Jesus said that if a man lusts after a woman he has committed adultery with her in his heart. If a man is sinfully angry with another he faces condemnation similar to that of a murderer. The entire human race was plunged into sin and condemnation because Adam and Eve ate one piece of forbidden fruit. Does this mean that all sin the same? Is committing murder as bad in the eyes of God as telling a white lie?
Sin is always wrong. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount point to the severity of all sin. God in His holiness does not overlook a single sin, no matter how small or how justified it may seem to a person. No circumstance will ever exist where it is better to sin than not to sin. God hates all sin. Whether or not all sins are equal all are evil. The relationship of sin to other sin and the varying degrees of response to sin never justify committing sin.
The Bible speaks directly about the degrees of severity in sin. Sins can rightly be classified as greater or lesser. Jesus told Pontius Pilate that the priests who rejected Him and turned Him over to Pilate for execution had the greater sin. “Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” (John 19:11) Though Pilate gave the official command to crucify Jesus and the Roman soldiers carried out the command it was the Jewish priests whose sin was greatest.
Evidence for different severities of sin is seen in the differing levels of judgment upon sin. Jesus warned cities of Galilee of the greater judgment waiting for them because they rejected Him. (Luke 10:13-14) Hebrews says, “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:28-29) Those who have greater knowledge of right and wrong are accounted as having committed a greater evil when they sin.
One word of caution must be given. Men often fail to measure the severity of sin according to God’s standard. God is not unjust because He regards sin differently than we do. We consider sin differently than God does because we have been infected by sin. Our ability to make a proper judgment about sin is compromised by our own sinfulness. God’s measurement of sin must be the one that controls all understanding about sin.
All sin is terrible. Some sins are more terrible than others. God alone determines what is sin, how serious is the sin and the consequences of sin.
Some view eternal suffering in the lake of fire to be as reasonable as shooting a puppy for wetting the carpet. A good, loving God would never be party to such an extreme injustice. Yet Christian teaching declares that eternal hell is just, good and necessary. How could eternal punishment in torment of flames and darkness be justice?
Justice is the legal response to wrong that brings punishment in proportion with the severity of the crime committed. Conrary to justice is revenge. Revenge is the personal, illegal act of making another endure the same pain that the injured person feels. Justice is not motivated by a desire to get even but by a recognition of the true damage done by a crime. The Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” was not a prescription for personal revenge but a description of legitimate justice which responded to wrong based upon the extent of harm done. Similar principles of justice are still seen in courts today. The accidental causing of another’s death is treated differently from negligently contributing to the death of a person which is treated differently from suddenly striking down a person which is treated differently from planning and executing the murder of another. Premeditated murder of an adult is treated differently from the intentional murder of an infant. The intent of the crime and the innocence of the victim legitimately affect the response to that crime. Along with murder treason usually brings the severest of punishments. Though treason does not always take another’s life, such a harsh response is generally recognized as just because treason offend the dignity of the ruling power and it threatens the safety of many others within the country. Treason is a repudiation of ones former allegiances that seeks the harm of ones own country, including friends and neigbors, and thus merits stern penalties.
What does treason have to do with the justice of hell? To understand the justice of hell one must understand the true horribleness of sin. Sin is no mere accident. Sin is unintentionally committed by someone unaware that his deed is wrong. Sin is first and foremost a willful act of rebellion against the God of heaven. God is Creator of all things and sole Ruler over all creation. Sin is therefore an act of treason far greater than any national treachery. Sin is mutiny against the perfect Creator. Sin is a repudiation of God, self and fellow man. Disobedience against God is an act of treason that wrongs God, injures self and wounds others. Disobedience against God is worse than mere treason. Disobedience against God is the attempt to overthrow God as ruler of your life and to inaugurate your own self as lord of your own destiny. This treachery is not only treason it is attempt to seize power from the Divine.
Since sin is the rejection of God as God and rebellion against His rule sin causes uncalculable harm to the individual and others around. Sin has wreaked havoc across the world. Sin is responsible for the death of billions and for the anguish felt in every part of creation. Every person born on the planet is complicit with sin. How can such evil against one’s Creator, Sovereign and God not require the greatest of punishments? Because sin is the rebellion of creature against the infinite, eternal Creator the scope of sin is limitless. A just response is measured to be appropriate to the scope of crime committed. A limitless crime requires a limitless payment. No finite creature is able to satisfy justice through any punishment of limited duration. The only appropriate judgment for a crime of infinite severity is an infinite punishment. Hell is just.
