Responses to “Hell and Ministry”–And an encouragement to those ministering to people who are wrestling with God

A few days ago I posted about a recent conversation I had with someone who is passionately wrestling with God about His choice to punish humankind via the eternal punishment of hell. I reached out to some wise, believers I know to help me process my subsequent thoughts after the conversation. Here is what some of them said:

  • Here are a couple thoughts about your question on the eternality of hell and ministry. First, a rather blunt response: You have no hope of being “amazing in ministry” if you disagree with Jesus, who clearly believed in the eternality of hell. See Mark 9:48 and Matthew 25:46. You could also add Revelation 14:9-11 to this list. Is Revelation as directly from Jesus as the Gospels? Perhaps! That text is quite clear. Luke 16:26 speaks to the idea of moving from hell to heaven, and it is impossible. There is a great chasm “fixed” between them. Second – and perhaps more gently – I am concerned about what lies beneath this move away from the eternality of hell. It is sobering to remember, but the reason hell is eternal is because God is so holy, and sin is so awful. Hell’s eternality also tells us why the cross is so wonderful. I would like to gently ask your friend with doubts about these things. To diminish hell is to diminish God’s holiness, sin’s awfulness, and the cross’s wonder. Here is why: sin is terrible rebellion against the infinite God. The measure of its vile nature can only be truly seen when we compare it to the holiness and beauty of God. Rebellion against such a Lord can only be justly punished by infinite punishment. God is that infinitely good, and sin is that bad. Sin’s terrible rebellion can only be satisfied by an infinite sacrifice – which is why Jesus himself is the only Savior qualified to redeem us. It has to be the God-man who goes to the cross. That is the only way God-sized justice can be satisfied. This is why Paul calls us to worship in Romans 5 when he reminds us of the incredible love of God: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” When we confront the temptation to shorten hell, we do so believing we are elevating God’s love and compassion. In reality, we are diminishing his holiness, and the love he showed us when he sent his son to be our Savior. It is only on the cross where God’s perfect justice and love meet. I hope that helps!
  • Great question. I would def affirm the struggle. It’s a doctrine I don’t like at all, yet clearly laid out in scripture. Why doesn’t this individual think it should be eternal? I would ask if you haven’t already. Asking a ton of questions is great too. The short answer is that a finite being sinning against or rebelling against an eternal God equals an infinite offense. Since God is eternal, then an offense against Him is as well. Since He is completely just, it must be punished. If would be gross if He didn’t punish it in such a way. But ultimately this magnifies the gospel and Jesus sucking dry the wrath of God. There is no more offense, ever, for those in Christ. Amen!! The struggle is on the human side. Simply put, we just don’t understand holiness or the gravity of sin. I know I don’t!! I say all that to say, the grace of God is immense, even for jokers and fakers like me who don’t get it, question it, and get frustrated by it. And I’m so freakin thankful!!! He has an “along the way” kind of grace that is very much for our wrestling through it. I would encourage this person to begin by agreeing with God and His Word, confessing ignorance and the struggle, and asking Him to help them see the reality of this doctrine, to help them believe what is true. And then to celebrate God’s scandalous grace for blind sheep like us. I’d be glad to dialogue w this person too (not that I have any answers or know it all, but I def struggle w such doctrines, yet am learning to trust scripture over my broken feelings and shady perceptions). Good stuff!!
  • Betty, thanks for asking. To be brief, I think it can safely be said that if Scripture teaches the doctrine of eternal hell so clearly, that we should in a sense cover our mouths (like Job) and not give our minds to wonder whether this is one of God’s lesser attributes, his “dark side”, or something that Christians should be embarrassed or confused about. God’s wrath is an action that flows from his profound and eternal love. To the degree that he is glorious and that the Father loves his Son, so must he act in accordance with that love with jealous vengeance on any who should oppose whom He loves most. Any of us can understand this emotion (to a much lesser degree!) when a loved one is attacked. The problem with hell is not that God is out of line and overly severe with his punishments, rather it is our human tendency to think more highly of ourselves (and our race)- that we deserve better and that our sinful state really isn’t that bad. I do not believe any one who is confused about this doctrine can rightly preach the gospel in view of all that Christ endured for us on the cross. It wasn’t just a six-hour ordeal in the flesh that Jesus took upon himself, it was our eternal damnation that he swallowed whole! Concerning what this young man should do, if he desires ministry, I would not hesitate to tell him (if I were with him, after hearing him out, and trying to understand his heart and desire for ministry, and his struggle with the doctrine of hell) that to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus, one must not be discomforted by the concept of eternal damnation, as the Savior who loves and died for us in the gospel is the very Savior who taught us about this very place of eternal torment. He should not enter into ministry if this critical doctrine is not understood, embraced, and yes, that God should even be worshipped as the God of justice and wrath. When someone struggles with this idea of eternal torment, I generally find that they are in the end minimizing the love and graciousness of God by lessening his justice and wrath. One cannot shrink one attribute without doing the same to all the others. More could be said, for sure. Let me know if you need clarification to what I’ve shared. Blessings
  •  Betty, there are varieties of ministry, so a placement in some form of ministry isn’t out of the question. The concern of the day is in how we seem to have opened ourselves to interpretations of clear and straightforward doctrines of Scripture which have been contrived to mean something other than what they say. Is this person inclined toward that type of hermeneutical approach in other areas as well? Again, whether this person is directed toward the pursuit of full-time ministry hinges on the type of ministry and their inclinations with other topics biblically. We both probably know people who are wonderful and winsome and loving who would be great at ministry except that their theology is antithetical, so be careful getting caught up with the persona
  • my first gut reply would be to focus on the work of Jesus Christ. If God is going to swoop down into hell and rescue everyone after all is said and done, what is the point of Christ’s sacrifice? Wouldn’t that diminish the glory of the Cross? Also, the very character of God would be challenged in this – His faithfulness, holiness, justice, etc
  •  I resonate with everything you said, and I would love to entertain the thought that perhaps God has a really sweet way to end the story. However: if we all end up in heaven. What’s the point? What’s the point of the gospel, and Jesus telling people to make disciples and God promising to take care of those who love Him. This is different than the argument of “what’s the point of choosing God if you believe He chose you” sort of thing. This about a consequence to sin.
  • Thanks for the post. It is a very real question for many. I do think you are right in much of what you say — faith is the bottom line, but there are a couple of other things that also factor in. We just visited Korazim, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than these because of their lack of faith. That suggests to me that there are degrees of punishment in hell, though it is not clear what that means. Second, to choose to reject God means rejecting life and all that is life. God does not force anyone to choose, but absence of God will include death. In fact, the goodness of God requires that he does not force his presence on anyone…. Just a few thoughts. Ultimately we really do not know what “hell” means in real terms, but we know it is just and necessary. 
  • I have struggled very much with this exact thing. I think you’re exactly, right Betty, in that the answer is prayer. It’s not just the short answer though. It’s THE answer. Prayer for God to allow his perfect peace to set in and let the issue rest. I’d still love to see God one day storm the gates of hell and redeem all of creation in his unending love, but he has given me the peace in my heart so that I can understand and be at rest with the existence of an eternal hell.
  • The externality of hell has been a long time discussion in the Christian community. However, when it is all said and done it comes down to our trusting in the character of God. We hate to see injustice and unnecessary pain in the lives of those we love and know, but what position are we in to call into question the heart of God?  We don’t like the sound of an eternal hell because we can’t comprehend eternity or understand a perfect God. A person seeking to go into ministry must be in a complete place of trusting the heart of God no matter how much they don’t like or understand pain and suffering.  Ministry is being an ambassador of the Gospel and God’s word. We can not be an effective ambassador of someone we do not trust to be perfect and holy and just regardless of our ability to fully understand the purpose behind the decisions they make.  No one really knows the reality of what hell looks like, but I have to trust that God would not condemn anyone to a place that is beyond the bounds of his perfect character.

