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Grappling with God’s Love, Justice, Omnipotence, Foreknowledge, and Hell

October 17, 2010

Katie’s reflections at the end of her post on Romans 3 stirred me to work on a post on this topic.  I can completely relate to her wrestlings on the doctrine of hell as I have long grappled with this doctrine myself.

The question is far deeper for me than “Why would a loving God send people to hell?”  At first glance, this question appears difficult because God’s redemptive love has to be reconciled with His divine justice.  But upon further reflection, it’s actually much harder to comprehend how a thrice-holy God could reward unrepentant, evil creatures with eternal pleasures.  That makes Him seem more than a little bit evil and creepy Himself.  My mind makes the human comparison to an earthly judge who would let a rapist or murderer off without requiring any consequences for their crime.  I would consider that judge creepy and immoral in the extreme.  In addition, it has also been pointed out that unrepentant persons would not enjoy heaven.  In their unregenerate state they would have no desire to join with saints worshiping God forever and ever.  That would be like hell for them.

No, the deeper question for me has been why He would have created eternal beings with free wills in the first place, knowing that some would eternally reject Him and end up suffering eternal separation from the Source of all that is holy, loving, and good.  On its surface this question also seems to be fairly easily reconciled when one considers that God has made provision for all to be saved, everyone is given a free choice, some choose to perpetually rebel and so, as C. S. Lewis said, “all that are in hell choose it.”

But the problem goes a little deeper than that for me when (in my limited human comprehension) I ponder why, if He desires that all would be saved (2 Pet. 3:9), and if He is all-powerful, why would He not use His power to draw all to Himself?  Is His omnipotence somehow limited by human freedom, and if so, why?  Further, how is it ultimately more glorifying to God that sinners go on existing forever (albeit eternally quarantined from saints)?  Would it not demonstrate His power better or bring Him more glory if sinful people were completely destroyed (Annihilation) or if everyone was brought to repentance (Universalism)?

In seeking to resolve this in my own mind, I have sometimes been tempted to limit my acceptance of inspired writ to only those scriptures that emphasize God’s love for all of humanity and His desire that all would be saved, but if I actually tried to build my theology on a selective reading of scripture I would be inconsistently picking and choosing passages based on human wisdom and emotion.  Not only is this method arbitrary and absent any objective standard, but I would be arrogantly dismissing two millennia of pondering souls who have studied and reflected on this subject much longer than I have.  I am reminded of the wisdom of C. S. Lewis in admonishing Christians to utilize a map for navigating theology, rather than striking out on our own to sail the seas that have already been explored in great depth by those who have gone before.

The scriptures do say that some passages are “hard to be understood” and I do not want to be in the category of those who are “unlearned and unstable” who twist the scriptures to suit their own preferences (2 Pet. 3:16).  After all, if we are fallen (and I can clearly see from scripture and human experience that we are), how can I trust my fallen intellect or emotions to guide me in discerning the word of God?  If entering a relationship with God required me to turn from my own way and submit to His, progressing in my relationship with Him should theoretically involve the same process of turning from my own thoughts to embrace His higher ones (although they might initially seem contrary to my own).

Concepts I have personally found helpful on this subject:

  • The love of God and His desire for all to be saved

One of my favorite passages of scripture on this topic is 2 Peter 3:9: “[The Lord] is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  One of my favorite authors, Andrew Murray, [1] has written a chapter on this topic that has immensely helped me, mainly because of his humility in admitting the limitations of his own understanding and his faith in clinging to the truths in scripture even when some of the concepts are hard to reconcile from our limited understanding.  He urges us to believe the truth that God desires all to be saved and then to act in accordance with that will by actively cooperating with Him in the work of bringing all men to a knowledge of the Savior.  I will share an excerpt and the entire chapter can be accessed online here.  In reflecting on 1 Timothy 2:1-4, he states:

After Paul had urged that supplications, prayers, and intercessions should be made for all men, he reminds us that we may do so in confident assurance that it is good and acceptable to God, because He wills that all men should be saved. The knowledge and faith of God’s will for all is to be the motive and the measure of our prayer for all. What God in heaven wills and works for His children on earth we are to will and work for also. As we enter into His will for all, we shall know what we are to do to fulfil that will. And as we pray and labor for all, the faith in His will for all will inspire us with confidence and love (God’s Will: Our Dwelling Place, p. 153-154).

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with praying for the salvation of all and desiring that all would be saved.  On the contrary, this seems the closest place to the heart of God who loves the whole world (John 3:16) and sent His Son to make redemption possible for all (1 John 2:2).  It is His desire that none would perish but that all would be brought to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).  I feel myself closest to His loving heart when I am engaging in prayers for the salvation of all.  I can pray in accord with Jesus when praying for those who are currently rejecting God, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

  • The justice of God

I am comforted by the faith of Abraham – “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).  Where did I get my measuring stick for fairness anyway?  Doesn’t my very questioning of this matter reveal a heart that thinks it knows better than God?  Will not the Author of justice be supremely more just than I am?

