Tim & Jon: Is Hell really outside creation & rationally chosen?

I love The Bible Project. Truly, it’s the best online Bible resource I’ve ever come across. I’ve been a monthly supporter since the early days, I’ve watched most of their 134 videos and soon will have listened to all of their podcasts. Jon Collins and Tim Mackie are easy to listen to, full of interesting insights, and express a genuine curiosity and desire for truth. I particularly love the way their work paints a beautiful, grand, biblical metanarrative showing God’s wonderful intentions for humanity in Eden, the amazing lengths He’s gone to throughout history (and especially through Jesus), and anticipating an exciting, joyful, glorious future with God in the New Creation.

However, I find that the clearer the biblical metanarrative is presented, the more jarring Eternal Conscious Torment becomes… So I was intrigued when Jon Collins and Tim Mackie discussed this in their Day Of The Lord Part 6 podcast episode. The context is that they have been discussing and comparing the OT warrior savior images (e.g. Isa 63) and modern movies (e.g. The Magnificent Seven), with the NT warrior savior images (e.g. Rev 19:11) and the Cross. They conclude that:

Tim: [In Revelation, John is] constantly taking aggressive, violent, Old Testament “Day of the Lord” imagery and saying the Cross was the Day of the Lord. It was the fulfillment of those images and it did not involve God killing his enemies—it actually involved the Son of God allowing Himself to be killed by them.

I think it’s inescapable. This is why readings of the book of Revelation that, I don’t know, help people look forward to some future cataclysm of violence, where Jesus comes of the sword cutting people apart—to me it’s not just a misreading of Revelation, to me it’s a betrayal of Jesus. Because what you’re saying is, “Oh, Jesus used the means of the cross but that was just like his way of being nice for a little bit but really he’s…”

Jon: “Ultimately he will use [death and] the threat of death as his true power to bring justice.”

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (24m 8s)

(As an aside, this is similar to what William Cavanaugh said to me in Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?—Cavanaugh Interview)

What they discuss next is what I’ll focus on as it raises many questions.

Tim: Yeah. And I’m not saying that there isn’t a reality to final justice, where people suffer the consequences of their decisions if they don’t yield to Jesus—I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is the New Testament is transforming these violent images of the Day of the Lord in a really important way—that had gone largely unnoticed by the modern Western Church. Because we love Denzel Washington [hero in The Magnificent Seven] strangling the bad guy to death.

Jon: Yeah, it feels good.

Tim: Yeah, it’s satisfying.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (25m 29s)

I believe strongly in the reality of final justice (indeed it’s one of the reasons I started this blog) and that there are unpleasant consequences to giving our heart to anything other than our loving Father. I think seeing evil being stopped is satisfying, and rightly so. However, an issue arises when the method of stopping an evil (e.g. a “bad guy”) is evil (e.g. strangling someone). Our conscience should make us feel conflicted about that “solution”. Thankfully, there is a method of stopping evil that isn’t evil—that method is love—doing good to those who sin against you, melting their hearts, transforming them from foe to friend—rebel to follower of Jesus.

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9, BSB

If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head [melting his opposition?]. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21, CSB

Tim continues:

Anyhow, that’s how the Day of the Lord comes to its completion in the last book of the Bible. It’s this paradox. Here he defeats the armies of evil and then (in chapter 20) Babylon, Death, the Beast (the dragon), they’re all cast into the Lake of Fire. They are assigned—they’re quarantined—to a place of eternal self-destruction, and that’s the defeat of evil. And you could say that’s a violent image, but it’s interesting, it’s people being consigned or handed over to what they’ve chosen, something that they’ve chosen, which is destruction.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (26m 4s)

Respectfully, there’s a huge difference between quarantining something and defeating it. Quarantine may be a necessary step to stop the spread of a plague but it’s only when it’s completely eradicated that it is defeated. Leaving evil quarantined is even worse than quarantining a plague and walking away:

  • it’s an affront to God’s holiness.
  • it’s a thwarting of His good purpose for humans, their telos, that He first articulates in Genesis 1-2 and ultimately in Christ.
  • it’s a denial of the praise and honour God rightly deserves.
  • it’s a failure to bring restorative justice, leaving countless broken relationships festering, unhealed forever—victims never receiving apologies, nor closure.

Eternal self-destruction is even worse than suicide, it’s never a rational choice, it’s a sign of a severe, unhealthy delusion about what is good and what is evil. It’s what God has been working to fix since Genesis 3, which they seem to acknowledge in other episodes:

Tim: … the Old Testament becomes a story of the family of Abraham but all within that larger story of what is God going to do to rescue the world from itself…

The Bible as Divine Literary Art (35m 3s)

But back to the episode I’m focusing on:

Jon: Yeah, how did how did Butler talk about it? He talked about it as creating a place for that to exist but not inside of creation.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (26m 50s)

A very confusing suggestion, because far as I know, there’s only one thing outside of creation, and that is God Himself… everything else is part of, within the category of, God’s creation. “Creating a place”, surely makes it creation?

Tim: Yeah, if somebody refuses, like Pharaoh, to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord (using Pharaoh as an icon or Babylon), then God will honor the dignity of that decision and allow people to exist in that place.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (27m)

Pharaoh’s “refusal” is a contentious issue—I highly recommend reading Talbott’s discussion of Romans 9:17-18, in light of Romans 11:32 (p19 of chapter 5 of his book, which is freely available here). Anyway, even assuming Pharaoh freely rejected God, I don’t think it’s honoring to let someone essentially put themselves into a state of neverending suicide. I don’t think it’s a real, informed, rational decision. So I don’t see it having any “dignity.” Again, it’s a topic that Talbott has comprehensively addressed in his book, The Inescapable Love of God, but if you don’t have time to read or listen (there’s a great audiobook!), then I encourage you to read his Free-will Theodicies of Hell post (which I drew on in Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?).

