Saturday, October 25, 2014

Martin Luther on Assurance of Salvation

The following is an extract from Luther's Commentary on Galatians (from Edwin Sandys's 1575 translation), and it is rather outstanding.

Luther here argues that Christians ought to be assured of their salvation, and that to say otherwise is a wicked lie of the devil meant to rob you of this blessed right as a Christian. Most importantly, he argues that the sufficient evidence that we are possessors of the Holy Spirit is our faith in the word of God, our embracing of and desire for the truth of the Gospel, and our confession of Jesus Christ, the testimony of our lips. This is a most astute and Biblical observation that is generally missed by many. While Luther does give some assent to the idea that Christians will do good works, it is clear in this passage that he didn't put much weight upon that, and even objected to it by saying that "there is no great difference betwixt a Christian and a civil honest man." If that is the case, our good works cannot therefore be sufficient evidence of our salvation, even if they do provide some confirmation of it. Assurance of salvation ultimately derives from our faith, our new understanding of divine things, our embrace of the truth, and the fruit of our lips. This is precisely what the Bible teaches.


"The Holy Ghost is sent by the Word into the hearts of the believers, as here it is said, ‘God sent the spirit of his Son,’ etc. This sending is without any visible appearance; to wit, when by the hearing of the spoken Word, we receive an inward fervency and light, whereby we are changed and become new creatures; whereby also we receive a new judgment, new feelings and motions. This change and this new judgment is no work of reason, or of the power of man, but is the gift and the operation of the Holy Ghost, which cometh with the Word preached, which purifieth our hearts by faith, and bringeth forth in us spiritual motions. Therefore there is a great difference betwixt us and those which with force and subtlety persecute the doctrine of the Gospel. For we by the grace of God can certainly judge by the Word, of the will of God towards us; also of all laws and doctrines, of our own life and of the life of others. Contrariwise, the Papists and Sectaries cannot certainly judge of anything. For they corrupt, they persecute and blaspheme the Word. Now without the Word a man can give no certain judgment of anything.

And although it appear not before the world, that we be renewed in mind and have the Holy Ghost, yet notwithstanding our judgment, our speech, and our confession do declare sufficiently, that the Holy Ghost with his gifts is in us. For before we could judge rightly of nothing. We spake not as now we do. We confessed not that all our works were sin and damnable; that Christ was our only merit both before grace and after, as now we do in the true knowledge and light of the Gospel. Wherefore let this trouble us nothing at all, that the world (whose works we testify to be evil) judgeth us to be most pernicious heretics and seditious persons, destroyers of religion, and troublers of the common peace, possessed of the devil speaking in us and governing all our actions. Against this perverse [and wicked] judgment of the world, let this testimony of our conscience be sufficient, whereby we assuredly know, that it is the gift of God, that we do not only believe in Jesus Christ, but that we also preach and confess him openly before the world. As we believe with our heart, so do we speak with our mouth, according to that saying of the Psalmist: ‘I believed, and therefore I have spoken etc.’ (Psalm 115:10).

Moreover we exercise ourselves unto godliness and avoid sin as much as we may. If we sin, we sin not of purpose, but of ignorance, and we are sorry for it. We may slip, for the devil lieth in wait for us both day and night. Also the remnants of sin cleave yet fast in our flesh: therefore as touching the flesh we are sinners, yea, after that we have received the Holy Ghost. And there is no great difference betwixt a Christian and a civil honest man. For the works of a Christian in outward shew are but base and simple. He doth his duty according to his vocation, he governeth the commonwealth, he guideth his family, he tilleth the ground, he giveth counsel, he aideth and succoureth his neighbour. These works the carnal man doth not much esteem, but thinketh them to be common and nothing worth, being such as the laity, yea the heathen also do. For the world understandeth not the things which are of the Spirit of God, and therefore it judgeth perversely of the works of the godly. But the monstrous superstition of hypocrites and their will-works they have in great admiration. They count them holy works, and spare no charges in maintaining the same. Contrariwise, the works of the faithful (which although in outward appearance they seem to be but vile and nothing worth, yet are they good works indeed, and accepted of God, because they are done in faith, with a cheerful heart, and with obedience and thankfulness towards God), these works, I say, they do not only not acknowledge to be good works, but also they despise and condemn them as most ungodly and unrighteous. The world therefore believeth nothing less than that we have the Holy Ghost. Notwithstanding in the time of tribulation or of the cross, and of the confession of our faith (which is the proper and principal work of those that believe), when we must either forsake wife, children, goods and life, or else deny Christ, then it appeareth that we make confession of our faith, that we confess Christ and his Word, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

