We've discussed the flood, Egyptian plague, and Canaanite conquest narratives as stories of God’s love, a love that saves His children from the corruption and destruction of chaotic agents, false humanity, whose actions tend toward a humanless world and work against rather than toward creation and filling up the earth with true humanity, God’s images. We discussed that saving children over destructive agents who would destroy them as the only righteous and loving thing one ought to do in that situation.
Well, now, I want to talk about one more story. It is the most terrifying one of all. It is the story of hell, and it is perhaps more terrifying because we, in one way or another, will all participate in it, either being saved from it or being saved by it. Yes, I said being saved by it. Let me explain what I mean.
The wicked must be removed from the righteous and subdued so that they do not corrupt or destroy the world of God’s children. They cannot be allowed to wreak the havoc in the new creation that they were allowed to do in the old. If they were, God would not be saving His children from an eternity of their oppression, but damning them to an eternity of it. Hence, hell itself functions like the flood, the plagues, the conquest. It is a removal of the destructive influence and oppressive power of the wicked toward the righteous. It saves God’s children from a hellish heaven. Hence, in order for God’s children to be saved, their destroyers must be subdued and imprisoned.
“But wait,” you might say, “Why couldn’t God just provide some other nice place for the wicked and put them there?” We must not forget that the justice and goodness of God requires the punishment of evil. Hence, the wicked must be punished (either through Christ or in hell). Hell, then, must exist for those who have not had their sins removed through Christ’s death. But God’s not going to punish them for no reason. As with the other events of God’s destruction of the wicked, He is going to use it to save His children. By condemning the wicked to hell, therefore, He is saving His children from them, and thus, loving them.
Now, here’s the thing. God could have saved everyone. He could have drawn everyone to Himself, but we are told that He does not. In fact, we are told that He hardens whoever He wishes to harden and has mercy upon whomever He wishes to have mercy. So why not save everyone? If he can’t save them, why not just destroy them? Let me give this illustration as to why I think He cannot, in fact, save everyone (and, No, it has nothing to do with free will), nor destroy the wicked once for all rather than eternally punish them.
When I was younger, I had a bit of a health problem. I believed that I had something that was going to kill me. I’ve often said that the only difference between the feeling that you have before you die and the feeling you have when you think you’re going to die is that you actually die in one them. In other words, the feeling is the same, regardless of the outcome. So imagine the absolute joy and gratitude that I had when the doctor informed me that I wasn’t going to die. I was saved, and I just wanted to shake the doctor’s hand again and again in gratefulness and happiness. Even though he wasn’t the one who saved me (he was just the herald of the news), it bound me to him as though he were my closest friend. Salvation has the affect on us. It gives us gratitude and joy and binds our hearts to the one who saved us. But it’s only short lived. I don’t feel that way toward the doctor now. It was only while I was caught up in the moment of it, when I could see both my possible death and my deliverance from it at once, that such a relationship was possible, and only in that moment was something that transformed me in a way that other events could not. It sobered me up and gave me an appreciation of the life I was given that I didn’t have before.
I recount this for you now because I’m going to say something that you may not have considered before. What I’m going to say is both glorious and terrible, both wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time. What I’m going to say to you is this: that the damnation of the many may serve to save the few. In other words, hell too is a love story, but not for everyone. It is a love story for God’s children, because it serves as an eternal reminder, a constant witness to us of our possible damnation, our horrible fate, and sobers us up, gives us gratitude toward God for our salvation that He provided for us, and binds us to Him in a way that only such a thing could. In other words, the damnation of the many is not simply God judging the wicked, but using their rightful judgment to continue to bind us to Him in gratitude for all eternity. In this way, the moment of our realization of what God has done for us never fades. Our fates are always before us, reminding us of where we should be, and giving us an eternal love for God because of where we are.
Now, this relationship that is created by our understanding of what God has done for us through Christ is what saves us. In other words, what saves us is our being bound to God by a relationship characterized by allegiance, love, and gratefulness. He has justified us, and that has brought us into this saving relationship with Him. So if this type of relationship with Him saves us, as opposed to a faith that is not characterized by love and gratitude, then we cannot be saved without it. Hence, if we need the eternal witness of the damned in order to remember and continue to have this relationship with God, then God cannot save everyone. He must subjugate the existence of the non-elect to the elect in order to save some. In other words, if He were to save everyone, He would save no one.
It also seems like it is not enough to damn a few and save the many, as the point of such a display is the severity and near totality of God’s condemnation of evil and overcoming of chaos. And this is an important point as well, as God reveals Himself, not only in saving us, but in judging chaotic agents from whom we are saved. In other words, we come to know Him through such a huge and powerful subjugation of the wicked (think of the plagues upon Egypt here). Hence, in order to know Him, and knowing Him is to have eternal life and what it means to be saved (John 17:3). We see His justice. We see His greatness in overcoming evil. We see His hatred toward evil as He reveals His good nature in its subjugation. We see His justice in bringing chaotic agents to a rightful punishment, holding them at bay from His ordered world and His people. We, then, come to identify Him correctly through this punishment, and without it, would tend to misidentify and misunderstand who He is—thus keeping us from a genuine relationship with Him. Again, therefore, God must punish the many for eternity if He is to save the few for that same eternity.
In Romans 9:10–24, Paul tells us of God’s purpose in His condemnation of those He hardens as a means of God having mercy upon those He saves:
And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived [twins] by one man, our father Isaac;
for though [the twins] were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to [His] choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls,
it was said to her, "The older will serve the younger."
Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!
For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."
So then it [does] not [depend] on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth."
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?"
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it?
Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?
What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And [He did so] in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, [even] us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
Now, this may be a horror if you are prone to lift up the criminal and the wicked above the righteous.judge, but rather than show God’s apathetic punishment of the wicked, it shows His great love for His children in that He was willing to grieve Himself and have His heart broken over the many in order to save forever His people. After all, He does love all people, but as we discussed before, He cannot love everyone the same, since He seeks to save some. Hence, He is willing to bring into existence those whom He loves and knows will perish in order that He might also bring into existence those who He will save from and through their subjugation and eternal imprisonment. That’s how much He loves them. That’s what He’s willing to do. And let us not forget that the wicked belong in hell. It’s just that His children did as well, but He saved them, and continues to do so forevermore by the reminder of their fate. Hence, the punishment of the wicked will always be used as a means to save God’s people, i.e., a means of His love toward His children. And as is the case of the flood, the Egyptian plagues, and the destruction of the Canaanites, the emphasis is on God saving His people and only secondarily about the punishment of the wicked. It is about His love, and what that love is willing to do in order that His children might be delivered from destruction and death. Their murderers and molesters subdued, and peace and safety restored, the children of God can live on forever without the oppression of the wicked any longer. All their wounds healed and all their tears wiped away, they will never again be destroyed by their destroyers. Instead, in a twist of fate that only One as great as God could pull off, they will now be saved by them. Our punishment, like a window allowing us to peak through and show us our alternate fate, is displayed through those in hell; and it continues to show us just how awesome a thing it was that God did for us in Christ. So God isn’t just punishing the wicked in hell for no reason. He’s saving His people, because hell is a love story, and that is all it was ever meant to be.