Tim Challies thinks that one of the most important questions that as Christians we have to ask ourselves today is “Does hell exist?” I also think that this is an important question, one that, in my view, highlights a major flaw in the way most modern Christians understand the Bible, which is why I keep hammering at it. But I am one of those who think that Tim’s “hell”—a “place of eternal, conscious punishment, a real place where real people will go for real time and face the real wrath of a real God”—does not exist. That is, at least, I do not think that this doctrine can be found in the Bible.
Tim suggests quite rightly, in the first of his series of posts on the subject, that the “question of hell is first and foremost a question about the character of God”. So he sets out to consider the question of the existence of hell by exploring the relationship between the holiness of God and human sin.
He argues that God may respond to sin in one of two ways—either in “just wrath” or in “patient mercy”.
As an example of “just wrath” he recounts the well known story of Uzzah, who made the fatal mistake of trying to keep the ark of the covenant from tipping into the mud as it was being brought back to Jerusalem. The story can be found in 1 Samuel 6:1-7. Because his unthinking action broke the rules laid down by God for transporting the ark, Uzzah is struck down dead. He was a sinner. His hands were unclean because “his heart was filthy with sin”. So “when his sinful hands touched that holy ark, God responded with just wrath”. If we are shocked by this and think it entirely unjust, it is because “we make too little of God; we make too little of his holiness and too little of our sinfulness”. A just God cannot simply overlook sin and pretend it didn’t happen. For the sake of his own integrity he has to punish it. Every sinner has to face the punishment of “God’s holy wrath”, which is “God’s intense hatred of sin”. There’s no way round it. There has to be justice.
Tim then attempts to calculate what it must mean to face the wrath of God. If we sin consciously, then the punishment must be faced consciously. But for how long? The formula is simple: because the distance between God and the sinner is “eternal” (I presume he means “infinite”), the offence is “eternal”, and so the punishment must be “eternal”. Therefore the sinner must suffer conscious punishment eternally. Q.E.D.
The second response of God is illustrated by the story of the golden calf (Exod. 32:1-14). Moses talks God out of destroying the people as punishment for their idolatry. God is persuaded; he does not execute judgment directly, although the people deserved it; instead he shows mercy. He acts patiently and defers judgment.
So there is no contradiction or capriciousness here, Tim maintains. God will always uphold justice and punish sin. But sometimes he may choose to put off the punishment in order to show mercy to his people. “There may be patient mercy, but there must be just wrath.”
But what happens, Tim asks, when the patience runs out? This is an important question in the New Testament, and since Tim hasn’t yet got to the New Testament, I will leave it for a follow-up post. But I will make a few off-the-cuff observations on the argument so far.
1. Uzzah is punished for his folly by death, in accordance with the commandment given in Numbers 4:15: “the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die”. The ultimate punishment anywhere in the Old Testament for sin is death—from the death of an individual to the destruction of a nation. The Israelites who worshipped the calf faced nothing worse than death, even if that punishment was deferred. For Paul, of course, this is virtually axiomatic: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
2. “Wrath” in the Old Testament never refers to a final judgment or punishment after death. The wrath of God is always manifested as a temporal judgment either against rebellious Israel (only occasionally against individual Jews) or against the enemies of Israel.
3. Tim’s pseudo-rational argument for eternal conscious punishment is, frankly—if Tim will forgive me for being so blunt—ludicrous. Yes, of course, we prefer it if the unjust person knows that he or she is being punished and why. But nowhere does the Bible make that an absolute requirement. The Old Testament is quite untroubled by the fact that Uzzah was struck down instantaneously, presumably with no opportunity to reflect consciously on his “sin”. The argument that a finite creature is capable of committing an infinite offence, thus meriting an infinite punishment, is nonsensical and not to be found in scripture. It should be condemned as blatant heresy. If Tim knows of a verse or line of argument in the Bible that supports his view that human sin necessarily merits eternal punishment, then he is welcome to put it forward in his defence.
The fact that the “iniquity of the fathers” might need to be visited on the children, to the third or fourth generation, seems to me a pretty clear indication that Old Testament thought lacks a belief in eternal punishment after death. So we have the warning in Numbers 14:18 that God “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation (Num 14:18)”. Tim is right: the guilty will be punished. But the only “punishment” beyond the death of the guilty is that their children will also suffer.
4. Tim will need to show in his next post how and why the temporal wrath of God in the Old Testament gets translated into a metaphysical wrath in the New Testament—how punishment by death gets upgraded to punishment after death. I don’t think it does, but we shall see what he has to say.