By Lee Salisbury
Recently, a nationally respected minister wrote an article entitled, Godís Grief Over His People. Observing the "sad and pitiful condition" of many Christians, he laments that "Satan is trampling over multitudes of Godís people." According to this minister, the Christian community is in a sorry state: lives are in chaos; suicides are increasing; the divorce rate is climbing; once radiant Christians are turning their backs on the Lord; backsliding is widespread and getting worse; iniquity is abounding; the love of many is waxing cold; people are feeling "helpless" defeated, cast down, defenseless, and wearied." Since these obvious sins are so widespread, it must be concluded that many less obvious sins are at least equally if not more widespread. Sin such as self-righteousness, religious ambition, pharisaical pride, and spiritual timidity, are equally repugnant in Godís people.
Amazingly, these observations are about that segment of the church which has experienced healing, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. These people generally believe in doctrines which declare the agonies of an unending fiery hell for the unsaved and that they too, through sin could lose their salvation and go to eternal punishment. Is it possible that these doctrines which supposedly motivate people to "get right" and "stay right" with God have not only failed but in fact have had the reverse effect of arousing sin?
There must be an underlying cause why many Christiansí best efforts to repent are unsuccessful. This underlying cause is directly related to a distorted image of God. The psalmist said that those who make idols and those who trust in them will be like them (Ps.115:8). Like the idol makers of Davidís psalm, todayís Christians have accepted an image of God that is distorted and that distortion in turn incites sin hindering their fellowship with God. This distortion is rooted in an image of God that sees Him acting in a manner which is contradictory to His nature. This distortion is the outgrowth of embracing the doctrine of eternal punishment.
We as Christians have grown up with an image of a God who created mankind knowing full well in advance that the vast majority will be condemned to eternal punishment. We are told this same God who knows the end from the beginning is an all-powerful, all-wise, ever-present God of unconditional love who never gives up on anybody, yet He "writes off" just about everybody. Because of these obvious contradictions, people either consciously or unconsciously question Godís integrity. For example: Would God be just in condemning to eternal punishment all who have not believed the gospel, regardless of whether they have ever heard the name of Jesus or not? Will Judas Iscariot, whom the psalmist prophesied would betray the Messiah and whom Jesus chose to be that instrument of betrayal, be punished eternally with no hope of forgiveness? Is God fair to separate unto Himself even from His motherís womb a murderer like Saul of Tarsus, while hating Esau before he ever came out of his motherís womb? Will a just God condemn for eternity the Jews to whom He gave a spirit of slumber (Rom.11:8)? Such unanswered contradictions insisted upon by the doctrine of eternal punishment, create grounds for distrust and cynicism not only among Christians, but among many who might otherwise be open to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As a result, Christians feel justified in their own contradictory, hypocritical behavior, since their God is Himself contradictory and hypocritical. He says to forgive, but instead He condemns; He says not to let the sun go down on your wrath, but He pours out His wrath for all eternity; He says to limit punishment to 39 stripes lest the guilty party think you vile, but He punishes for all eternity; He says to overcome evil with good, yet His solution is eternal torment; He says to love your enemies, yet His answer us unending hatred. His Son bears manís punishment as a substituted for three days, yet manís punishment without the substitution is forever.
The image of God created by this doctrine is one of confusion, contradiction and unreliability. Since this God "writes off" most of His creation, then Christians feel justified in "writing off" those who do not measure up to their standards. Is this not what justifies the curse of denominationalism which only perpetuates disunity? The nature of this God becomes the nature of those who believe this doctrine. Todayís church is reaping the seed it has sown. Is it any wonder so many Christians are in such pitiful conditions?
