This past Sunday we discussed one of the most difficult topics for Christians to address, the belief in hell and a God who judges. In the message, I tried to explain that the Biblical idea of hell is a direct result of our understanding of the holiness of God. God is perfect, beautiful, glorious, and pure in all of his attributes and character. In the Bible, three words are used to consistently explain God’s holiness, that God is full of steadfast love, God is righteous, and God is just (Jeremiah 9:23-24). We somewhat understand God as love. God’s righteousness speaks to his character, that he is perfect in his being, without sin and not able to tolerate sin. He has a standard that measures his character and the character of his creation. Think for a moment if God were to fudge on his righteousness for just a moment. That God could never be trusted, because he is morally flawed and at any moment could lie to us, could go back on his promises, or could wipe us out just because he had a bad day. God’s justice means that he deals fairly and justly with evil and sin. Our world is a wicked and dangerous place, with people who do horrible things. When our courts let a person go free on a technicality, or deal softly with people who commit heinous crimes, our sense of justice leads to outrage. God’s very character of justice is ingrained in us. The problem lies with the reality that all of us are unrighteous, and deserve the justice of God. If God is not just, the truth is that we will end up with a God who is much like an adolescent girl who has a crush on the guy at school who is the big cocky jock who uses her, treats her like dirt, and then ditches her. But she keeps pursuing him without any concern about the vile way he acts.
You will often hear people ask, “How can a loving God send anyone to hell?” When we only focus on one aspect of the character of God, this is a valid question. But an equally valid question is, “How can a just and righteous God ever allow anyone into heaven and into His presence?”
For just a moment, I would like to encourage you to look at a passage of Scripture that I think is one of the most important in the entire Bible (OK, I know, every word is important, but the implications of this passage are amazing). Take a look at Romans 3:21-26. This passage explains how the cross of Jesus brings the holiness of God to the forefront and demonstrates how the righteousness, love, and justice of God kissed as Jesus shed his blood on the cross. For the sake of not writing an entire book here, I will just point out a couple things. First, notice how Paul mentions that righteousness is revealed against the backdrop of our sinfulness and twisted lives. The previous passage is actually the clearest declaration of humanities depravity in the Bible. The conclusion in Romans 6:23 is that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, his holiness, his standard. The outcome is that justification is humanly impossible. All that any of us can do is stand before God and plead for mercy. Our attempts to justify ourselves are useless. We stand condemned under God’s justice, and the moment God decides to let anyone off the hook without his justice being satisfied, it means that God has given away his character and all is hopeless for us.
Yet, verse 24 says that God gives justification as a gift to people who believe. Isn’t this essentially God being unjust, letting some off the hook while others are forced to punishment? Without the cross, this would be true. The essential truth of Christianity affirms two things here. First, that all people deserve God’s justice, and second, that God himself came and absorbed the justice due us in the person of Jesus. God does not give up his righteousness and justice, rather he takes it for us. The word “propitiation” in verse 25 says this very thing. That the hell and wrath we deserved was taken by Jesus. He literally experienced all hell and the total sum of God’s wrath for human sin on the original Good Friday.
And Paul says this all was to show God’s righteousness – to demonstrate that God’s character is perfect, pure, and worthy of our trust and praise. It is demonstrated in two ways here. First, God has passed over former sins. In other words, God shows his love to all humans when he does not immediately judge sin. The fact that Adam and Eve did not immediately experience the full wrath of God at the moment they bit the fruit is a demonstration of divine love. And the reality that you and I do not receive justice at the very moments we sin is an act of love and grace. God is not just letting people off the hook, but he chooses to delay justice as an act of his “divine forbearance”, his love. But greater than this, at the cross God demonstrated that he was both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Jesus endured literal hell, separation from God the Father, the complete torment of the event, and the experience of all the darkness of human sinfulness, and he did this as an expression of God’s perfect nature. God’s righteousness, his love, and his justice met at the cross. While we must affirm that hell is a reality because the character of God demands perfection and justice, we must also realize that God has provided another way, a way in which his character, greatness, and glory is displayed while providing the opportunity of the redemption of sinners like you and me. To the praise of his glorious grace!