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The Existence of Hell and the Essence of Hope

April 9, 2010

Continuing from the last post, here are my four responses to Moltmann’s treatment of hell.

I. Moltmann kills hope by grounding it in ourselves. We saw in the last post that in Moltmann’s scheme, sin is a failure to think highly enough of ourselves, to be as confident in ourselves as God expects us to be. If this is sin, then the remedy is to have our eyes enlightened so that we prize ourselves more highly and see our abilities more clearly. God’s role in this “salvation” is, I suppose, to help us to see the empowering truth about who He has made us to be. But there is no hope here. When we are at our best we know it is wisdom to place no confidence in ourselves. We know that the Fall has done more than damaged our self-confidence, it has destroyed the ground of that confidence because it has severed our relationship with God. So hope must be found from outside of ourselves, hope must break in and lift us up above ourselves. Our hope must be in what God can do for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Hope is not found in telling a contestant, feeling himself overmatched by his much larger opponent, that he must have more confidence in himself. Hope is found in telling him that his Champion has arrived to take his place in the ring. Moltmann denies us this hope.

II. Moltmann kills hope by indiscriminately applying the promises of God. God’s promises of salvation are indeed a source of great hope. But when they are taken out of their covenantal context and used as a generic description of God’s saving work, they cease to function as a source of Christian hope. This is so because our hope in God’s saving promises flows from what we believe God to do for us out of both who He is and who we are to Him. When this covenantal context is replaced by a universal mechanism – so that now salvation has nothing to do with who I am to God and who He is to me because of His gracious choice – salvation becomes a general principle of “the way things work” in the universe. Understanding this mechanism may promote presumption masquerading as expectation, but it cannot produce true Christian hope.

III. In trying to take a stand for hope, Moltmann refuses to allow us to be afraid of hell, or to threaten anyone else with hell. Beside the fact that Jesus regularly threatened people with the most graphic images of hell, Moltmann’s equation betrays a confusion about the purpose of hell. It is true that you cannot scare people into heaven by talking to them about hell. On one level, being afraid of everlasting torment is a purely natural work. It does not require the presence and activity of the Spirit of God to not want to burn forever. But fear of hell is powerless to get you into heaven. No one will be in heaven who has only made it as far as being afraid of hell. Heaven will be filled with (only those) people who love God. This love of God is a supernatural work, requiring the ministry of the Spirit to change our rebellious heart. Therefore, hell and hope do not rise and fall in an inverse relationship, such that when hell goes up hope goes down, or (as Moltmann assumes) when hell goes down hope goes up. If the fear of hell cannot get you into heaven (which is our hope), then dissolving hell (even by saying Christ took it for everyone on the cross) does not by default populate heaven! You do not gain any hope of heaven by learning you have nothing to fear from hell. So when Moltmann targets hell in his crusade for hope, he aims his guns at a phantom target. Hell is not the enemy of hope because destroying hell does nothing to advance your hope of heaven.

IV. Finally, and most seriously, when Moltmann denies hell he actually incapacitates Christian hope. This is so because the essence of our hope requires the existence of hell. To say it as plainly as I can, to deny the eternal conscious torment of those who finally reject God’s gospel and continue unrepentant in their sins is to undermine the foundation of Christian hope. We can see this in seven steps:

(1) Our hope is in God. Specifically, our hope is in God always being true to Himself and always faithful to fulfill His promises. Ours is a lasting and unshakable hope only to the degree that God remains true to His character.

(2) This adherence to His character, this always doing what is right in the sense that it fulfills who He is, is called the righteousness of God.

(3) This righteousness, always doing what is right, requires full and fitting punishment against human sin. Sin, despite Moltmann’s redefinition, is still an insurrection against God. By desiring to be like God, it is an assault on that which God holds most valuable and therefore is sworn to protect, namely His own glory. This assault must meet with His wrath if God is to stay true to Himself.

(4) God is not “monstrous” in this wrath because in His rich mercy and great kindness He has made a way for that punishment against our sin to be avoided. He has offered up His own Son as our substitute, to drink the dregs of our damnation in our place. In this way He is both true to Himself in meting out punishment (just) and gracious toward us in providing a way of escape (the Justifier of those who have faith in Christ).

(5) Those who reject this gracious provision by refusing to entrust themselves to Christ are therefore required by righteousness of God to bear their own penalty. And because the offense of their sin was committed against the infinite value of God’s glory, their punishment must be infinite in intensity and duration if it is to fit the crime and so be just.

(6) If this justice was not executed, or ever stopped being executed, God would cease to be righteous and therefore cease to be true to Himself.

(7) This change in God would then destroy any certainty that He could fulfill or would continue to fulfill His good promises toward us, which also have His righteousness as their source. This would be the death of hope.

Heaven is a manifestation of the supreme value of the glory of God. So, as Paul teaches us in Romans 9, is hell, though heaven and hell display the supreme value of this glory in different ways. But their common link as theaters for the eternal display of different facets of God’s glory implies that if one ceases to exist, we have no reason to believe that the other will not also cease to exist. This uncertainty, suddenly finding ourselves in the hands of a God who may or may not continue to be true to His Word and fulfill His promises and uphold the value of His glory in the ways He has laid out, would be the destruction of any meaningful Christian hope. That is why I say the existence of hell is necessary for the essence of hope.


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One Comment
  1. Mark permalink

    So good! This is such a hard truth to swallow sometimes, but is so essential if we are to truly understand the gospel. I had a conversation this week with someone whom I respect very much–but when I mentioned the fact that hell was the eternal reality of a person coming under the wrath of God for his/her sins, this person began to squirm a little. I was surprised to find that she believed that hell was more the eternal consequences of sin being played out forever, and that God simply willingly separated himself from people in hell. No wrath, just separation. When I explained that Christ was ‘crushed for our iniquities’ and that God was doing the crushing, so therefore anyone who is not in Christ would therefore be crushed by this same wrath of God, she simply responded, ‘logically, that makes sense, but I just can’t believe that God would do that.’ I had two take-aways from that conversation: 1) it is amazing how emotions can sway our theology even when that makes our theology illogical, and 2) I was struck by how much it dilutes the gospel when we make sin itself the final punishment of an unrepentant life rather than the wrath of a just God. It almost personifies sin as the great enemy of God who is victorious over the majority of the world’s population forever as opposed to God being glorified in his just punishment of the God-haters of the earth. Again, a hard truth to swallow, but something that makes our salvation all the more glorious and God-glorifying.

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