Preaching Text: “‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.’” (Luke 16:19)
Over the last few weeks I said the biggest challenge to Christian doctrine is the fact of evil in our world. I also said the biggest challenge to the church is its perceived hypocrisy.
But today I’d like to lift up perhaps the most offensive aspect of Christianity – the idea that a loving God judges! It is an equal opportunity offense – putting off both those outside the church and those within!
One critic, giving voice to many, challenged Tim Keller by declaring that the Bible’s God “is no more than a primitive deity who must be appeased with pain and suffering.”
Well, for starters, part of the problem is that 80% of Americans, according to Robert Bellah, believe “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue.” Thus moral truth is purely subjective, relative to individual interpretation.
And what most people have decided is that God is love and, as such, supports us no matter how we live. We distrust a God who punishes anybody for any sincerely held belief, no matter how mistaken.
This, of course, contradicts an older wisdom which sought to conform the soul to external reality by means of knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. There was, in other words, a transcendent order outside the self, built into the very fabric of the universe.
Thus the path to wisdom was based on living in conformity to this unyielding reality and rested on developing qualities of character, such as “humility, compassion, courage, discretion, and loyalty.”
But modernity has reversed this. Ultimate reality is no longer seen as supernatural, but natural, and thus malleable. “Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality,” Keller writes, “we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires.” He cites Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an attempt by the author “to highlight the consequences [within modernity] of seeking power and control rather than wisdom and glad enjoyment of the given-ness of God.”
Modernity instead has granted us a “new confidence” to control not only the physical universe but the metaphysical one as well, to shape and mold them according our own specifications. It only stands to reason, then, that we recoil from the notion that is there a moral, metaphysical reality beyond our control, and that we might suffer ill consequences in violating its unbending truths.
As such, the idea of a divine Judgment Day is perfectly nonsensical. After all, there’s no standard by which any judgments might be made!
O.K., but what about a loving God who gets angry? “[But] don’t we all sometimes get angry because of our love?” asks Keller.
After all, love’s opposite is not anger, but hate. And the worst form of hate is indifference.
“God’s wrath,” concurs Becky Pippert, “is not a cranky explosion, but [God’s] settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the inside of the human race he loves with his whole being.” God is angry at injustice and deception, in other words, because it’s destroying creation’s integrity and peace.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a refugee from a then-warring Croatia, adds to this sentiment. “If God were not angry at injustice and deception,” he writes, “and did not make an end to violence – that God would not be worthy of worship…” Ironically, he suggests, “the lack of belief in a God of vengeance secretly nourishes [such] violence.”
“If you’ve seen your home burned down and your relatives killed and raped, such talk [of God’s passivity] is laughable and shows no concern for justice.” (Here he is careful to make a clear distinction between divine justice and mere human vengeance which indulges in a blind, hateful cycle of strikes and counterstrikes.)
So what about hell, eternal judgment? Surely a loving God would not allow that.
Of course most of us misunderstand the biblical idea of hell. We commonly assume that God gives us a certain amount of time to make things right. If we fail, God casts us into hell for all eternity. And despite our cries for mercy, God will not yield. “You had your chance,” we hear God saying, “and now you’re going to suffer!”
This, however, is not the biblical view. Instead it argues that sin separates us from the presence of God, from the source of all joy, love, wisdom, etc. To lose this is hell – “the loss of our capacity for giving and receiving love or joy.”
This disconnect leads to what Keller calls “soul disintegration,” which produces “bitterness, self-absorption, envy, anxiety, paranoia, etc.”
“What if when we die,” he asks, “we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?” In this way of looking at things, hell is simply “the trajectory of a soul living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”
Consider the Rich Man in our parable this morning from Luke. The Rich Man, now in hell, still treats Lazarus as a mere “water boy,” tasked with performing the Rich Man’s directives.
In this parable we see the Rich Man’s “denial, blame-shifting, and spiritual blindness.” Significantly, Keller comments on how the Rich Man in the story is given no name, signifying that his identity is based on wealth. Once this is lost, he has no identity.
“In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.”
The curious irony, however, says Keller, is that no one actually asks to leave hell. In fact, “the very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.”
In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, we observe a busload of people from hell as they reach the outskirts of heaven. There they are urged to leave behind the sins that have effectively trapped them in hell. The punchline? They refuse, despite the fact that God never refuses anyone!
Locked in a prison of self-centeredness, their pride refuses to admit their need. On the bus they “would rather have their freedom, as they define it, than salvation.” For in glorifying God they shall “lose their freedom and power.”
In the end, “All God does…with people is give them what they most want, including…freedom from himself.” C.S. Lewis concurs. “Hell,” he once wrote, “is the greatest monument to human freedom…No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”
In simple terms, then, both secularists and Christians believe self-centeredness and cruelty have harmful consequences. But Christians don’t think the soul ever dies. Thus moral and spiritual errors affect the soul forever. (For their part, secularists also believe in moral and spiritual errors but don’t think they go forever.)
Keller ends with a surprising and ironic twist, at least for us Westerners – that there is no other religious text outside of the Bible that even talks about a loving God! Most ancient pagan religions see the world as created not out of love but through struggles and violent battles. Buddhism simply has no personal God. And Islam is offended by the idea of a personal God (such is considered disrespectful to God).
So what makes us Westerners think that “God is love?” Keller asks. Does history show it? Does life today? Do other religious texts? Or other major faiths as their “ruling attribute”?
No, “the source of the idea that God is love,” Keller concludes, “is the Bible itself.”
“The belief in a God of love – who accepts everyone and judges no one – is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity.” Amen.