  • The holiness of God and the severity of sin

The fact that I have questioned the fairness of hell shows how influenced my mind has been by the godless culture around me.  Rather than caving to my fallen nature or the world’s low view of sin, the biblical teaching on hell should inform my mind on the gravity of sin’s wickedness and how utterly inimical it is to God’s holiness.

  • The intrinsic value of human beings

In considering the alternative of annihilation, J. P. Moreland and Gary Habermas note:

“If God is the source and preserver of values, and if persons have the high degree of intrinsic value Christianity claims they have, then God is the preserver of persons.  He would be wrong to destroy something of such value just because it has chosen a life it was not intended to live. Thus, one way God can respect persons is to sustain them in existence and not annihilate them. Annihilation destroys creatures of intrinsic value” (Beyond Death, p. 296).

  • The seriousness of this life

In considering the alternative of Universalism, philosopher Eugene Fontinell observes:

The question that must be raised here is whether the doctrine of universal salvation, highly motivational though it may be, does not diminish the ‘seriousness’ of human experience. . . At stake here, of course, is the nature and scope of human freedom. . . . There is a profound difference between a human freedom whose exercise must lead to union with God and one that allows for the possibility of eternal separation from God. . . . A world in which there can only be winners is a less serious world than one in which the possibility of the deepest loss is real” (as cited in Beyond Death, p. 296).

In a similar vein, I have considered how the doctrine of universal salvation makes life seem more like a large cosmic joke, or a play in which we are all acting a part, or a game where we find in the end that the rules were very different than they appeared.  Does this not have drastic implications concerning the nature of God?  In this scenario he bears a resemblance to the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.  That is not a being worthy of my worship.

  • God’s middle knowledge and all possible worlds

I’m personally a fan of a very cursory understanding of Molinism as I have found that it helps me reconcile this issue better than Calvinism or Arminianism.  In considering the doctrine of hell and the question of those who may never have had a chance to hear the gospel, I have personally found this theological construct to be the most helpful in resolving my issues.  [I won’t get into the details here because I understand just enough to help myself, but not enough to intelligently explain it to anyone else!  Besides, this post is already too lengthy!  Also, there are some very informed Calvinists I respect who read this blog and who probably know way more about Molinism and its problems than I have a clue about! But if you have struggled with this issue as I have and if you are not satisfied with the answers in Calvinism or Arminianism, and if you have never heard of Molinism, you might want to google it and check it out.]

  • The analogy of other dimensions

C. S. Lewis has a helpful analogy for the Trinity that also has cross-application for me when it comes to reconciling this issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom.  In Mere Christianity (chapter 24) Lewis proposes that a human trying to grasp the concept of the Trinity is like a being in a two-dimensional world trying to grasp the concept of a three-dimensional object.  A three-dimensional object could exist outside the two-dimensional world, but if it tried to interface with that world it could only be perceived in a limited way.  (If you can figure out how that has cross-application to this issue then we have something in common.  If you can’t we can chat about it in the comments.  I’m afraid this post is already way too long and if you have made it this far you deserve some kind of an award.)

One final thought.  The doctrine of hell is one of the primary emotional objections that many people have to Christianity.  I have even seen this cited as one of the primary reasons a former Evangelical was drawn to the LDS religion.  Yet the doctrine of hell is clearly taught in scripture (Dan. 12:2, Matt. 5:22, Matt. 10:28, Mark 9:44, Luke 16:19-26, 2 Thess. 1:9, Rev. 20:9-15), and even though it has often been confused and abused, a biblical understanding of this doctrine will lead us into a closer relationship with God who desires us to worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. . .In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map. . .Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression – like believing the earth is flat.[2]

___________________________________________

Footnotes:

1.  Unfortunately, some Universalist sites on the internet have tried to associate Andrew Murray with Universalism, but I have found their conjectures unsubstantiated.  One of the primary evidences they cite for their claim is the chapter I quoted in this article.  However, a careful reading of this chapter reveals Murray’s commitment to the whole word of God and His desire to “accept every revealed truth with the simplicity and the faith of little children” even when he admits that some things in scripture are hard to understand and may contain “apparently conflicting truths which we cannot reconcile.”  I find no evidence that Murray believed in or was advocating for Universalism.  The very fact that he admits this is a difficult subject and hard to reconcile demonstrates that he was not selectively limiting his theology to only those passages that Universalists emphasize.