We ought not therefore to doubt whether the Holy Ghost dwelleth in us or not; but to be assuredly persuaded that we ‘are the temple of the Holy Ghost,’ as Paul saith (1 Corinthians 6:19). For if any man feel in himself a love towards the Word of God, and willingly heareth, talketh, writeth, and thinketh of Christ, let that man know that it is not the work of man’s will or reason, but the gift of the Holy Ghost; for it is impossible that these things should be done without the Holy Ghost. Contrariwise, where hatred and contempt of the Word is, there the devil, the god of this world, reigneth, blinding men’s hearts and holding them captive, that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should not shine upon them (2 Corinthians 4:4). Which thing we see at this day in the most part of the common people, which have no love to the Word, but condemn it as though it pertained nothing at all unto them. But whosoever do feel any love or desire to the Word, let them acknowledge with thankfulness, that this affection is poured into them by the Holy Ghost. For we bring not this affection and desire with us; neither can we be taught by any laws how we may obtain it: but this change is plainly and simply the work of the right hand of the Most High. Therefore, when we willingly and gladly hear the Word preached concerning Christ the Son of God, who for us was made man and became subject to the law, that he might redeem us: then God, by and with this preaching, assuredly sendeth the Holy Ghost into our hearts. Wherefore it is very expedient for the godly to know, that they, have the Holy Ghost.

This I say, to confute that pernicious doctrine of the sophisters and monks, which taught that no man can certainly know (although his life be never so upright and blameless) whether he be in the favor of God or no. And this sentence, commonly received, was a special principle and article of faith in the whole Papacy, whereby they utterly defaced the doctrine of faith, tormented men’s consciences, banished Christ out of the Church, darkened and denied all the benefits and gifts of the Holy Ghost, abolished the true worship of God, set up idolatry, contempt of God, and blasphemy against God in men’s hearts. For he that doubteth of the will of God towards him, and hath no assurance that he is in grace, cannot believe that he hath remission of sins, that God careth for him, and that he can be saved.

Augustine saith very well and godly, that every man seeth most certainly his own faith, if he have faith. This do they deny. God forbid (say they) that I should assure myself that I am under grace, that I am holy, and that I have the Holy Ghost, yea, although I live godly, and do all works. Ye which are young, and are not infected with this pernicious opinion (whereupon the whole kingdom of the Pope is grounded), take heed and fly from it, as from a most horrible plague. We that are old men have been trained up in this error even from our youth, and have been so nusled therein, that it hath taken deep root in our hearts. Therefore it is to us no less labor to unlearn and forget the same, than to learn and lay hold upon true faith. But we must be assured and out of doubt that we are under grace, that we please God for Christ’s sake, and that we have the Holy Ghost. ‘For if any man have not the spirit of Christ, the same is none of his’ (Romans 8:9).