Jon: Yeah, “confinement”, I think was the term.

Tim: Confinement, yes. But what God won’t allow is for that evil to pollute or vandalize his creation anymore. And so the end of Revelation is the New Jerusalem and then outside the city are… “So wait I thought they were in a Lake of Fire?” (in chapter 20) But then (in chapter 22) the wicked are just outside the city… So these images are that God will contain those who choose evil. And the point is that he won’t allow them to ruin his world anymore.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (27m 17s)

I’m really not convinced that evil can be adequately confined in that way because humans (and God) are so deeply interconnected, we’re relational beings. When loved ones suffer, we suffer, God suffers. That suffering is polluting and vandalizing—it’s ruining any chance of harmony—of the promised Shalom. How can someone possibly be happy while their son, their mother, their husband, or their best friend is still destroying themselves? (And for some believers, all their family and loved ones are non-believers) If they are just outside the open gates, they can probably see, hear, and smell(?!) their torment.

At the end of Revelation, the only thirsty audience the Spirit and the bride (Christians) have are the wicked outside the gates. Perhaps, when the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”, everyone who is thirsty actually comes!

Overcome evil with good

Engaging Orr-Ewing’s “What does love cause us to feel about perpetrators?”

A few years ago, I lived in the inner city in London, my husband was a pastor there, and I had a very good friend who at that time was the same age as me (late twenties). We were very different, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, she had five kids, lived on quite a high floor in a block of flats. She also had about four dogs. None of the dads of her children were still around, in fact, one of them was in prison (he was a crack dealer, very violent man, she had a restraining order against him). She became a Christian and we became very good friends—we met weekly.

One day, her ex-partner (the father of one of her children) got out of prison and he came to her apartment and broke in and beat her virtually to death. I’ll never forget seeing her. When I saw her—it was just incredibly shocking—she was unrecognizable. Now, in that situation, what did I feel—what did love cause me to feel about the perpetrator of that violence? Love meant that I cried out for justice for her.
Amy Orr-Ewing, The Ring of Truth (12m 53s mark) or my transcript

Love causes us to cry out:

  1. for the evil to be acknowledged rather than ignored.
  2. for the evil to be stopped rather than for it to continue.
  3. for the awful damage done to be healed rather than for it to consume the victim. And,
  4. for the perpetrator to fully comprehend the evil, violence, and damage done, and to respond in genuine repentance, to completely turn their life around, dedicating the rest of their life to making amends and seeking to see domestic violence end everywhere.

I would suggest that d) is actually the only way to completely stop evil, because until d) occurs, the evil and hatred continues to fester and grow in the perpetrator. Tragically, unless the victim can reach the point of gracious forgiveness (which doesn’t mean ignoring the evil or allowing it to continue) the evil will continue to cause them harm, potentially consuming them with hatred. (This doesn’t to imply the onus is on the victim to act, nor that the responsibility for reconciliation is on their shoulders).

When d) occurs obviously it’s easier for the victim to forgive but sometimes it’s actually the victim’s forgiveness that causes d) to occur. How many perpetrators have turned around because of Jesus’, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, or because of Gladys Staines’ remarkable forgiveness of her family’s murderers, or Mandela’s forgiveness, or Eric Lomax’s?

But our forgiveness today can’t just be conditional on repentance, which may not occur in this life. It has to be freely given whether or not it’s going to provoke immediate repentance. It is actually for the victim’s own healing and peace that they forgive. Ultimately, it’s the only—albeit extremely difficult—way forward (and this may not be possible until Christ returns).

It is quite easy to put ourselves in the position of someone like Orr-Ewing, witnessing the awful wrong perpetrated against her friend. We recognise that feeling of righteous anger that she refers to. What is more difficult to do is to put ourselves in the position of someone who dearly loves the perpetratorperhaps his mother or brother? What would the love of the perpetrator’s mother cause her to feel? Surely, she would yearn for a), b), c), & d) to occur? This doesn’t mean she is callous towards the victim in this scenario. She wants the wrongs righted. She is angry and ashamed of her son. At the same time, she longs for him to repent and be changed, and to somehow undo the damage he has caused. This is the position of our heavenly Father. He deeply loves all His children—victims and perpetrators—those who love Him and those who still hate Him. The righteous son and the prodigal son. His love doesn’t discriminate.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children [imitators] of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. … Be perfect [in your loving], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:44-45,48, CSB

God instructs us to imitate His love of those who show Him enmity. How does “love your enemies” influence our view of justice? It may well still include punishment but unless it results in d), I can’t see true healing, reconciliation, harmony, and Shalom ever occurring.

Finally, we must remember that we’re all sinners—perhaps not perpetrators of domestic violence but it’s hard to avoid being complicit in some sort of violence in this world—don’t we all nail Jesus to the cross? There’s also some link between the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive:

forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us. … For if you forgive other their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their offenses, neither will your Father forgive your offenses.

Matthew 6:12,14-15, MOUNCE

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32, NIV

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Colossians 3:13, NIV

I also think there’s some link between our cry for justice and the justice that is brought upon our own sins.