2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapter 23, accessed October 16, 2010 at http://www.ldolphin.org/CSLtrinity.html.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2010 5:15 am

    Haven’t read the post yet, just saw that you’d written it. Thank you, Jessica!! I’m excited to read it — might be tomorrow before I get to it, but you are the best. Love you.

  2. October 30, 2010 6:00 pm

    Okay, Jessica. So sometimes apparently “tomorrow” means “in 10 days.” Sorry for the delay here. Things have been super busy with work and stuff, but that’s no excuse, especially given how kind and thorough you were to post this in response to my questions over on Tim’s blog. Hope you forgive me!

    I appreciate what you’re saying about our fallen inability to comprehend God’s ways. I also appreciate the points you’ve made. Like you, my cursory understanding of Molinism has been helpful.

    I have a couple of follow up questions for you…

    1)–Do you believe in any form of inclusivism; i.e. that genuine people who are ignorant of the gospel or who are honestly wrong on the details but are doing the best they can will be met with mercy and grace instead of condemnation and hell? This is a pretty serious sticking point for me. I can imagine God allowing someone to reject Him if they honestly and truly reject Him. I can’t imagine a loving God telling someone who has genuinely sought to do the right thing and act on the spiritual promptings they’ve received, even if they’ve misinterpreted them badly, that because they got mixed up on some of the details they’re going to hell.

    2)–I think this is almost a foundational question to the first: do you believe that human beings are capable of doing any good on their own? We had this discussion over on the Romans 7 post and I’d be interested in hearing how you’d weigh in on that topic. As I explained there, I tend to think that while human beings are not capable of being good enough to “earn” salvation of any kind — so that there must be a redemption and grace — I do believe they are capable of doing good for its own sake. I’ve known too many nonbelievers who are genuinely loving and kind to believe otherwise.

    Your thoughts?

  3. October 30, 2010 8:38 pm

    Hi Katie! 🙂

    Don’t worry about responding timely – we are all busy. You might notice I haven’t blogged much lately. To steal my boss’ favorite expression, “I have had too many wieners on the grill!” I am so thankful for a quiet Saturday today! I saw on FB that you had written the post for Tim’s blog so I went over and checked it out. Your thoughts on this topic struck a chord with me as this is a subject I have personally wrestled with a lot. Writing this post helped me consolidate my thoughts into one place so I could build and expand upon it from there.

    In response to your questions, I am in agreement with you re: God revealing Himself to those who genuinely seek Him. We have His promise throughout scripture that He will do just that (i.e. Prov. 8:17 – “those who seek me diligently will find me”; Jer. 29:13 – “you shall seek me, and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart”; Matt. 7:7 – “seek and you shall find”). Further, Paul says that God has set people in the times and places they are in for the specific purpose that they would seek Him (Acts 17:26-27). I’m with you that He allows people to choose not to seek Him if that is what they want, but that He has set them in the perfect position so that they will seek Him. I believe people can choose to reject His drawing, but that God is drawing all people to Himself (John 12:32). He desires all to be saved and Jesus lamented those who rejected Him (Matt. 23:37). Have you ever read Eternity in their Hearts by Don Richardson? He describes numerous accounts of tribal peoples who were prepared to receive the gospel when missionaries arrived because God had prepared them long in advance. Some of them had tribal beliefs and traditions that paralleled Biblical accounts (some very interesting parallels with the Genesis account of creation), some of them were prepared by visions that told them a missionary was coming with a book from God who would tell them the way. The gospel spread in some of these prepared areas like a match on a gasoline spill.

    On the related topic you brought up, yes, I believe humans can choose to do good or evil and that God will judge people according to their works (Rom. 2:6-16, Rev. 20:13) with varying degrees of punishments or rewards. I refuse to speculate further where the scriptures are silent (in regard to those who haven’t heard of Jesus). I don’t feel it is my place to figure that out, but simply to trust Jesus when He said “my judgment is just” (John 5:30). He also told Peter that it wasn’t for him to know the destiny of another (John 21:21-22), but his responsibility was to follow Jesus. Part of following Jesus includes warning others to flee from the wrath to come. We will one day give an account for what we did with the knowledge we were given. We have been commanded to go and tell. My concern with developing any kind of commitment to something like inclusivism is that it attempts to make judgment calls where scripture is silent. We can speculate about how God is going to be completely fair and just to those who haven’t heard, but He hasn’t told us how that is all going to work out. Further, I think it potentially makes us more passive and less prayerful in terms of our evangelistic work.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  4. November 3, 2010 6:31 am

    I refuse to speculate further where the scriptures are silent (in regard to those who haven’t heard of Jesus). I don’t feel it is my place to figure that out, but simply to trust Jesus when He said “my judgment is just” (John 5:30).