Eternal punishment of humans in a place of fire, darkness and extreme torment may be accepted as a necessity of justice but can it really be a good thing? More importantly, can one be good who would condemn a person to unending torture? This issue has been offered by some skeptics as conclusive proof the God of the Bible is not real. This issue has resulted in Christians suggesting varieties of universal salvation (Recently seen in the book, “Love Wins”), views of mitigated judgment that results in a near universal salvation (purgatory), and pithy statements declaring it’s really men who choose to go to hell (“God doesn’t send anyone to hell, people choose to go there”). Variants of these themes abound attempting to show that God is not the bad guy.
Understanding this difficult question begins with the reality of justice. Justice is not a social construct that institutionalizes or rationalizes revenge. Justice is the proper moral response to evil. Justice measures the moral weight of the wrong done and responds with an equally weighty consequence. Justice is based on an absolute standard of morality- God’s character. God’s justice is always a reflection of God’s character. If God’s justice is capricious, excessive or petty then God Himself is capricious, excessive or petty.
Since all justice is based on the character of God and God’s justice is a reflection of His character none can argue that God’s punishment of sin is arbitrary or excessive. When God created people He warned Adam and Eve they would die if they sinned against Him. The death foretold begins with separation from God. Separation from God is the natural result of sin because God is holy to such a degree that He cannot possibly have any fellowship, friendship or relationship with that which is tainted by sin. (Leviticus 20:7; Psalm 5:4-5; Habakkuk 1:13; Revelation 21:27) The infinite holiness of God demands His wrath be leveled against all who commit sin. (Psalm 11:4-7; Psalm 34:15-16) Eternal suffering is the inevitable result of separation from God and falling under the wrath of God. God’s justice is not an arbitrary determination but the logical consequence of sin against the infinitely holy God. For God to change these consequences would be to violate His own justice. If God is in any way unjust then He cannot in any way be good.
Some will concede that God is just for punishing sin but it would be better if He were merciful to all men. The assertion effectively becomes that God is not good because He insists on justice. God would be good if He overlooked what is just to do what is loving. This argument falls down on the premise that something can be unjust and good. Injustice is never a good thing. Injustice may have a show of kindness to some, but it is inherently cruel to others. The response to recent officer involved shootings of children and adolescents illustrates this very well. Supposing an officer of the law carelessly caused the death of an innocent child, it would be evil to allow him to escape the legitimate consequence of his actions. The parents, the community and the police force would all be harmed by the denial of justice. If there are no consequences for ones actions and no retribution for the great wrongs done in this world then a persons actions in life are ultimately meaningless and God is the most evil being imaginable. For God to be good, He must also be unfailingly just.
Some believe that in making the promise of salvation God is promising to be unjust. A famous preacher recently said that God “broke the law for love”. Salvation in not unjust. The justice of God is in no way compromised by His promise of salvation. Salvation is not God’s promise to ignore a person’s sin if that person asks for forgiveness. God has never offered to forget about evil. God always punishes evil. The justice of God that always punishes sin and the mercy of God that offers salvation to men has provided a substitute to bear the punishment of sin so that sinful men will not have to bear that punishment themselves. The cross is the place where God’s mercy and justice are perfectly mingled. At the cross, God’s justice was satisfied and God’s mercy overflowed to all who would believe. At the cross mankind sees the full extent of the goodness of God goodness that is in no way contradictory to justice. A God who does not always punish evil is not the god of the Bible. A God who would not send men to hell would be unjust and evil.
Possibly one of the most difficult questions for a caring Christian to consider and answer is the fate of those who have never had the chance to hear the gospel. To many it seems an unthinkable unfairness that God would send people to hell who never had the chance to be saved. Walking carefully through the Bible’s teaching is not always easy. Despite the great emotional tensions associated with this question it can only be answered by a thorough consideration of what God has said about man, sin and salvation.
The Bible’s answer can be summed up in a very straightforward fashion. Those who die without turning to Jesus for forgiveness of sin are not forgiven and remain under the judgment of God. Only when one starts with a Biblical perspective can this answer begin to make sense. Many imagine that condemnation happens after death based upon one’s sin or refusal to believe Jesus.
Condemnation does not happen after death. Men are not sentenced to hell for rejecting Jesus or for committing an excessive number of bad deeds. Men are sentenced to hell because they are born sinners who are already condemned by God. “He that believeth not is condemned already.” (John 3:18) “You were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1) The first chapter of Colossians describes all men as separated from God and enemies against Him. The third chapter of Romans describes all men as wicked, refusing to seek after God, having no good in them and filled with all manner of wickedness. The Bible consistently teaches that all people are currently guilty before God. Romans 3:19 says all the world is guilty before God. Everyone is already condemned for sin. Men are not waiting for judgment to find out if they are guilty or not. The conviction has been handed down. Sentencing is delayed to give opportunity for salvation.
