During “Rabbi Time” last Monday, some people wanted to ask one of the unbeliever’s favorite questions. It often goes like this:
“What about hell? Do you think my grandma is going to hell even though she was a good person?”
We started talking about hell. I think some other people were afraid that they had wandered into a church like the one that had abused them! Were we now going to start having coercive diatribes about fire and brimstone all the time?
The dialogue made me realize that “hell” is probably a much more relevant topic than I imagine. The idea of hell messes with a lot of people’s idea of God. I think a lot of people want a “loving” God made in their own image, who loves them as they are because he basically is them — no repercussions for my sin = love. (Of course, I don’t know what everyone wants any more than they do, but that mentality seems prevalent).
Because of the discomfort I felt in the meeting, I feel like offering some wisdom from my recent most-favorite book, Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. In that book he thinks about the apparent dichotomy between the God who loves us enough to die for us and the God who will judge us on the last day. I can’t do justice to his argument in this small space, but I thought I’d give you a good taste.
He is thinking about Revelation 19:11-16, among other parts of that mysterious book.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
Now for a long quote from Volf (my emphases in bold):
The Anabaptist tradition, consistently the most pacifist tradition in the history of the Christian church, has traditionally had no hesitation about speaking of God’s wrath and judgment, and with good reasons. There is no trace of this nonindignant God in the biblical texts, be it Old Testament or New Testament, be it Jesus of Nazareth or John of Patmos. The evildoers who “eat up my people as they eat bread,” says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put “in great terror” (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better. why not reasoning together? Why not just display “suffering love?” Because the evildoers “are corrupt” and “they do abominable deeds” v.1); they have “gone astray,” they are “perverse” (v. 3). God will judge not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.
If we accept the stubborn irredeemability of some people, do we not end up with an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of Christian faith? Here the “crucified Messiah” with arms outstretched embracing the “vilest sinner,” there the Rider on the white horse with a sharp sword coming from his mouth to strike down the hopelessly wicked? The patient love of God over against the fury of God’s wrath? Why this polarity? Not because the God of the cross is different from the God of the second coming. After all, the cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception. The polarity is there because some human beings refuse to be “set aright.” Those who take divine suffering (the cross) as a display of divine weakness that condones the violator – draw upon themselves divine anger (the sword) that makes an end to their violence. The violence of the Rider on the white horse, I suggest, the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. For the sake of the peace of God’s good creation, we can and must affirm this divine anger and this divine violence, while at the same time holding on to the hope that in the end, even the flag bearer will desert the army that desires to make war against the Lamb.
Should not a loving God be patient and keep luring the perpetrator into goodness? That is exactly what God does: God suffers the evildoers through history as God has suffered them on the cross. But how patient should God be? The day of reckoning must come, not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury. “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” cry out the souls under the altar to the Sovereign Lord (Rev. 6:10). We are uncomfortable with the response which calls on the souls “to rest a little longer until the number should be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed!” (v.11) But the response underlines that God’s patience is costly, not simply for God, but for the innocent. Wanting for the evildoers to reform means letting suffering continue….
Does not the Apocalypse paint a different picture of the end, the one more congruent with its violent imagery of the Rider’s conquest? Is not the last vision dominated by “the throne” (Rev. 22:1) from which earlier “flashes of lightning” and “peals of thunder” were coming (4:5)? Is not the nameless “one seated on the throne” (4:9, 5:1) a perfect projection of the ultimate and incontestable warrior-potentate? If this were so, the Apocalypse would simply mirror the violence of the imperial Rome it had set out to subvert. The most surprising thing about this book is that at the center of the throne, we find the sacrificed Lamb (cf. 5:6, 7:17, 22:1). At the very heart of “the One who sits on the throne” is the cross. The world to come is ruled by the one who on the cross took violence upon himself in order to conquer the enmity and embrace the enemy. The Lamb’s rule is legitimized not by the “sword” but by the “wounds”; the goal of its rule is not to subject but to make people “reign for ever and ever” (22:5). With the Lamb at the center of the throne, the distance between the “throne” and the “subjects” has collapsed in the embrace of the triune God.
I think you can probably think of a hundred practical ways to apply clear, Christian thinking like that. Let me suggest one. Within the church (particularly Circle of Hope, where we encourage such things) there are people who are resistant to truth, love, morality and service. Our patience with them leads to repentance. We must keep the Lamb on our throne. Our persistent embrace is the flash of lightning upon which we rely. The lure of our relational truth-being and truth-telling is crucial to any change the God-opponents might experience. We might long for “apocalypse now” when it comes to the persistent unbelievers and sin-dealers, but we are constrained to leave that to God’s timing. Let’s meet the end in God’s embrace, embracing.