I have wonderful and wise friends 🙂

But I then I thought to myself, I’m sure he does too! He told me how deeply he has thought through this! I am sure he has been told these same sorts of things by similar people! I’m sure he has thought through perhaps each of these points, and read articles and blogs and listened to sermons and had long conversations over dining room tables. It was almost discouraging. Almost discouraging to think that I may offer no new insight, or compelling argument. Almost discouraging to think that he has heard all of these things before, and his heart will continue to hurt and question despite my efforts to help and encourage.

Almost discouraging. But not quite.

Because Sunday morning during our Acts sermon series my Pastor, Joel DeVinney, preached on God sovereignly opening unbelieving hearts. He spoke of how eyes were blind, hearts were stone, and minds were closed prior to God giving faith. He encouraged us to speak/share/plead/preach etc., because that is the venue that God often uses to open hearts in His perfect timing and mercy.

So speak and trust God’s sovereignty!

Well, if that is true with unbelievers—is it not also true with us?

Is it not then my responsibility and privilege to speak truth to believers (and to myself) and with prayer trust God’s sovereignty to graciously open their eyes to see truth?

I need not be discouraged even if he has heard and been dissatisfied with these truths A HUNDRED times, because God in his mercy will reveal truth to him perhaps at the one hundred and first time-and I want to be faithful if the Lord chooses to use me in that way.

So even though he has perhaps heard of/thought of all these things before, I will share. I will share them trusting that God is giving me the opportunity to pile truth on top of his wrestling heart. And at just the right moment, in His grace, God will open up his heart and mind to receive and trust these difficult realities. Then all the truths that have been piling up will fall into his heart and by God’s grace he will move forward in peace, trust, and joy to make a GLORIOUS impact for the Kingdom.