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged

Matthew 7:2a, NIV

So I think we should to cry out for justice but justice that moves us all towards God’s Shalom.

Jesus is Justice
Jesus is Justice

Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?—Orr-Ewing interview

The Ring of Truth is the first part of a two part interview of Amy Orr-Ewing by the Centre for Public ChristianityI’ve transcribed it and posted it in three posts:

  1. A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology.
  2. Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account? (below)
  3. The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle
Amy Orr-Ewing by Alex Baker Photography
Amy Orr-Ewing by Alex Baker Photography

Justine: You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. As an apologist, Amy often finds herself defending the Christian faith. She comes across all sorts of pat dismissals of faith: “Science disproves God”, “All religions are the same”, “How can God be good if there is so much suffering in the world?” But as soon as I asked her about the objections to faith that she must come across daily, she was quick to call me out on describing them as “pat”. She actually takes each objection seriously, she listens, she takes the time and care to engage with every question that comes her way.

Amy: I would try and be careful not to ever minimize someone’s objection to faith as something “pat”. I think that most of the articulations against God are actually pretty heartfelt. We live in a culture that’s very apathetic about religious things so when people do articulate, “How could there be a God of love and this horrendous abuse has happened to me or my child or my friend?”, I think that’s a real objection that is both intellectual and personal, and that deserves the time for us to at least try and respond to. Another question that we find a lot in the West is that whole search for meaning in significance and purpose, “Why am I here?” and “Is this enough, is the material, sort of materialistic life that I’m living is that all there is to life?”

We live in a culture that’s very apathetic about religious things so when people do articulate, “How could there be a God of love and this horrendous abuse has happened to me or my child or my friend?”, I think that’s a real objection that is both intellectual and personal, and that deserves the time for us to at least try and respond to.

Simon: Let’s talk about one of those, some people want to talk about the character of God, and they often draw the distinction between this God of the Old Testament who—in some people’s minds—appears sort of violent and angry and a fearful kind of presence, and then the New Testament where they say it’s all lovely and kind and merciful. What’s the challenge there, of course, is trying to match up those two. Now, of course, the people who wrote about that God of the Old Testament thought he was good but how do you address that quite complex problem?

Amy: I think that lots of people have this idea that in order to be loving God couldn’t also hold people accountable or judge evil. But actually when we dig into that preconception, I think we discover that most of us don’t really believe that. Let me give you an example: A few years ago, I lived in the inner city in London, my husband was a pastor there, and I had a very good friend who at that time was the same age as me (late twenties). We were very different, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, she had five kids, lived on quite a high floor in a block of flats. She also had about four dogs. None of the dads of her children were still around, in fact, one of them was in prison (he was a crack dealer, very violent man, she had a restraining order against him). She became a Christian and we became very good friends—we met weekly. One day, her ex-partner (the father of one of her children) got out of prison and he came to her apartment and broke in and beat her virtually to death. I’ll never forget seeing her when I saw her—it was just incredibly shocking—she was unrecognizable. Now, in that situation, what did I feel—what did love cause me to feel about the perpetrator of that violence? Love meant that I cried out for justice for her.

See love and justice go together, and when we read the Old Testament we see a loving God who is also a God who judges evil—that’s actually the same as the God we read about in the New Testament. Now in the Old Testament one of the means of his judgment, within a very limited time period, is war. Now, we can say, “Well, we don’t like that idea.” We read it today through our sort of Western eyes and think that doesn’t make sense to us. But I think if we understand it within a framework of a loving God who judges evil perpetrators on behalf of the victim, it begins to make a bit more sense.


Amy Orr-Ewing gives a longer response to this important question in an article that I engaged with: Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell? I’ve also engaged her pertinent question, “What does love cause us to feel about perpetrators?”.

Does the judgment→salvation pattern stop on Judgment Day?—Engaging Williamson part 5

In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson briefly summarised Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. His last lecture critiques six of Parry’s arguments.

1. Salvation Through Judgment

The overall trajectory of Revelation, like the Bible as a whole, is salvation through judgment. That is to say, judgment is not, and never is, God’s final word.

Parry’s argument according to Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 12m 27s)

We can certainly concede that the overall trajectory of Scripture is indeed salvation through judgment—after all, this is ultimately expressed in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, which saves us from God’s coming wrath. However, such salvation does not apply to those who end up paying the penalty for sin themselves. Either Jesus pays for our sin or we do. Thus it’s simply misleading to suggest that judgment is never God’s final word for those who die in their sin—this is indeed the case, whether in the Old Testament or in the New.

Williamson’s response to 1., Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 15m)

Given the numerous biblical examples of the judgment→salvation pattern 1 in this age (e.g. Noah, David, Jonah, Israel), it’s not surprising we agree that “the overall trajectory of Scripture is indeed salvation through judgment”. But the question is:

Does that pattern stop on Judgment Day??

The examples in this age alone set a significant precedent but there’s more. I think there are even some examples where the salvation occurs in the age to come. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah experienced “the punishment of aionios [age to come] fire” (Jude 1:7), so their promised restoration (Ezek 16:53) must also be in the age to come. If Judgment Day is the start of the age to come, another example would be the man handed over Satan so “he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.” (1Cor 5:5) The Apostle Paul explains that:

A partial hardening [being cut off for awhile] has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in [so that] all Israel will be saved

Romans 11:25b-26a, HCSB

As far as I know, Gentiles will be coming in all through this age, so Israel’s salvation must be after that, sometime in the age to come 2.