The fate of those who die in their guilt is eternal separation from God in hell. 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9 says Jesus will exact vengeance on those that do not know God and have not obeyed the gospel. Jesus’ vengeance will be unending destruction apart from the presence of God and His glory. In other places in the Bible this everlasting destruction is described as a place of fire and intense suffering. Those who do not know God will be sentenced to eternal hell.
Wrong ideas about Divine judgment are abundant. Most seem to believe that if they are better people than a lot of others then they will make it to heaven. Some believe there is no hell. A growing number believe that God will not send anyone to hell (or maybe only send the really, really bad people to hell). The Biblical truth is that hell is real and only those who have turned to Jesus for forgiveness will escape hell. Those who do not do so, whether it be because of stubbornness, rebellion, ignorance or some other reason will be punished with everlasting destruction. Into this bleak assessment shines the good news of the gospel. Salvation from hell has been purchased by Jesus and is freely given to those who will turn to Him for forgiveness.
I want to answer a follow up question to last week’s article about Christianity and violence. If the Bible teaches all men should love one another then why do Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Deuteronomy 20:17-18 tell us that God commanded the Israelites to wipe out entire groups of people? This is a significant question. Some have attempted to get around these difficult passages by saying they mean something else. That is a tempting but unacceptable solution to the problem. If the passages in question do not mean God commanded utter destruction of entire tribes, then it is impossible to determine any real meaning from those passages. A natural reading leads to one inevitable conclusion. God commanded the nation of Israel to eradicate entire tribes of people.
God is not evil for decreeing the destruction of a people or nation. As the Creator, Kign and Judge of all humanity, God has the authority to execute judgment how and when He wishes. When God created Adam and Eve, He warned them the consequence of disobedience would be death (Genesis 2:17). On the day man sinned God condemned all humanity to death. Everyone who dies does so because God has decreed the destruction of all humanity. Later in human history, God destroyed all but eight people. In the flood God put to death millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of men, women, children and infants. Still later God destroyed two major cities and their surrounding villages. He wiped Sodom and Gomorrah off the map, killing all but three people. In the days to come God will once again pour out His judgment on humanity. During the time of the Tribulation, billions of people will be killed by the catastrophic judgments of God. God is the Creator, King and Judge of all humanity. He is righteous in executing judgment on men. Though it is disconcerting to consider the justice and wrath of God, we cannot attribute evil to God for exercising His just wrath.
We are disturbed by the commands for Israel to destroy the tribes of Canaan because God is commanding a nation, an army and its individual soldiers to put to death women and children, even infants. The troubling question is how can a loving God command His people to kill non-combatants and to annihilate a whole group of people? Though the command to the Israelites is extreme, it is not out of keeping with the character of God. Since the days of Noah God has used men as His instruments of justice. He appointed governments to be ministers of the sword. He gave to governments the responsibility of executing capital punishment.
Israel was a nation uniquely set apart by God. They were a holy people unto the Lord. They were a nation governed by unique laws, given a unique territory and holding a genuine national identity. God’s use of a nation to bring judgment upon another nation is not contrary to His character. Passages like Isaiah 45 shows that God uses nations as a means of bringing punishment upon other nations. To begin to understand these passages, one must consider the nations under God’s condemnation. The nations inhabiting Canaan were extremely wicked. They were idolaters routinely practicing a wide variety of immoral sex acts as part of their worship of false gods. They offered human sacrifices and even killed their children at the altars of their false gods. They were demon worshipers serving devils that they imagined to be real gods. God in His justice determined to destroy these nations because of their awful depravity.
In the end we must be content to trust the justice of God. Israel was not acting out of malice or a mistaken sense of racial superiority. No megalomaniacal tyrant decreed Israel destroy the nations so he could elevate his prestige. No self-declared superman demanded Israel exterminate all those he deemed inferior. Israel did not devise this course on her own. The nation was following the command of an all wise, just God. Israel was acting under the command of God as the agent of God’s justice. We naturally cringe at the thought of the death of so many. The wages of sin are terrible and passages like this bring home the enormity of sin’s hideousness. We must let the truths of God’s holiness, justice, goodness and wisdom give comfort to our troubled hearts. We must remember that the Judge of all the earth will always do right.