue you. You won't have it. And so I've handed you over to destructive idols.' And the picture is one of Jerusalem like a flame, burning by Israel's injustice and idolatry, and it becomes almost a metaphor for a world aflame, that God created to be reconciled with and dwell with us, but the fire of our sin is raging and tearing God's world apart. So the hope of our story, the story of God, is that God is a good King and He's going to come back to His city, He's going to return, and He's going to kick the rebellion out of Jerusalem into Gehenna, or Hell, and He's going to establish His Kingdom from His city and into the earth."

"In the biblical story, God's purpose is not to toss earth in the cosmic waste basket. It is to actually reconcile heaven and earth. Jesus says that 'all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me' in Matthew 28. And the reason that God has given Christ all authority in heaven and on earth is to bring all things in heaven and on earth under oneChrist Paul says in Ephesians 1."

Next post: The Story of God | Sacrifice and Atonement

Other posts on overviews of the Story of God found in the Bible: 

The Story of God, the World, and You | Our World Belongs to God | Creation, Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church, (New) Creation Jesus as the "True and Better" One | The Messiah The Covenants | Heaven and Earth | God's Holiness God's Multi-Ethnic Family

– Sully


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