Another example might be those who responded to Jesus preaching the gospel when “He descended into hell” (Apostles’ creed)—possibly those who died “in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:18).

… the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

1 Peter 4:6, ESV

I don’t know if this counts but it’s interesting that Moses didn’t reach the Promised Land in this age because he was punished but he did in the age to come (Matt 17:3).

Does God’s wrath rule out subsequent mercy? No. The world already experiences God’s wrath (Rom 1:18), and yet every day people are saved.

Does people’s penalty-paying 3 permanently exclude them from atonement? Again, I think not. There’s a lot of overlap between punishment, wrath, and penalty-paying, so the above examples may already suffice. However, it’s worth considering a penalty of sin that everyone receives—death.

For as in Adam all die

1 Corinthians 15:22a, HCSB

Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.

Romans 5:12b (cf v17, 21), NLT

Everyone has died spiritually (Eph 2:1, Col 2:13, and the above), and even people who haven’t died physically, experience it through sickness, aging, etc. and the sorrow of a loved one dying.

Despite each person paying that penalty themselves, Christians still believe Christ saves at least the Elect. That someone has already served part of their life sentence, doesn’t stop a king pardoning the remainder (even if that remainder is infinite).

Or from a different angle, that a Christian experiences God’s discipline (which sometimes includes a period of penalty-paying), doesn’t mean they’ve voided Christ’s atonement for them.

So to summarise, I don’t see—in this age or the next—punishment, penalty-paying, or wrath, ruling out a subsequent turning to Christ (indeed it seems to often provoke it). Therefore, I can trust that God will use His atonement, ransom, and death for everyone (as the passages below reveal). Ultimately, nothing, even humanity’s abhorrent rebellion, can diminish the boundless effectiveness of the Cross.

And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven [atoned], and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.

1 John 2:2, GNT

He gave himself as a ransom for everyone, the testimony at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:6, ISV

Christ’s love controls us. We are sure that one person died for everyone. And so everyone died.

2 Corinthians 5:14, NIRV

Dr Paul Williamson
Dr Paul Williamson

1. There’s often a warning beforehand, and also punishment, repentance, faith, etc. before the salvation.
2. Exactly when in the age to come is hard to say. It depends on whether or not the ‘full number’ means all the Gentiles, and on whether the redeemer coming from Zion is a reference to the Second Coming (Parry’s suggestion).
3. I say “penalty-paying” as I believe the paying is ongoing as we accrue debt to God much faster than we are able to pay.

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.

Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Simon Smart introduces the second half of the Life & Faith hell series and asks John Dickson what he thinks.

Image result for john dickson and simon smart
John Dickson & Simon Smart (filming For the Love of God documentary)

John starts by acknowledging that there’s a lot of unhelpful non-biblical baggage around the topic of hell, and that’s partly the reason it’s now often mocked by pop culture. It’s a shame because it means Jesus’ serious warnings about the consequences of evil, particularly violence, are often totally ignored.

John: … the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

I explained in my first post why I find the Justice Commissioner metaphor helpful but I guess the big question is, what does “right the wrongs” mean and involve?

John: … it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time.

Loving victims involves the perpetrator being judged—accountability and reparation are important. But justice and love don’t stop there. For a victim to be healed, they need an opportunity to forgive (see Michael Jensen’s, When Thordis Elva forgave her rapist, she broke a curse), they need to see the perpetrator genuinely transformed, so that there can be authentic reconciliation of the relationship (see Engaging Shumack). This has a positive, flow-on effect, rippling out. First to their immediate loved ones, then the surrounding community, and eventually all humanity. I love the way Keller puts it:

God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent. … Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. … God made the world with billions of entities … He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Another implication of God’s love and justice for victims is that it extends to everyone because, in our fallen world, everyone’s a victim at some stage. But hasn’t everyone also mistreated others at some stage, and therefore needs to be judged? How does God respond when everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator? Thankfully, Jesus showed us (particularly on the Cross) that God even loves perpetrators. Indeed I’d go as far as saying that God judges perpetrators for both the sake of the victims and the ultimate good of the perpetrators. Through this He will bring shalom, a concept explained here by Keller:

Neil Plantinga, a theologian, puts it like this: “The webbing together of God, [all] humans, and all creation in equity, fulfillment, and delight”—[this] is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We translate it “peace,” but in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Moving on.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

Before I look at John’s answer to Simon, I’ll give my two cents:

I don’t think anyone can earn salvation, which is a free gift from God, received by the gift of faith. So without Jesus, everyone would be judged and face their sentence, no matter what kind of life they had lived. However, the Bible says Jesus has acted, has atoned, and therefore:

… will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4, KJV

If God can’t save everyone, and instead they continue rejecting Him (which is evil), there would be no end of evil—no complete victory, which seems to imply some sort of disturbing eternal dualism.

John takes a different angle to Simon’s question:

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds.

I’ve never come across the phrase “eternal judgment” in the Bible but I’m guessing Matthew 25:46 is in mind? If so, Is Aionios Eternal? explains why J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and other scholars, think aionios should be translated “pertaining-to/belonging-to/of/in the age to come”, and Pruning the Flock? explains why I think that translation is reinforced by the verse’s use of kolasis (the word aionios, an adjective, is describing). Put together, I think “correction (or pruning) from God in the age to come” is more accurate. But even if that isn’t the case, parables are known for hyperbole, which makes basing a doctrine on a detail unwise.