Moreover, whatsoever a man doubting thinketh, speaketh, or doeth, it is sin; for whatsoever proceedeth not of faith, is sin. Wherefore, whether thou be a minister of God’s Word, or a magistrate in the commonwealth, thou must assuredly think that thy office pleaseth God: but this thou canst never do, unless thou have the Holy Ghost. But thou wilt say: I doubt not but that my office pleaseth God, because it is God’s ordinance; but I doubt of mine own person whether it please God or no. Here thou must resort to the Word of God, which especially seeketh to assure us, that not only the office of the person, but also the person itself pleaseth God. For the person is baptized, believeth in Christ, is purged in his blood from all sins, liveth in the communion and fellowship of his Church. Moreover, he doth not only love the pure doctrine of the Word, but also is glad and greatly rejoiceth when he seeth it advanced, and the number of the faithful increased. Contrariwise, he detesteth the Pope and all Sectaries with their wicked doctrine, according to that saying of the Psalm: ‘I hate them that imagine evil things, but thy law do I love’ (Psalm 119:113).

We ought therefore to be surely persuaded, that not only our office, but our person pleaseth God: yea, whatsoever it saith, doth, or thinketh particularly, the same pleaseth God, not for our own sakes, but for Christ’s sake, whom we believe to have been made under the law for us. Now we are sure that Christ pleaseth God, that he is holy, etc. Forasmuch then as Christ pleaseth God and we are in him, we also please God and are holy. And although sin do still remain in our flesh, and we do also daily fall and offend, yet grace is more abundant and stronger than sin. The mercy and truth of the Lord reigneth over us forever. Wherefore sin cannot terrify us and make us doubtful of the grace of God [which is] in us. For Christ, that most mighty giant, hath quite abolished the law, condemned
sin, vanquished death, and all evils. So long as he is at the right hand of God, making intercession for us, we cannot doubt of the grace [and favor] of God towards us.

Moreover, God hath also sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, as Paul here saith. But Christ is most certain in his spirit that he pleaseth God, etc.; therefore we also, having the same spirit of Christ, must be assured that we are under grace for his sake, who is most assured. This I have said concerning the inward testimony, whereby a [Christian man’s] heart ought to be fully persuaded that he is under grace and hath the Holy Ghost. Now, the outward signs (as before I have said) are, gladly to hear of Christ, to preach and teach Christ, to render thanks unto him, to praise him, to confess him, yea, with the loss of goods and life: moreover, to do our duty according to our vocation as we are able, in faith, joy, etc.; not to delight in sins, nor to thrust ourselves into another man’s vocation, but to attend upon our own, to help our needy brother, to comfort the heavy hearted, etc. By these signs as by certain effects and consequents we are fully assured and confirmed, that we are in God’s favor. The wicked also imagine that they have the same signs, but they have nothing less. Hereby we may plainly perceive that the Pope with his doctrine doth nothing else, but trouble and torment men’s consciences, and at length drive them into desperation. For he not only teacheth, but also commandeth men to doubt. Therefore as the Psalm saith: ‘There is no [truth or] certainty in his mouth’ (Psalm 5:9). And in another place: ‘Under his tongue is iniquity and mischief’ (Psalm 10:7).

Here we may see what great infirmity is yet in the faith of the godly. For if we could be fully persuaded that we are under grace, that our sins are forgiven, that we have the spirit of Christ, that we are the children of God; then doubtless we should be joyful and thankful to God for this inestimable gift. But because we feel contrary motions, that is to say, fear, doubtfulness, anguish and heaviness of heart, and such-like, therefore we cannot assure ourselves hereof; yea our conscience judgeth it a great presumption and pride to challenge this glory. Wherefore, if we will understand this thing rightly and as we should do, we must put it in practice; for without experience and practice it can never be learned.

Wherefore let every man so practice with himself, that his conscience may be fully assured that he is under grace, and that his person and his works do please God. And if he feel in himself any wavering or doubting, let him exercise his faith and wrestle against this doubting, and let him labor to attain more strength and assurance of faith, so that he may be able to say: I know that I am accepted, and that I have the Holy Ghost; not for mine own worthiness, my work, my merit, but for Christ’s sake, who for our sakes made himself thrall and subject to the law, and took away the sins of the world. In him do I believe. If I be a sinner and err, he is righteous and cannot err. Moreover, I gladly hear, read, sing and write of him, and I desire nothing more than that his Gospel may be known to the whole world, and that many may be converted unto him.

