One of the things that’s very important when you talk about themes of punishment in scripture, the theme of consequences for sin, the most ultimate of those is hell, is the position from which you examine those themes. Here’s two starting points that will always get you into trouble.
First is the starting point of the centrality of the human being in the biblical story. Human beings are not central. God is central. This is God’s story. I think the most important words in the Bible are the first four words. “In the beginning, God…” If God is on site, if God had created all of this, then everything is His. Everything belongs to Him. Everything is from Him and of Him and through Him. To Him be the glory. That’s Romans 11:36. And so, whatever doctrine I look at, I have to look at it from the centrality of the glory of God, the glory, the holiness, the perfection, the centrality of God. You’ll never ever understand difficult doctrines unless you start there. This is God’s world.
Now, this is where this goes. He has the right to do with this world whatever He wishes because it’s His. If I’m a painter by avocation, when I put my hands to that canvas, it’s my creation. I can do with it whatever I want because it belongs to me and that’s the position of the Creator.
There’s a second starting point that will get you in trouble. It’s the worthiness of the human being, that we are innately, theologians say ontologically, worthy human beings. We deserve good happening to us. And so, if you don’t start with the centrality of God, you get into trouble. And if you start with the worthiness of the human being, you get into trouble. What the Bible declares is that God is central and that we are unworthy.
One of the most shocking passages in all of the Bible is in the Psalms, where it says, “58:3 The wicked go astray from the womb, speaking lies.” There’s never a moment in my existence where I’m good. There’s never a moment, not my very first breath, where I have God in His rightful place. And so, hell is not this horrible thing that God does to these good people who are in the center of the whole thing. That’s not what it is. Hell is actually the rightful state of everyone who has ever been born because everyone who was ever born rejects and rebels against the One who is central.
So I don’t actually struggle with the doctrine of hell. I struggle with, “How could it ever be that I would be freed from that?’ How could there be mercy this great? How could there be grace this huge? How could it be possible that people who shake their fists in the face of the One who is central could have His arms of love wrapped around them and spend eternity in His presence? How could that ever be? That’s crazy to me, but for the cross of Jesus Christ.
Hell isn’t crazy to me. It’s sad. We should not want for anybody to ever be in hell, but it makes sense to me. God’s mercy given to me makes no sense except for the sacrifice, the payment of Jesus. That’s how I handle the doctrine of hell.