I think God’s correction will be proportional both in severity and time.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

Luke 12:47-48a, NIV

However, maths shows us that “eternal proportionality” would be problematic because infinity times anything is infinity. For example, if I received a dollar every day for an infinite number of days then I’d end up with an infinite amount of money. But even if I only received a cent every day for an infinite number of days I’d still end up with an infinite amount of money. Likewise, if I received ten blows every day for an infinite (eternal) number of days then I’d end up with an infinite number of blows. But even if I only received one blow every day for an infinite number of days, I’d still end up with an infinite number of blows—which certainly isn’t the few blows we find in the parable. John says he doesn’t know how “eternal proportionality” works—neither do I—but I think the apparent oddness of it should prompt him reexamine his previous steps (e.g. translating aionios as “eternal”).


(Note: this post was originally titled, “Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 2”. Full transcripts of the episodes: CPX Interview the Director of Hellbound and John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell)

Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 1

Before I post the second part of Life & Faith‘s series on hell, I’d like to engage with some of the points they raised in the first part.

Justine: But let’s be honest, like, no one likes the idea of judgment.

Currently in Australia we’re having a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It gives us mixed feelings. On the one hand, we lament the many awful things that are being exposed. On the other hand we rejoice because:

  • Victims are beginning to receive some justice, closure, and healing.
  • Perpetrators are, ideally, genuinely comprehending the damage they’ve done, sincerely apologising, turning their lives around and seeking to make amends (see ideal justice flowchart).
  • As a result of the commission, changes are being made to our institutions to make it much harder for abuse to occur in the future.

In many ways, Judgment Day is like a Royal Commision or War Crimes tribunal, but on a far greater scale, covering every injustice ever committed throughout all time and space—something only possible because the Justice Commissioner is God Himself. In Jesus, God is the only Justice Commissioner who has personally undergone execution as a result of gross injustices. Again, it will be a time of lamenting and rejoicing:

  • Our own sins will be exposed. The hurt we caused others will be revisited—possibly revealed to us for the first time—and that will be very unpleasant, to say the least. Then, I believe each and every sin will need to be corrected. Again, that will be painful, but the sooner that “cancer” within me is purged, the better!
  • In the same fashion, the sins of each and every other person will the exposed and corrected. That will be unpleasant for them and for those watching on. It’s heartbreaking to see others in pain, even when you know it’s for their own good.

Like the Royal Commision, the good that Judgment Day brings—not least the cessation of evil—outweighs the period of lament, pain, suffering, and correction, and therefore, overall. I appreciate how John Dickson unpacks it below:

Simon: What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: … God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry for someone to make things right, and he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on.

So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news.

Simon:  … ultimately, I guess, there’s a choice of whether we want to accept that relationship [with God] or reject it—and there’s a sense of respecting those wishes.

The idea that God will allow some people to eternally reject Him was popularised by C. S. Lewis, but interestingly Lewis’ own conversation gives us good reason to believe God will eventually win over even the most ardent atheists (Talbott explains in Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist).

Justine: You gotta say though, like, you can see the attraction of that universalist idea [that Jesus’ death and resurrection—His victory over sin and death—will mean that eventually all people will be saved]. Everyone wants to talk about God as a God of love—and He is that, right? So what’s wrong with that?

Simon: I just think the amount of the material in the Bible that takes you in another direction is overwhelming. J.I. Packer, my old lecturer, used to say this is avalanche dodging when it comes to the material in the Bible. And so, while the makers of this film seem to want us to leech-out aspects of God that are right through the Bible: that He is holy, that He requires holiness on his people’s part, to some degree, that we’re incapable of that and we need help in it, are part of the same thing. So there’s judgment, there’s mercy. I’d agree with the makers of the film who say that God’s primary characteristic that you see in the Bible is one of grace and great love and mercy—I really believe that. But I think that you have to hold that in tension, to some degree, with his holiness. And judgment is part of that.

Although some people do “want us to leech-out aspects of God”, in my experience, most Christian Universalists do not. For example, Robin Parry, doesn’t dodge God’s holiness and judgment, and our sinfulness, but spends a significant amount of his book (The Evangelical Universalist) engaging with these aspects.

I’d also point out to Packer that there’s an “avalanche” of biblical material saying God’s primary characteristic is love and mercy, and that the tension Simon mentions, will be resolved through God’s restorative justice—everyone (indeed everything) will reconciled to God—the Shalom resulting from the crucifixion.

Justine: Do you think Hellbound? the film has kind of lost that tension that you’re speaking of?

Simon: Well in fairness, they do talk about judgment—like a post-death judgment, but then an opportunity to come back to God in that—a refining sort of aspect to this. So no, they don’t junk it completely. They keep it there. Now the nature of that judgment I think may not quite match with the sort of material that’s in the Bible, where Jesus talks about, you know, “I never knew you” and these sorts of pretty sobering comments that He makes. So yeah, it’s there but we need to look carefully whether this matches the biblical material.

Properly addressing the “nature of judgment” would require writing a whole book but I think it’s fair to say that refining is one metaphor repeatedly used in the bible (e.g. refining fire: Zec 13:9; Job 23:10; Ps 66:10; 1Cor 3:11-15; Mal 3:2-3; 1Pet 1:7). So the nature of judgement they describe is certainly biblical.