These things do plainly witness that the Holy Ghost is present [with us and in us]. For such things are not wrought in the heart by man’s strength, nor gotten by man’s industry or travail, but are obtained by Christ alone, who first maketh us righteous by the knowledge of himself, and afterwards he createth a clean heart in us, bringeth forth new motions, and giveth unto us that assurance whereby we are persuaded that we please the Father for his sake. Also he giveth us a true judgment whereby we prove and try those things which before we knew not, or else altogether despised. It behoveth us therefore to wrestle against this doubting, that we may daily overcome more and more, and attain to a full persuasion and certainty of God’s favor towards us, rooting out of our hearts this cursed opinion (that a man ought to doubt of the grace and favor of God), which hath infected the whole world. For if we be not sure that we are in grace, and that we please God for Christ’s sake, then we deny that Christ hath redeemed us, we utterly deny all his benefits. Ye that are young, can easily lay hold on the doctrine of the Gospel and shun that pestilent opinion, wherewith ye have not yet been infected."

-- Martin Luther

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Reason for Hell

It is not uncommon to hear people say that the concept of hell (i.e. eternal punishment) was an ungodly invention of the Middle Ages to scare and control people, and the sooner we rid ourselves of the doctrine the healthier this world will become.

Such talk is, however, careless. It is manifestly untrue that the concept of hell was an invention of the Middles Ages. Not only is the idea plainly taught in the Bible (which this article will focus on), but belief in hell can be found in both Jewish writings of the pre-Christian era as well as in early Christian writings immediately following the apostolic era. After briefly examining the historical belief in the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment, we will then examine the Biblical rationale behind the doctrine.


By way of example, the Book of Enoch, a Jewish work predating the time of the Maccabees, is literally swollen with the concept of hell and eternal punishment. Here is just a small sampling representative of what is found everywhere in the book:

"And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgment and punishment and torment of those who curse forever and retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them forever." (Enoch 22:10-12)

"And they [i.e. the heathen] shall be cast into the judgement of fire, and shall perish in wrath and in grievous judgment forever." (Enoch 91:9)

"Woe to you, ye sinners, when ye have died, if ye die in the wealth of your sins; and those who are like you say regarding you: ‘Blessed are the sinners: they have seen all their days. And how they have died in prosperity and in wealth, and have not seen tribulation or murder in their life; and they have died in honor, and judgement has not been executed on them during their life.’ Know ye, that their souls will be made to descend into Sheol and they shall be wretched in their great tribulation. And into darkness and chains and a burning flame where there is grievous judgment shall your spirits enter; and the great judgement shall be for all the generations of the world. Woe to you, for ye shall have no peace." (Enoch 103:5-8)

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, wrote concerning the Pharisees (the most respected religious group in Israel in his day) that they believed in and taught the doctrine of eternal punishment:

"They [the Pharisees] say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, 8:14)

"They [the Pharisees] also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, 1:3)

"Because of this, justice has laid up for you intense and eternal fires and tortures, and these throughout all time will never let you go." (4 Maccabees 12:12)

From these few passages we can see that Jews, before the advent of Christianity, believed in the doctrine of the hell and eternal punishment. This idea was never corrected by Jesus nor the apostles, but was only confirmed and amplified by them. They spoke about hell often and assumed that their hearers understood what they meant.

Early Christian writings immediately following the apostolic era also clearly evidence belief in hell and eternal punishment. The following is, again, just a sampling:

Polycarp, an early bishop of Smyrna, when about to martyred in a Roman arena was threatened with fire and given an opportunity to recant his beliefs. He responded thus: "Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly." (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. XI)

"If we do the will of Christ we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment." (Clement of Rome, 2 Clement 5:5)

"We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than this present one... or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated." (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Ch. XXXI)

"The punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,' these shall be damned forever; and to whomsoever He shall say, 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,' these do receive the kingdom forever." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:28:2)

Therefore, to say that the concept of hell is a later theological invention is simply false. What might be truer to say is that men like Dante in the Middle Ages sensationalized it, but they certainly did not invent it.