Please Help with Hell and Ministry!

I had the opportunity to talk briefly with a young man who has a beautiful understanding of the gospel. It is BEAUTIFUL. His passion is incredible, and his grasp of the character of God is a deep, deep loving well.

From what I can see, he is unlike anyone I’ve met before. And I do NOT say that lightly. He has the potential to be used by God to impact and change lives in incalculable ways-for His Name’s sake. I am confident that his gospel ministry could bring countless to the throne of God to better know and worship the King of Kings.

However, he is currently at a bit of a stand still. He is wrestling with God. Wrestling towards God, yes-but also unconfident in God’s complete goodness according to orthodox Christianity. He is dissatisfied with God’s justice being rooted in eternal damnation-it doesn’t sit right, and doesn’t seem to make sense. He so badly wants to be able to trust our perfect God as presented by the Bible and  the church today, but wishes that one lifetime of sin against a holy, just (don’t forget: good, loving, gracious, merciful) God did not merit endless, eternal torment upon torment.

In many ways, you probably agree with him. I know that I and C.S. Lewis agree with him. Concerning hell, Lewis once wrote, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power”. I told the young man, I would love it if when I get to heaven I could run up the Father and ask Him, if one day he will break into hell, the way He broke into earth, and do what only God can do-redeem sinner to himself, so that EVERY knee bows and tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, and He responds with a smile, “Shh…don’t tell the angels, they don’t know yet—it’ll be a surprise, but yes, my wrath is satisfied at the cross and in hell, and now my mercy will once again extend to those who do not deserve it, and can do NOTHING to receive it.” WHAT A DAY OF REJOICING THAT WOULD BE! But, I told the young man, if I get to glory, ask that question, and my Father says, “Sweet, daughter, no. My perfect, just wrath will not allow for that.”—that I believe and must trust that in that moment He will somehow give me new eyes to see His holiness and His beauty in a way that brings peace and praise. Though today, I cannot see that clearly, by faith I seek to train my heart to trust His goodness and His perfection even if that is the case.

BUT this young man (and I!) really, really wants love to win in the end, and for after spending even billions of years in hell…God breaks in and His glory and goodness and grace and love and mercy are seen again like never before. That’s our God! And the angels, and we as his redeemed people praise Him and are able to love Him even MORE because of His incredible character and steadfast love and mercies that know no end!

But, unfortunately, that’s heresy.

Rob Bell was “crucified” for thoughts like this.

Doctrinally strong churches won’t hire a pastor who thinks like this.

So this left me asking, what should a young man who deeply, passionately adores the gospel, is clearly anointed for ministry, but wrestles with this “anti-evangelical” ideology of hell one day coming to an end, do?

I know the short answer-PRAY. Pray for eyes to see truth and a heart to receive understanding with gratitude, confidence, and peace. But, can you think of anything else to help this young man? Any other words of wisdom? Remember, it’s not HELL he has a problem with-he totally sees its reality in Scripture–it’s the eternality of hell that is more of the hang up.

Thanks so much!

Soli deo Gloria.

I Love Puritan Prayers

This morning, before my 5:30 run, I was able to spend a little time in the Word and in one of my favorite little books-“The Valley of Vision”. The poetic prayers printed and bound in leather speak truth to me each time I open it. I was especially blessed by today’s reading and it made me want to share with you the blessing! Enjoy!

Confession and Petition

“Holy Lord, I have sinned times without number, and been guilty of pride and unbelief, of failure to find Your mind in Your Word, of neglect to seek You in my daily life. My transgressions and short-comings present me with a list of accusations, but I bless You that they will not stand against me, for all have been laid on Christ. Go on to subdue my corruptions, and grant me grace to live above them. Let not the passions of the flesh nor lustings of the mind bring my spirit into subjection, but rule over me in liberty and power.

I thank You that many of my prayers have been refused. I have asked amiss and do not have, I have prayed from lusts and been rejected, I have longed for Egypt and been given a wilderness. Go on with Your patient work, answering ‘no’ to my wrongful prayers, and fitting me to accept it. Purge me from every false desire, every base aspiration, everything contrary to Your rule. I thank You for Your wisdom and Your love, for all the acts of discipline to which I am subject, for sometimes putting me into the furnace to refine my gold and remove my dross.

No trial is so hard to bear as a sense of sin. If You should give me choice to live in pleasure and keep my sins, or to have them burnt away with trial, give me sanctified affliction. Deliver me from every evil habit, every accretion of former sins, everything that dims the brightness of Your grace in me, everything that prevents me taking delight in You. Then I shall bless You, God of jeshurun, for helping me to be upright.”