Saturday, April 21, 2007

Talk Four: Saved from the Wrath of God

Recently, a friend told me how annoyed he got when other Christians suggested that God was going to send people to hell. He was reacting to a sermon he had heard in which a Christian preacher said just that. My friend a Christian preacher himself said that it was unthinkable that a God of love would ever reject anyone. I don’t particularly like the idea of people being tormented forever in the fires of hell myself, but I asked my friend what he made of those passages in the Bible that suggested that one day God would judge the world. And what he made of the church’s teaching down the ages, which asserted that we would all one day have to give an account of ourselves to God?

The passages in the Bible, he said, were just the products of people who knew no better. They reflected a primitive worldview. Now we know better and understand God better. As for the Church’s teaching, well the Church had just got it wrong as it had got many things wrong in its history. God loved the world and the teaching of Jesus was that God welcomed everyone no matter who they were, where they came from, or what they did. The love of God would triumph in the end and everyone after death would meet a God who accepted them regardless of what their life on earth had been like.

At first sight, this is an attractive message. We all respond to the parable of the prodigal son in which the father forgives the son who had wasted his inheritance in riotous living. We like to think of God as a God of love who understands us and who is always there for us. And it is true, as my friend pointed out to me, that the God of some of the Church’s teaching in the past really wasn’t very nice, not someone you would want to spend much time with, and certainly not the rest of eternity. Why would God want to torture people?

And yet is the message that God will accept everyone regardless of what they have done really more attractive? It means, for example, that Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein will all be there to meet us when we get to heaven, alongside many other torturers and mass murderers. We may be happy with that idea, but most people do have a sense of justice. We believe that people should not be able to rape or murder without facing the courts and receiving a proper sentence. Many victims of crime, while not wanting revenge, nevertheless find some comfort, no matter how small, from knowing that the legal system will track down the person for the wrong that has been done against them and will punish them accordingly. Most of us feel that people need to be held to account if they commit, for example, genocide or war crimes. We do believe that there should be consequences for wrongdoing.

So why do we find it so difficult to accept that God is going to hold people to account for the way they have lived? One of the main accusations levelled against God is that he allows evil to continue in the world. The Christian response is that God respects human freedom, and evil in our world is one of the consequences of that freedom, but one day God will put everything right.

How, though, is ignoring what people have done and not holding them to account in any way at all putting things right? We demand temporal justice for crimes committed in our society. Surely there must be eternal justice as well?

Yes, Christians have, at times, focused inappropriately on the idea of heaven and hell and eternal judgement. God has not seemed very nice or attractive. But to get rid of the idea of justice altogether makes him seem indifferent and unbothered by wickedness and sin. The message of Easter is that God will one day judge the world by the One he has raised from the dead and that all will appear before him. There will, indeed, be eternal justice. For those who belong to Christ, there is no fear for the One who will be their judge also died for them as their Saviour and freely forgives and accepts all who turn to him.

It is him who saves us from the wrath to come.

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