As I said earlier, the Bible speaks plainly about the reality of hell and eternal punishment. Here are several passage on eternal punishment from the Bible:

"And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Daniel 12:2)

"The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Isaiah 33:14)

"And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." (Isaiah 66:24)

Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24 many times as his usual way of describing hell:

"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:43-48)

John the Baptist also alluded to this:

"Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable." (Luke 3:17)

The reason the fire is not quenched is because the fuel never ceases. A horrible thought. Whether the fire is literal or not does not matter. Woe to us if they are symbols! For if the symbols are that horrible, the substance must be more.

Jesus plainly tells us about the end of the age. The following are not parables, but explanations of parables:

"The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 13:41-42)

"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 13:49-50)

Jesus tells us who we should fear:

"And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him." (Luke 12:4)

Jesus is not telling a parable when He contrasts eternal punishment and eternal life:

"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." (Matt 25:41, 46)

It has rightly been noticed that Jesus talked more about hell than everyone else in the Bible put together. Let's remember that He did this to warn us because He loves us, and the whole reason He came into the world was to save us from this condemnation. Jesus spoke the hard things in love.

To all of this should be added the apostles' words. Here is a sampling:

"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." (2 Thess. 1:8-9)

"The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night." (Rev. 14:10-11)

From these passages one can understand why Bible readers have always believed in hell and eternal punishment, and have great cause to tremble at it. The doctrine of hell has its foundation here, not in Dante.


In order to understand the rationale behind eternal punishment, it is essential to understand that sin is not merely two-dimensional (that is, sin is not merely against mankind and society) but is three-dimensional (that is, sin is against God also). It is solely due to our false understanding of sin, our thinking that it is not that big of an evil, that we fail to understand the Biblical punishment pronounced against it. This is clearly demonstrated by those who argue against the idea of eternal punishment, who repeatedly claim that such a severe punishment could not possibly be merited by people living in a finite world, and that it seems absurd to think, for example, that poor, innocent "tea-sipping grannies" should be worthy of such a punishment. But once we see sin for the real evil that it is, as God considers it to be, even the "tea-sipping grannies" are found to be in the category of Psalm 14:2-3, and are found to be sinners for whom Jesus had to die.

The seriousness of sin is not finally measured by how it affected people, nor by how many people it affected, nor by how long it took to commit the sin, nor even by the amount of sin acquired in one lifetime. Although these considerations are all important in the context of human society and human justice, these alone do not provide the basis for a crime so serious that would merit eternal punishment. This fact is rightly pointed out by critics of the doctrine of hell. However, what these critics fail to recognize is the actual Biblical reason for the seriousness of sin; that is, the three-dimensional nature of all sin.1 According to the Bible, the seriousness of sin is finally determined by the worthiness of the One against whom all sin is ultimately committed: God. The more worthy the offended party, the more serious the sin. As Thomas Manton correctly remarked: "There is no little sin, because there is no little God to sin against."

Jonathan Edwards' words here are important:

“Every crime or fault deserves a greater or less punishment, in proportion as the crime itself is greater or less. If any fault deserves punishment, then so much the greater the fault, so much the greater is the punishment deserved. The faulty nature of any thing is the formal ground and reason of its desert of punishment; and therefore the more any thing hath of this nature, the more punishment it deserves. And therefore the terribleness of the degree of punishment, let it be never so terrible, is no argument against the justice of it, if the proportion does but hold between the heinousness of the crime and the dreadfulness of the punishment; so that if there be any such thing as a fault infinitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inflict a punishment for it that is infinitely dreadful.”

Notice how the severity of the punishment is totally irrelevant when determining the justice of the punishment. The only real question is: is there a sin that corresponds to (merits) such a punishment? Therefore we can see that the whole matter rests upon our understanding of sin: is it really that bad or not? While the Bible teaches it is really that bad. Human wisdom always has taught that it is not.

