If you haven’t read HELL 1, HELL 2, HELL 3, or HELL 4 please start with those posts here.
God is not a vengeful, wrath-filled god ready to punish the unrepentant by sending them to Hell for eternity, but rather a Father who has always been seeking, pursuing, and longing for a relationship with us.
Even when we have created relational distance from God (sin), even when we have lived out of this disunion (sin), the Father has always been welcoming us back with open arms saying, “You are always with me. Everything I have is yours. Even when you have walked away.”
There have been those thus far in this HELL series who view God very differently and who believe I am painting too generous a picture of God by focusing on God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness to the neglect of God’s wrath and judgment, which we will get to later in this post and next. But first, it is essential to understand the nature and character of God before we can even begin to understand anything else.
I view the biblical narrative as an unfolding revelation of God’s true nature and character that ultimately and definitively culminates in Jesus.
Early in the story, rays of God’s true nature would occasionally break through the dark clouds and shadows of human misconception. But even in that time, God’s full revelation was still obscured and not fully visible.
What we find in the biblical narrative is a story of humanity projecting and attributing their tribalism, barbarism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, misogyny, and genocide onto God (like many still do today). And through the millennia, we find God patiently and lovingly absorbing these character assaults, while bearing with, and many times accommodating, these mischaracterizations until God’s full nature and character is finally (and ultimately) revealed in Christ.
How extraordinarily patient and loving and beautiful is the God revealed in Jesus.
In Jesus, the true light of the world, God’s nature and character was fully revealed without occlusion. And what we discover is, not a hostile, retributive, or punishing disposition, but a patient, forgiving love that gives of itself, even to the point of death, for friend and enemy alike.
And that is who God has always been.
So in all the ways God was previously understood, and in all the ways we have manufactured a god in our own image, these inferior portraits of God should all now completely fade into how God is understood through the embodied and crucified Christ.
The revelation of God in Jesus supersedes all other caricatures of God, because it is the only image that fully captures who God is.
Despite Old Testament depictions of God as a petulant, vindictive, vengeful, and monstrous deity, we are to no longer view God in that way. Because in Jesus, Paul writes, we discover the “image of the invisible God.” And, as Jesus says about himself, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
We can trust both of these voices in their conclusion that the nature and character of God is exactly like Jesus.
Even more, in Jesus’ actual teachings, he begins to redefine people’s ideas of God.
While there are countless examples of Jesus revealing the true heart of God as non-retributive, non-violent, and enemy-loving, one of the single greatest examples may not even be evident to the casual reader.
On the Sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue, as was the custom. And when he got there he took the scroll of Isaiah and began to read.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And while reading this passage, announcing the Year of the Lord’s Favor (also known as the Year of Jubilee), would have been shocking enough in its audacity, positioning Jesus as the one whom Isaiah was referencing, it is even more shocking in what Jesus didn’t read.
He didn’t really finish the sentence.
The entire line should have read, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus lists all of the attributes that are true to God’s nature and character when reading the scroll… but then drops the single attribute that is inconsistent with the true nature and character of God.
And you know what? Jesus has quite a track record of doing that.
But why does Jesus spend so much time reframing people’s conceptions of God through his parables, through his teachings, through his life, and in this case, by selectively editing a prophet?
It’s because people had an incomplete and inferior picture of God, and it took Jesus to reveal the complete and final picture of God.
You may be wondering how understanding the true nature and character of God will help us understand God’s judgment and wrath, and then ultimately how we understand Hell.
Well, we have to know what kind of God we are dealing with in order to understand each of them accurately.
Because if God is really like Jesus, and not the retributive, vengeful, threatening character we have grown up believing, but rather a God who loves us, welcomes us, and longs for a relationship with us, then maybe our conception of God’s judgment and wrath have been off as well.
Even though God loves us, continually welcomes us, and desperately longs for a relationship with us, God also gives us the freedom to choose this relationship or to completely walk away from it without the threat of vengeance or retribution.
God never forces or coerces a person into a relationship.
We know this because we established that those characteristics are inconsistent with the God we see in Jesus.
True love can never be forced or coerced. And a loving relationship can never be built upon the fear of punishment. It has to be freely chosen.
Look at it this way.
If a husband tells his wife that she must love him, repent of all the ways she has betrayed him, and then ask for his forgiveness, or he will punish her for the rest of her life, common sense would suggest that, even if she went through all the necessary motions, she would never truly love him.
That’s because threatening a person into a relationship never allows a person to freely choose the relationship.
It is motivated by fear, not the choice to love. And God never works through fear, threats, damnation, or punishment to lead a person back into life and love.
When a person makes a conscious decision to walk away and live in relational disunion from God (sin) and to live out of this disunion (sin), even though God is lovingly standing there with open arms and welcoming them back into an abundant relationship, they have the freedom to choose this path.
But walking away from this relationship with God, the one in whom all life and love is found, is the punishment in and of itself, as they are ultimately choosing a path that leads to non-life.
Do you see that?
If God is the giver and sustainer of all life, then walking away from God is choosing non-life. For there is no life outside of God. But again, God always gives a person the freedom to choose the path of disunion and non-life.
And to me, this is not so much a judge reviewing a laundry list of “sins” and then ruling that a person is guilty and deserving of death, as much as it is a person standing before the judge saying, “This is the path I have chosen for myself and this is what I want.”
To that end, the judgment of God is simply giving a person what they have freely chosen- the freedom to walk away from life and into non-existence in the end.
In light of understanding God’s nature and character and what God’s judgment is, we can finally begin to discuss what the wrath of God is. That will be the subject of HELL 6.