I agree that “I never knew you” is sobering. At the same time, I’d suggest it shouldn’t be interpreted as an absolute statement because:

  1. It’s impossible for an all-knowing God to not know someone.
  2. God created and sustains everything, which implies knowledge of everything.
  3. It’s a statement within a parable, a genre known for hyperbole.

Justine: So what then does it look like to hold the two and in tension, I guess, the aspects of God’s holiness but also His love? How do you juggle that?

Simon: I think there’s a way in which you have to realize that God’s not someone to be trifled with. There’s a necessary reverence for God if we’re seeing God for who He truly is and who we are before him. But the overwhelming picture, Justine, in the Bible is that God is a father figure who just loves us—is full of mercy and grace—I think that they get that part right in this film—and he is looking for a way to bring us back to him. We see that in the life of Jesus and so I think you’ve gotta remember both things. But the mercy and the grace—I think absolutely is the most outstanding characteristic of God. It’s one really worth responding to.

Amen, and I can’t imagine our Father failing to find a way to bring us back to Him. After all, when the disciples were worried about God’s ability to save anyone, Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (Matt 19:26, NLT) Jesus says, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all found in the end.

Life & Faith by the Centre for Public Christianity
Source: cpx.podbean.com

Review of Gooder’s “Heaven”

I enjoyed reading Heaven by Paula Gooder. It was obviously very well researched, yet still entirely accessible to an amateur theologian like me. In the introduction she notes that most people, even non-believers, have an opinion about heaven but unfortunately it is rarely discussed in depth—hence this book. The book taught me new things and helped bring together, and process, the scattered ideas and opinions that I’d picked up over the years, from Sunday School, artwork, pop culture, and general Bible reading.

[Heaven] lifts our vision from the mundane realities of our everyday lives and reminds us that beyond the daily grind of our existence there is another, unseen reality. … A reality that is as real – if not more so – than our everyday lives. Heaven suggests an answer to the familiar human feeling that there must be more than this, and prompts us to wonder whether there is indeed more in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in all our philosophies.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. x

The book lifted my spirits and made me appreciate how heaven is closer and more relevant to everyday life than I’d realised.

Believing in heaven should mean that we carry with us a vision of the world as God intended it to be and strive with everything that we have to bring about that kind of world in the place where we live and work.

As a result, rather than feeling esoteric and irrelevant, believing in heaven becomes a vital part of the way in which we live out our lives. It challenges us to see … heaven and earth exist side by side … God can and does intervene and … God’s justice and love finds its proper place in earth as in heaven.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 102-103

I love how Revelation 21 describes heaven and earth becoming one in the end—a process we anticipate and participate in now—”Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

[The] biblical language of heaven challenges us into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God … ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness.

A good theology of heaven challenges us to re-imagine who we are and what the world might be.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 106

Reflecting on Revelation 4-5, Gooder points out that when we worship God, we are united with the hosts of angels, and all those who have gone before us, worshipping God!

Worship, at least occasionally, should be one of those times when heaven opens and we see that our words are not ours alone, but are joined together with heaven’s eternal worship before God’s throne.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 67

Those are just a few of the gems in the book. It also covers Hebrew cosmology, the descriptions of God’s throne and court, cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, fallen angels, visions, revelation, ascent into heaven, life, death, intermediate states (Sheol, Paradise, etc.), and resurrection! However, for the sake of space, I won’t cover those topics but just the three pages that discuss hell.

A brief excursus on hell

This book is about heaven and not about hell, but so many people are interested in hell (in the idea, not going there, that is!) that it is worth a brief note here. By and large there is little evidence in the Bible for the full-blown doctrine of hell that we find in later texts. However, as with so much we have explored in this book, there are hints and seeds of ideas that make it easy to see how the fuller idea grew up.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 94

She notes five strands:

1. Sheol/Hades

Gooder explains that, in biblical times, Sheol was where everyone went when they died. Although it isn’t described as a place of punishment, she suggests that there is the idea of being “cut off from God’s presence”. I’d want to push back a bit with verses like:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Psalm 139:8, ESV

2. Punishment by God for sins committed

Gooder rightly notes that throughout the Bible there are examples of people sinning and God responding with punishment. She goes as far as saying Daniel 12:1-3 introduces the concept of “eternal punishment”. I don’t think aionios (or olam) in Daniel 12:2 should be translated as “eternal” for the reasons I discussed in Is Aionios Eternal? Rather, I believe God’s correction of sinners—in the age to come—will only continue until they’re saved.

3. Gehenna

Gooder gives a good, albeit short, explanation of Gehenna (an actual, physical valley just outside Jerusalem) and it’s connection to shameful child sacrifices to Molech in the OT.

The question is whether or not the New Testament ever tips into understanding Gehenna as a place of eternal destruction. Wright argues clearly that Jesus’ warnings about what would happen in Gehenna were not, as a rule, about the next life but about this life [now] … Others would see Gehenna language as being very close to language about a future fate for the wicked. On balance I would take the second view, as texts like ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]’ (Matt. 10.28) seem to have a ring of eternal punishment about them and to have transformed Gehenna from ‘just’ a physical place into the manifestation of a future potential fate after death.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95

I like how Gooder often gives an alternative view, such as Wright’s, before her own. In this case, I suspect Jesus was both warning of the consequences of sin on earth (e.g. destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) and the consequences in the age to come.

