A recent topic of discussion in my department concerns the fact that the suspect who killed a police sergeant lived through the ordeal. Most have said they would have preferred him to die. There are varying reasons for this preference, one of which is so that the other officers and family members do not have to repeatedly re-live the ordeal for the next 25 years. Someone asked me what I thought about the situation, and more pointedly, what I thought about the death penalty. The short answer is the unintentionally evasive, “I don’t know.” Don’t get me wrong. Those in law enforcement and government don’t “bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4), and I believe that each person will reap what he or she has sown (Galatians 6:7-8). A local pastor made the statement that if the suspect bows his knee at the cross and asks for forgiveness from God then he will receive it…and after that we will send him to the chair.
My thoughts center on the first part of that pastor’s statement, along with recent discussions about emergent church and liberal theological perspectives on Heaven and Hell. I have not read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, and neither do I plan to (a new and controversial book in which the author “questions” the reality of Hell and whether anyone will end up there). I’m very guarded about what I read and not huge on apologetics (a systematic argumentative defense of doctrine and the Bible) or polemics (attacking the opinions of others or the art of controversy). I understand that apologetics has its place, but overall, the word of God does not need defending. Please don’t misunderstand these statements to mean that I won’t stand up for what I believe. Each of us should be prepared to give answer to the hope in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15), and I frequently say, “Don’t simply know what you believe; know why you believe it.” I just prefer not to spend a lot of time debating or arguing for the sake of doing so. Bankers spend their time studying genuine currency, and when the counterfeit is presented, it is immediately recognized. Study the Word of God first, then follow those who rightly divide it (2 Timothy 2:15). Be like the noble ones of Berea – one who receives the Word from those teachers, and then searches the scriptures to verify the teachings (Acts 17:11).
The question remains, does God send anyone to Hell? Or, how could a loving, good God send anyone to Hell? My response is that God does not send anyone to Hell. Humans, out of free will and the conscious choice to reject God, “send” themselves to Hell. Now, let me explain.
In Ezekiel 33:11 God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his ways and live.” Death – both physical and eternal – was not a part of God’s plan in creation. He created humans for relationship with Him, and also for each other. Scripture reveals this point in Genesis 1:27 (humanity is created in the image of a triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit living in community as One), Genesis 2:18 (God establishes that it is not good for man to be alone and creates woman to meet this need), and Genesis 3:8 (God “looks” for Adam and Even when they don’t “show up” for a walk in the Garden with God). Revelation 4:11 says that the Lord created all things for His pleasure. When Jesus came, He said His coming was so that we might have life – abundant life – and that as the Good Shepherd, He gave His life so that we could again experience this life (John 10-11). God created us for life and for His pleasure. How then, can He find any pleasure in our turn to wickedness and subsequent death?
In Peter’s discourse on the second coming of Jesus Christ, He assures us that the Lord is coming back for us (reference 2 Peter 3:1-18). If it seems like His coming is delayed, it is only because the Lord is long-suffering – not willing that any perish (eternal death) but that all repent of their sins and be saved (2 Peter 3:9). The Bible tells us that a word or testimony is established as true when it is confirmed by two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, John 8:17, 2 Corinthians 13:1). At least once in the Old Testament and at least once in the New Testament we find that God does not want anyone to die apart from a relationship with Him.
In fact, God went to great lengths to ensure that we would not die in our wickedness and sin. Because God’s nature – the very essence of His character and being – is that of holiness and righteousness, only those who are holy and righteous will be able to enter Heaven and see Him (Hebrews 12:14, among others). He does not set impossible standards or create some sort of proverbial hoop through which He enjoys watching us jump. He simply cannot contradict His character. Just like oil and water do not mix, darkness and light, righteousness and unrighteousness, good and evil, holiness and wickedness do not mix. And yet, knowing that because we are fallen we could never attain His standard of living, God did not leave us to utter and eternal separation. In fact, He does not even want us to try to attain or earn acceptance. God sent His only Son, Jesus, to offer His life as the payment and ransom for our lives. Jesus, as One who died without sin, took our sin upon Himself (Galatians 1:4, Hebrews 1:3, 1 Peter 2:24) so that we could be freed from it. Salvation – a return to right relationship with God – is a free gift of grace to us (Ephesians 2:5-9) that was purchased by the precious blood of Christ (Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 6:20).
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. The purpose of God sending Jesus was not to condemn us to death and eternal punishment, but that the world – anyone who will believe in His sacrifice, repent and turn from sin, and live in relationship with Him – through Jesus would be saved (John 3:16-17). If any person does not “go to” Heaven, it will not be because of God’s design or sending. We make the choice as to whether or not we will accept salvation through Jesus Christ, but we do not make or choose the consequences.
I think it is clear: our loving, good God does not send anyone to Hell. He has made every provision so that we will not live in eternal damnation, absent of His presence, where there is great fire, torment, wailing, and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12, Matthew 13:42, Luke 13:28, Revelation 19-21). Hell is real, but more importantly, so is Heaven. God wants each of us to live eternally with Him. Are you ready? Is your heart right with Him? Have you confessed your sins, asked Him to forgive you, and made the choice to live – really live? If not, salvation is as simple as one genuine, heart-felt prayer.
Father God, I know that I have sinned and I believe your Son Jesus died for my sins. I ask you to forgive me and remove the separation between us. Help me to live each day in a way that does not offend you in this new relationship. Amen!