"Hell is one of those things that is so naturally unthinkable that it actually commends itself as belonging, not to the realm of human conceptions of justice, but of divine revelation. The greatest reason for our quarrel with hell is because we are 'cut off' and 'out of touch' with the holiness of God. We are insensible of divine reality. If God is possessed of a holiness that is infinite, sin becomes something much more than a finite, time bound event, as we tend to imagine. That is why we are incapable of knowing the degree of our sin apart from revelation." (Reginald Kelly)

On this matter we must listen to God and not to human wisdom. Who is the better judge of what sin is?

When seen in this light, the limiting and minimization of hell is actually just the limiting and minimization of God. If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no sin worthy of eternal punishment, which means that there is no being who exists who is infinitely worthy. This idea, that the measure of the seriousness of sin depends upon the measure of the worthiness of the offended party, is not off the mark. We all actually feel this way and operate on this principle. Would you not consider someone especially despicable if he murdered, for example, someone like Mother Theresa? Of course murdering any person is evil, but is there not an added element of evil if it is done to someone who is more honorable? Or does not stealing from your own mother and father who love you have more despicableness in it than stealing from a complete stranger (which, make no mistake, is also evil). Does not the despicableness rise as the honor and worthiness of the one sinned against rises? Therefore the vileness of a crime does in fact depend upon just who the crime is committed against.

But what is the measure of the honor and worthiness of God?

Gregory Boyd, a prominent American pastor in our day, is a vocal critic of the doctrine of hell and one who has gathered quite a following. In a video interview in which he discusses the idea of hell, he asks people to consider whether it is loving and just for God to send people to hell for all of eternity on the basis of finite sins they have committed in their finite lifetimes. Boyd's criticism is an excellent example of the standard criticism leveled against the doctrine of hell, and his oversight is typical and helpful for us to see. The picture Boyd paints is a caricature of the doctrine of hell and is not addressing the Bible on its own terms. Boyd's reasoning excludes any notion of mankind deserving hell due to sinning against God. Instead, in the video, he simply juxtaposes a picture of the flames of hell with pictures of nice, smiling people and asks us to decide whether sending these friendly people to hell is right. Of course, considered from only this angle, any normal human being would see the injustice in that! Boyd appeals to our emotions, and gives us an incomplete view of the matter.

A better question is: could it be possible that mankind deserves hell? This will require us to think about sin, and to think about it in new ways and in new dimensions which we don't usually consider. In the first place, when we read the Bible, which we have solid reasons to believe is theopneustos (God-breathed), we read about God sending people to hell. We don't need to like it (God Himself doesn't like it!), but we must wrestle with the fact that it is there and ask "why": what does God see in His infinite wisdom that we are failing to see in our human wisdom? Many turn a blind eye to the fact that God explains why men deserve hell, simply because they don't immediately understand the reason, or do not want to. We ought to submit ourselves as disciples (students) of God to be instructed. What we are never permitted to do, however, is caricaturize the Bible by ignoring the explanation of hell as the just deserts of our sin against God. If one is going to criticize hell, one must criticize hell as it is found in the Bible and not as it isn't. Disagree with the Bible if you'd like, or agree with it, but don't ignore it. Boyd should have spend his time talking about how sin isn't really that bad because sinning against God isn't infinitely despicable because God isn't infinitely worthy, instead of pointing to the mere idea that God will send people to hell and concluding from this that it is unjust.

I believe with all my heart that God is love, and that His love is wonderfully revealed in and through Jesus Christ. God's love is incomprehensible love; it is deeper, wider, longer and higher than we can possibly understand. God loved this world so much that He send His Son to save it from perishing in an everlasting punishment. Christ laid down His life, not for good people, but while we were yet sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-10). The love of God is displayed in the cross of Christ where Jesus died as the propitiation (turning away of God's wrath) for our sins (1 John 4:10). We needed saving from God's wrath because of our sins, and Jesus came to do just that because of God's love. God is not only wrath, but love. Nor is He only love, but also wrath. Behold the goodness and severity of our God.