The context of Matthew 10:28 is Jesus commissioning His disciples and letting them know they will face persecution. However, God will be with them (v20), will help them (v19), knows them intimately (v30), cares for them even more than sparrows (v31), and will save them in the end (v22). Therefore, they don’t need to be afraid of people (v26, 28) and instead acknowledge Jesus before all (v32). Interpreting v28 as threatening the disciples suddenly with eternal punishment is surely at odds with His love for them expressed in the surrounding verses-? Keeping in mind that:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

1John 4:18, AMPC

4. Lake of fire

Gooder gives a brief overview of the lake of fire image mentioned in Revelation and how it is linked to the idea of the second death.

5. Accounts of tours of hell

A final element, found more often outside the Bible, is the growth of accounts of tours of hell which can be found in Jewish and Christian texts from the second century onwards. Both Himmelfarb and Bauckham see these as growing naturally out of the heavenly ascent texts that we explored in the previous chapter, since a number (including 1 Enoch 22) seem to include the place where the souls of the wicked are held prior to resurrection.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95-96

I haven’t considered these much before so I’d want to read examples before commenting.

Gooder concludes the excursus with a helpful point to remember:

The New Testament seems to come from a time when ideas about a future punishment were shifting and changing rapidly; it certainly contains no fully formed, elaborate view of hell such as we find in later texts. But the Bible – and the New Testament in particular – does contain concepts which eventually grew into a more elaborate view.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 96

I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Heaven and I suspect I’ll refer to it when the topic arises. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the Judeo-Christian view of heaven.

"Heaven" by Paula Gooder

Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty

I recently read Richard Shumack’s Fifty Years Without the Death Penalty, Australia Should be Grateful. It’s a well written article, which explores the important relationship between justice and punishment—a topic I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.

Shumack starts by explaining that he isn’t against punishment:

Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense.

I think he’s right that most people rightly long for justice, although it raises questions:

  • What exactly is justice?
  • How do we know when justice has been achieved?
  • How do we untangle the desire for retribution from the desire for revenge?
  • Should we leave retribution to God?

I’m glad he unpacks this further:

Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.

What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.

Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment.

I think rehabilitation is part of God’s plan and so is indeed noble. Unlike God, we can’t see an offender’s heart, and so our rehabilitation sometimes disappoints because it isn’t complete. Rehabilitation and retribution are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive concepts but, as Shumack implies, I think they can overlap. Although getting retribution right in practice is difficult—possibly something only God can do.

Taking a step back, what if the aim of punishment was to help the perpetrator fully comprehend the physical and psychological damage done (e.g. the anxiety resulting from having trust violated)—to deeply understand their actions from the victim’s perspective? Ideally this authentic empathy would be achieved through educative rehabilitation but it seems that sometimes it’s only possible through personal experience… and I think this is where a particular type of retribution may play a role.

Consider someone who is caught vandalising and the types of retribution they could be given:

  1. Jail time or a fine.
  2. Someone vandalises something of equal value that belongs to the offender.
  3. The offender is required to see how the victims are impacted, and then helps to repair it.

I’d suggest that type 3. is the best as it most clearly demonstrates to the offender the damage done, and is the most natural consequence—most closely linked to the offense. However, if the offender still doesn’t fully comprehend, type 2. might be required or at least threatened (there’s room for clemency/mercy as the goal is comprehension, rather than simply trying to “balance the books”). Type 1. is the most disconnected from the offense and should therefore be the last resort.

Possible Path to Ideal Justice

But what about the case of the mass murderer that Shumack mentioned? Sometimes when the offender experiences gracious love from someone or undeserved forgiveness from the victims (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax), it brings about genuine comprehension, repentance, and transformation of the offender (e.g. a resolute conviction to never kill again, and instead devote their life to helping victims and helping others to not become murderers). Sometimes educating the offender—say, showing them the awful hurt done to the victims—is enough to turn them around.

But what if all these responses have failed? Is there any type of retribution that would spur the offender to change? Perhaps—the attempts by our justice systems have had mixed results to say the least. Would executing an offender give them a fuller understanding of what it felt like for their victims? If it did, is it worth it when it denies the possibility of reconciliation, and possibly the victim’s healing, in this life?

It also seems possible that [the death penalty] could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.

I think sometimes good can come from the death penalty, particularly if you believe justice and redemption are matters that go beyond this life. Although, as Shumack points out, any potential good still seems outweighed by other factors. First, the apparent inability of earthly justice systems to avoid executing innocents. Second, if someone on death penalty isn’t pardoned when they’ve had a dramatic transformation (e.g. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) the good being done by them is seemingly cut short. Having said that, their influence may continue—like a martyr’s—as Another Day in Paradise demonstrates.

Primarily, however, I am glad [Australia doesn’t have the death penalty] because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope …

For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.

I want to be a person who hopes for the better too. While the death penalty diminishes hope of life, transformation, redemption, and reconciliation now, it doesn’t have to diminish the hope that all these will occur in the age to come. Christie Buckingham describes Sukumaran’s amazing hope—even at his execution—that “the better” was in the age to come (reminds me of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24).

Shumack reflects on the last person executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan:

… We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it [the death sentence] had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.

I hope Ryan’s conscience was pricked during this life but even if it wasn’t, I suspect it probably has been by now as I don’t believe his hanging eliminated repentance and redemption in the age to come.

Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.

I think some individuals refuse to turnaround in this life but I don’t believe (partly because of miraculous turnarounds we’ve already witnessed) anyone is eternally beyond God’s ability to reform.

I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.