    I believe that this, my friend, is one of the wisest things I’ve heard on the topic. I like what you say about trusting God that He will be both just and merciful, and then going out there and doing what you can to share the good news. In this regard you are neither condemning others to hell nor neglecting the Great Commission. Some people would go crazy with the ambiguity (and do; why else are there so many people hard and fast doctrines all over the map here?) but I think it’s a great way to go. LOVE IT.

  5. Nick permalink
    June 16, 2012 10:13 pm

    I think Romans 9 speaks to all of this.

    This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

    (Romans 9:8-16 ESV)

    Paul goes on to say:

    So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

    You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

    (Romans 9:18-24 ESV)

  6. Nick permalink
    June 16, 2012 10:25 pm

    On a separate note, I am not a Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist. My allegiance is to Christ and His word. I think that God has spoken clearly on the matter in the text. Also, another great part of Romans to consider is this:

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    (Romans 1:18-23 ESV)

    Basically, everyone who rejects God and does not receive is grace through faith is without excuse becuase He has made himself known to all humankind. This is actually a recurring theme. I can give you tons of examples of where God says in the word that there is no one that can stand before Him and plea ignorance as a means of justification for their sin. Only the cross can offer that.

  7. Nick permalink
    June 16, 2012 10:33 pm

    http://carm.org/questions/about-god/why-doesnt-god-just-save-everyone is a good article you should check out too! I love the Carm.org web site, and Matt Slick is trustworthy and reliable in his exegesis of different texts in the Bible.

  8. Nick permalink
    June 16, 2012 11:19 pm

    One more thing! I recently read an article on Molinism that may be helpful:

    “Basically, we can see Molinism as the teaching that God knows what the potential free will choices of people will be and chooses who will be saved based on that knowledge. In other words, God sovereignly predestines and saves those whom He knows will choose Him.

    The problems here are multifaceted. First, it means that God looks into the future to see what people will do and saves them based on their choices. Therefore, God reacts to man’s choices and God saves a person based on some quality (the ability to make a right choice) that the person possesses. But this is showing partiality (favoring one person over another based on a quality in/of that person), something that God condemns (Rom. 2:11). Also, Molinism does not answer why one person chooses God and another does not, when it is God who makes the person and puts him in that place and time. In other words, what is it about the human free will that God has made that enables him to choose God or not? Just saying it is up to the individual doesn’t answer the question. The hard-core Molinist cannot answer this question adequately.

    Second, Middle Knowledge means that God learns what the actual choices of people will be only when they occur. God would then be ignorant about man’s future choices. This violates the scripture that says God knows all things (1 John 3:20), not just all things that actually happen. In fact, the very verses used by Molinists to support Middle Knowledge (Matt. 11:21-24 and 1 Cor. 2:8) can be used to show that God’s knowledge is absolute when it comes to potential events, not developing. He doesn’t learn. He knows!

    Third, Middle Knowledge (as it relates to human freedom) fails to properly understand the depravity of man. The scriptures do not say that the unregenerate can freely choose God. In fact, the contrary is taught. It is man who is deceitful (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness (John 3:19), does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12), is ungodly (Rom. 5:6), dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3), cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and a slave of sin (Rom. 6:16-20). Therefore, what is important here is understanding that an unbeliever is incapable of understanding and accepting Christ given the condition of his nature in a fallen, unregenerate state. This is why the Bible says such things as it is God who appoints people to believe (Acts 13:48), chooses who is to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4), calls according to His purpose (2 Tim. 1:9), chooses us for salvation (2 Thess. 2:13-14), grants the act of believing (Phil. 1:29), grants repentance (2 Tim. 2:24-26), causes us to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3), draws people to Himself (John 6:44,65), predestines us to salvation (Rom. 8:29-30) and adoption (Eph. 1:5) according to His purpose (Eph. 1:11), makes us born again not by our will but by His will (John 1:12-13), and works faith in the believer (John 6:28-29).

    Though God does know all things actual as well as potential, He also knows exactly what choices we will make at any time, not because God is a good guesser, but because God has predestined and ordained whatsoever comes to pass (Acts 4:27-28; Eph. 1:11).”

    Article by Matt Slick, http://carm.org/what-molinism

    Hope that brings some consideration and opens up some further discussion on the matter of Molinism. Molinism banks on the teaching of Open Theism which, I believe, greatly diminishes the sovereignty of God and is almost heretical in nature. Basically, in Molinism and Open Theism, God is a respecter of men and man’s salvation depends on himself and not God’s effectual calling or election.

    Your brother in Christ,
    Nick

  9. June 30, 2012 9:15 pm

    Here is my view on the topic:
    http://linusd.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/is-hell-justice/

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