In his otherwise admirable book on evil, N.T. Wright makes the drastic mistake of leaving the subject of Hell entirely alone. But no matter how many helpful things you say, if you leave the really huge question out, then all you are really displaying is a real loss of proportion. “Well, other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
The questions that swirl around the issues of violence, pacifism, and the redistribution of mammon are all questions that tend to be summed up by those advocating their causes under this rubric as questions of “justice.” “No justice, no peace” the bumpersticker puts it. This is particularly the bent of the Christian left — the Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Greg Boyd contingent. This is the myopic view of the Obama evangelicals, all singing that blues standard, “Lie to me!”
And they persist in acting as though you can define justice by taking an evangelical Christian and making him watch CNN for long enough. And lest anybody misunderstand me, I am not saying this because I think we ought to be learning from Fox News instead. No. We are to define justice exegetically (what does justice mean throughout the pages of Scripture?) and theologically (what are the ultimate displays of God’s justice?). We have done quite a bit of the former, and it is time for us to consider the latter.
As I read it, the three great manifestations of God’s justice in Scripture are the Exile from Eden, the Cross and the Final Judgment — the Cross is central, obviously, but human history is also bookended by displays of God’s justice. Adam and Eve sinned against Him in the Garden, and God banished them from that Garden, and they went out into the world still fertile. Every disaster in human history since then occupies a downstream position from that act of judgment. Every injustice ever committed by us has been a subset of that first great act of justice.
And in the Cross, we see the wrath of God against sin visited upon Jesus Christ, the penal substiture for His people. This was the most glorious display of God’s justice because it was the moment when God, in His great wisdom, displayed His justice and His mercy in equal measure — so as to be just and the one who justifies. And we have to remember to include the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as one aspect of Christ’s first coming, with His death at the pivotal point of that coming.
In the Final Judgment, we see the triune God settling violence on the heads of the rebellious forever and ever. Whatever your doctrine of Hell is, provided it really is a doctrine of Hell, it is not patty-cake.
And not to belabor the point, but just so that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that if we have never heard any sermons on the subject, the doctrine “must not be in the Bible,” let me assemble just a few passages that testify to God’s justice in these places.
“And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (Gen. 3:17).
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27).
“And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2: 8-12).
“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
Now the point to be made here is that if you don’t accept and believe these things, undiluted by that famous cutting agent called nuanced theology, then you don’t know what justice is. You want to set up shop as an art expert with a speciality in detecting forgeries, and you have never successfully identified an original. If you don’t believe in an historic Adam and Eve exiled along with all their children from the Garden, if you don’t believe in the vicarious death of Jesus Christ on the cross, suffering violence at the center of history at the hands of His Father, if you don’t believe in a final judgment in which the sheep and the goats are separated, with those on His right hand entering into eternal blessedness, and those on the left entering into eternal torment, then you are in revolt against God’s revelation and definition of His justice. And if you are in revolt against the justice “originals,” then it is no wonder that you make a hash of it when talking about justice and minimum wage laws, or justice and Third World poverty, or justice and funding for the arts and public schools.
So it is no coincidence that the voices urging us all to “let go and let Obama” are coming from the liberal wing of the Church, which long ago abandoned faith in the infallibility of Scripture, the doctrine of an historic Fall, the doctrine of the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross, and the doctrine of Final Judgment. No coincidence. And it is equally no fluke that those evangelicals who are now giving a trendy ear to this stuff are in the process of doing exactly the same thing. I have said this a number of times in my life, but it is clear that it bears repeating. Over the course of the last century, we have seen so many denominations, publishing houses, seminaries, churches and parachurch organizations go liberal that you would think we would know what it looks like by now.