Wow! This type of deep rehabilitation, brought about by love and grace, is what I’m hoping—by God’s grace—will ultimately occur for each and every person.

There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”

I heartily agree with that Mandela quote!

It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.

I don’t think redemption and justice are at odds but that redemption is an essential step towards ultimate justice—that God’s justice/shalom is so much more than retribution (although retribution might need to occur before redemption sometimes, as I tried to articulate above). Because of this, I don’t think the death penalty alone ever satisfies justice—at most it might be a step towards it.

I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.

Amen brother! We all need second chances!

How, and to whom, do we show hospitality?

Continuing on from the last post, another reason for showing hospitality is that provides a place for God to work:

It’s good to be reminded that the table is a very ordinary place, a place so routine and everyday it’s easily overlooked as a place of ministry. And this business of hospitality that lies at the heart of Christian mission, it’s a very ordinary thing; it’s not rocket science nor is it terribly glamorous. … Most of what you do as a community of hospitality will go unnoticed and unrecognised. At base, hospitality is about providing a space for God’s Spirit to move. Setting a table, cooking a meal, washing the dishes is the ministry of facilitation; providing a context in which people feel loved and welcome and where God’s Spirit can be at work in their lives.
Simon Carey Holt, quoted in Tim Chester’s A Meal with Jesus, p96

This quote also makes the important point that hospitality doesn’t have to be a posh “dinner party”, indeed it’s actually better if it isn’t. Too much formality, pomp, and ceremony can create barriers. For example, rather than chatting with each other, guests and hosts will probably be stressing about what they’re wearing or which utensil they are using!

Hospitality doesn’t have to be complicated, you can simply share some chips at a local park. Having said that, there’s also nothing wrong with showing hospitality via a feast or party. The important thing is to try to create a relaxed, friendly environment where you can talk and connect with people.

Sadly, like many things in life, hospitality has been affected by consumerism. The media and the advertising industry pressure us to provide elaborate and “perfect” three course meals, in an immaculate setting, perhaps with mood lighting, ambient music, etc. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with doing something special but we should always ask ourselves, “Will my guests enjoy this?”, “Will it make them feel comfortable and relaxed?”, “Am I doing it for them, or to make myself look good?”

This is particularly important when you consider that our guests may not be as well off as us. Indeed Jesus encouraged us to show hospitality to people who can’t repay it:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:12-14, NIV

John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, commented on this passage:

One would almost think that Luke 14:12-14 was not considered part of God’s Word, nor has any part of Jesus’ teaching been more neglected by His own people. I do not think it is unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.
John Newton, The Works of John Newton

When Jesus was around, you would bump into the poor, the crippled, the lame, etc. every time you walked down the street. But where do we find people like this? Where do we find strangers? It’s tricky. Our society tends to hide them from view (our detention of refugees comes to mind).

I listened to a helpful talk Tim Keller on hospitality. He made three suggestions.

  • People within our congregations whom we haven’t shared a meal with.
  • Our neighbours. Literally the people on your street (e.g. a Grand Final BBQ).
  • Volunteer for a charity who shows hospitality (e.g. Loui’s Van).

People enjoying a BBQ

Keller also says:

Gospel Hospitality is welcoming people into your living space, treating strangers as family so that God can turn some of them into friends [i.e. God can use your hospitality in unexpected ways].
Tim Keller, Hospitality and God’s Grace

He also notes that home is a place where you are restored—a harbour—although we need to remember that nobody has the perfect home. It’s about refreshing and recharging people but also that people get loved towards belief, they don’t get argued towards belief. That’s to say, hospitality naturally promotes the Gospel, often more effectively than words alone.

Now I couldn’t do a series on hospitality without looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it Jesus made it clear that hospitality should be inclusive, that it crosses cultural and religious boundaries, and that it should be a priority. In response to the question, “who is my neighbor?”:

Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Luke 10:30-37, NLT

I think this parable also shows that we don’t have to show hospitality on our own—we can do it with the help of others (e.g. an innkeeper, or a barista at your favourite coffee shop, or simply asking friends to co-host a meal).

Series summary

  1. Fear of strangers is growing in the West, and we’ve sadly seen politicians capitalising on that a lot recently. To counteract the fear we need to love strangers—show hospitality.
  2. We recalled Jesus’ frequent hospitality: showed that God is down-to-earth, inclusive in grace and love, and is the Messiah; gave people a taste of the New Creation feast (which everyone is invited to).
  3. Hospitality is a very significant biblical theme, from the first chapter, through to the last.
  4. Why do we show hospitality?
    1. God shows hospitality and asks us to imitate it
    2. OT Law & Great Commandment
    3. Lots of OT examples of godly people showing hospitality
    4. NT exhortations
    5. It was central to Christianity for the first 350 years
    6. It is a great way to love God
    7. It provides a place for God to work
    8. It naturally promotes the Gospel, often more effectively than words alone
    9. Because Jesus saw it as a priority
  5. How do we show hospitality?
    1. Not too posh, can be as simple as chips
    2. Conducive to conversation
    3. Aiming to make guests comfortable and relaxed, not to promote yourself
    4. Welcoming people into your space
    5. Treating people as family
    6. With the help of others
  6. Who do we show hospitality to?
    1. Invite the widest range of people you can, prioritising those who can’t reciprocate
    2. People you don’t know at church
    3. Your neighbours on your street
    4. People who come to Loui’s Van
    5. Across cultural, ethnical, religious, and class boundaries

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found this introduction to hospitality helpful.