Some well intended objector will say, "we need this doctrine to get people saved." Dear one, if preaching the love of God as manifested in Jesus doesnít bring people to salvation, then all that is produced is people embracing another religion in hope of saving their own skin. Others say, "but we need this doctrine to keep Christians from sinning." Dear friend, is Jesusí indwelling presence of so little significance that sin is more appealing? We could best help those questioners by determining if they are genuinely born of the Spirit (1Jn.3:9). Some say, "but we need this doctrine to motivate people to evangelize." Dear one, if Jesus Christ all in and of Himself, doesnít excite people enough for them to want to tell the world, then perhaps they do not really know Him in the first place. Another may say, "but itís all in the Bible." Yes, it is in some Bibles, but not in all Bibles.
It is asked, "why do so many people believe in eternal punishment?" If youíre like me, you accepted certain scriptural presentations of this doctrine from respected teachers without ever inquiring about the contradictions lest you incur their displeasure. So fear of man is certainly a factor. More recently, Iíve realized that many of us are like the prodigal sonís elder brother because we, like him, secretly resent the magnitude of the fatherís mercy (Lk.15:29), not to mention Godís sovereign grace in choosing when each person shall be regenerated in spirit (1Cor.15:22-23; Gal.1:15-16).
Jesus spoke of the necessity to build oneís house upon the rock. The house represents oneís spiritual life. The rock represents oneís revelation of Jesus Christ. Any life built upon a revelation of God inconsistent with His true nature and purpose is like a building built upon sand. When the storms of life come, the house falls. Certainly saving the lost and building the church are high on Godís agenda, but our first and foremost priority must be to know Him and His purposes. Though I feel sorry for Christians who may not have experienced the rich blessings of the power of the Holy Spirit, I feel worse for those who call Him, Lord, Lord, who cast out devils, who do miracles and mighty works, yet may some day hear the words, "I never knew you" (Mt.7:21-23). Yes, God may be grieving over His people, but it is because they so readily embrace doctrines which both malign Him and sabotage themselves.
There is an alternative to the doctrine of eternal punishment. It is a doctrine which reveals Godís true nature and sovereign purpose in creation, His infinite wisdom, grace and power. His judgments whereby man partakes of His righteousness, and His love which never fails anyone. This alternative Paul called, "my gospel" (Rom.2:16). It is the means God uses to "judge the secrets of men" (Rom.2:16). When preached, many misunderstand, "shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound" (Rom.6:1)? Although this doctrine is revealed throughout the scriptures, it cannot be seen if oneís heart is intent upon eternal punishment. The Holy Spirit sums up this alternative in Col.1:16-20. Briefly stated, it says that Jesus Christ pre-existed "all things", that "all things" consist in Him, and that the "all things" he creates and over which He has preeminence are the same "all things" which He reconciles to Himself by the blood of His cross. The Greek word here translated "reconcile" means "to change in the face of opposition." This means that though all humanity be like Saul of Tarsus, God will change them to be pleasing and acceptable to Himself. To limit the Ďall thingsí which He reconciles is to limit the Ďall thingsí which He pre-exists and has created, not to mention belittling the blood of His cross.
It is essential that Christians understand the nature and purpose of God. If our God is the God of eternal punishment, then His harsh, demanding, punitive nature not only affects our relationship to Him, but it works in us strongly affecting the way we see ourselves, and consequently arousing the sins so detested. If our God is the God who in spite of manís sin, reconciles all people to Himself, then we can confidently entrust ourselves to Him and at the same time experience His reconciling holy nature and purpose being worked in us.
The psalmist, seeing our predicament, said, "If we have forgotten the name (or nature) of our God, or stretched out our hands to a strange God (a false image); shall not God search this out? For He knoweth the secrets of the heart" (Psa.44:20-21). Even now He is searching our hearts that He might teach us afresh about Himself, that we might truly know Him who "is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Eph.3:20), thereby turning His grief and ours into joy!
Father, in Jesusí precious name we ask you to forgive us for bowing down before false images of you. We ask that every hindrance of pride, complacency, menís traditions, and fear of man be purged from our being. Grant unto us the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of you that we might know you, your ways, and your purposes that Jesus might be glorified through us. Thank you. Amen!