As Jonathan Edwards observed, the severity of hell is irrelevant to the question of its justice. The real question is: is there a crime heinous enough that would deserve such a punishment? If a sin can be found that merits eternal punishment, the question of its justice is answered. The question of the justice of eternal punishment depends upon the existence of a sin worthy of it or not.

If we are searching out the question using only our own human experiences with other humans, then we can never see things the way the Bible declares things to be. God is not like anything else we know and experience. He is qualitatively different than all things (holy), so if we seek absolute parallels between God and man we will inevitably evade reality. This is why solely appealing to and considering human affairs is flawed. Human relations are similar, but are not identical to our relations with God. As a parent loves a child, so God loves us, but His love is even greater. As a parent would, painfully, be willing to see his son or daughter suffer the deserved punishment for their crime, so God is willing, painfully, to see the same, only God is even more just, and therefore more willing, and more loving, and therefore it is even more painful for Him. God does not revel in the eternal punishment of the wicked. In fact, God send Christ to save the wicked from it.

As there is no crime that could be committed in the two-dimensional context of human relations that would justify eternal punishment, so we need to recognize that God is judging sin in an entirely different context than mere human relations. Human beings must reckon with the fact that they deal with not only other humans, but with God. Furthermore, they must reckon with the fact that they have lived as enemies of God, disregarding Him and spurning His authority. And who is God? God is the Wholly Other, the Uncreated Creator, the perfectly Wise and Good and Beautiful, Who, by His nature, is the essence of Wisdom, Goodness, Beauty and Righteousness, and Who continually provides the raison d'être of our very existence. According to the Bible, it is against God that we have sinned, without any cause at all. This is evil and despicable beyond anything we know on earth in human relations, for the honorableness and worthiness of God adds an element of evil to our sins unlike anything we are accustomed to.

It is not my intention to suggest that there is no similarity between divine relations and human relations, but only to say that when it comes to God, we are dealing with a Being of infinite proportions unlike any other being we know, and therefore while there are similarities between how we relate to humans and how we relate to God, it is never a perfect parallel, because with God the proportions are infinitely greater.

The Old Testament law reveals that executing justice is a matter of lex talionis, tit-for-tat, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24-25). This is God's retributive standard as He reveals it in the law. What this ultimately means is that the punishment needs to fit the crime. Not all sins under the law received the same punishment because there are differences in the seriousness of crimes committed in the context of human relations, and therefore there are differences in the severity of the punishments.

According to the standard of "an eye for an eye", what is the fitting punishment for sin committed against God? In view of who God is, hell is the only appropriate punishment for sinning against God. All sin has both a horizontal dimension (as it relates to humans and to human society) and a vertical dimension (as it relates to God). Horizontally, sins are more or less serious and receive different kinds of punishment. This is right and good. No sin, when considered horizontally, deserves an eternal punishment. But if we only consider sin from this dimension we will never be able to believe in the justice of hell, even though the Bible teaches it. It is only when we see that sin is committed against God, as the Bible clearly teaches it is, and only when we see how supremely evil that is, will we begin to understand the justice of eternal punishment. If it be asked: "What parent would beat their child ceaselessly and daily without end?" The answer is, no parent. There is no human situation in which a parent could justly do that. But what if, hypothetically, there was a divine situation in which eternal punishment was what a person really deserved? If there is such a sin that deserves such a punishment, it would therefore be unjust for God not to recompense it. Furthermore, because it would be a matter of justice it would say nothing about the love of God. God sends people to hell, not because He is unloving, but because He is not unjust. Eternal punishment has everything to do with the standard of retribution as stated in the law and the existence of a crime that is so serious it really merits such a punishment.

So when people say, "Hell is so bad! What loving parent would do that? How could God do that if He really loved people?" they are missing the point. It's not about God's love and it's not about how bad hell is. It's about God's justice and whether there is a crime worthy of such a punishment according to "an eye for an eye". That's the whole issue. That is why when we dismiss hell as unjust, we are actually saying that there is no sin that is really exceedingly evil, or that all sin should only be judged horizontally, or that to sin vertically against God is really just as bad as sinning horizontally against humans, because God isn't really qualitatively different than humans. In essence, the denial of hell is a denial of God in some way. That is why, in the last analysis, to deny the doctrine of hell is to be guilty of blasphemy on two counts: one, for the impudence of not giving heed to the revelation of God, and two, for the irreverence of not believing that God is infinitely worthy.


The concept of hell and eternal punishment is not an invention of men in the Middle Ages, meant to scare and control people. Men would never have come up with a doctrine like hell, as, humanly speaking, it is the most offensive and difficult concept of all for human beings to accept without first understanding the true nature of sin against God. But when you understand the true nature of sin against God, the doctrine of hell reasonably follows. Therefore the doctrine of hell is a sacred doctrine and has as its basis God's revelation to mankind. Jesus talked so much about hell, warning sinners of the wrath to come, because He came to testify of the truth, and because He came to rescue sinners from this condemnation by His own blood. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ and trusts entirely in His propitiatory sacrifice will be saved. But whoever ignores Christ's warning, and does not take refuge in Christ for his salvation, will be damned. These are the only options.

May you patiently consider this matter and choose to be a student of God rather than follow the wisdom of this world. Remember that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." (Prov. 9:10)

1 For an excellent essay on the Biblical understanding of sin, see A God-Centered Understanding of Sin by Stephen Witmer. For a defense of the truth and importance of retributive justice, see the classic essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment by C.S. Lewis.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Importance of Understanding Sin

In this clip, Dan Barker, a former Christian pastor turned atheist, expresses his conception of the Christian message, and I think he captures what many people feel when they think about the message of Jesus Christ. However, Barker grossly mis-characterizes of the Christian message.

What Barker fails to acknowledge is the foundational premise of the Bible: that human beings are sinful and deserve judgment from God. Instead, in this portrayal they are presented as innocent pedestrians walking by a complete stranger who is mad at them for not recognizing him; but the Almighty God cannot be compared to a human, equal to other humans, calling to them from the porch. God is the holy uncreated Creator of heaven and earth, the fountainhead all things, and the giver of life to all people. We owe our very existence to Him and all that we enjoy. Furthermore, all nature testifies loudly and clearly to His existence, power, wisdom and goodness. We are therefore greatly evil for not recognizing God and giving Him the glory and reverence that is due Him. It is perfectly good and right that we should, but we do not, for no good reason. Our treason against God stems from nothing other than our stubbornness and pride. Since we are offending, not an equal, but one who is infinitely above us and who is infinitely worthy, we are guilty of a crime of infinite evil. The stature of the offended party determines the stature of the crime and consequentially the stature of the punishment. For example, the first degree murder of a human being deserves a greater punishment than the first degree murder of a dog. So also our offense against Almighty God is ineffably heinous and is therefore worthy of an infinite punishment. Jonathan Edwards truly observed: "If there be any such thing as a fault infinitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inflict a punishment for it that is infinitely dreadful."

It is only in the light of our deserving of judgment that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins becomes meaningful and beautiful. Christians have always seen in the death of Christ the most beautiful revelation of God's grace and love for humanity. This is because, foundationally, Christians see the seriousness of their sin and their own deserving of judgment. What a staggering thought that even though we humans have sinned so evilly against God and justly deserve His judgment, God has responded with forgiveness and mercy by giving His Son to the be propitiation for our sins! But if we make God's wrath arbitrary, then the death of Christ becomes arbitrary and senseless. All intellectual problems with the Christian message stem from the failure to recognize sin as the evil that it is.

"Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet." (Thomas Watson)

For an excellent essay on the Biblical understanding of sin, see A God-Centered Understanding of Sin by Stephen Witmer.