“And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Luke 23:12).
I was reading through Luke while in Belize and was struck by this verse in the midst of the crucifixion narrative. I had never noticed it before, but it occurred to me after reflecting on it that Jesus brings people together, not only because they love Him, but also because they hate him. He is a source of unity not only among his friends, but also among his opponents! Without Jesus, I bet the demons would be perpetually squabbling; as it is, they are compelled to work together.
This reminds me that good and evil are not merely private choices, but larger causes to which we get annexed. When we choose good or evil, we are not merely taking a step into our personal destiny, we are joining an army, choosing sides, throwing in our lot. None of us live in a bubble. We are all playing a part in a play; making a contribution toward a goal; potentially tipping the scales one way or the other in the great struggle of history. We live our lives and make our daily choices in the larger context of this great moral battle. We cannot help but play a role.
What a sobering thought. And – to follow the domino of thoughts one further – it makes me reflect on the doctrine of hell from a new angle. I can certainly understand how people struggle with the idea of hell. But I think faithfulness to Christ requires affirming the reality of hell, because Jesus Himself taught so clearly and consistently on the subject. In fact, his warnings are vivid, colorful, and terrifying, far more than any other biblical author except perhaps John in certain passages of Revelation. But I also feel that faithfulness to Christ compels a certain solemnity about the subject. If its wrong to deny it, its also wrong to affirm it but feel no pity, no sadness, no grief over it. If there is any area of doctrine that warrants the exhortation, “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22), it is this one! What is required is orthodoxy + love. In this our example again is Christ, who did not merely warn people of hell, but elected to taste it in our place, and prayed for the forgiveness of those who put Him through it.
Now to connect the strands of thought: when we think about hell in the larger context of good and evil, some of the difficulty is taken away. In fact, I would say when we truly understand what evil is, hell becomes a more natural and even expected component of a moral universe. Since good and evil are dynamic, ever-expanding destinations that we are always heading in at any given point, how could good and evil play out across the planes of time and lead into anything other than heaven and hell? Complaining about hell while acknowledging the reality of evil is like complaining about age while acknowledging the reality of time, or complaining about the darkness while acknowledging that the sun is setting. Given what evil is, what else could it lead to, if unchecked, other than hell?
Its as if all of reality is pulling in one of two directions, like a massive earthquake splitting the ground and pulling the gap ever wider. We are all, every day, every decision, either moving towards God and reality and goodness and normality or – gulp – moving away from God and into self-sovereignty and self-confinement and unreality. The doctrine of last things is simply a portrait of the completed process that is already begun in our lives everyday; it is what what it looks like when the divide has become infinite and irreversible.
I do believe that God sends people to hell. To deny that hell is an act of divine judgment is unfaithful to the Scriptures, as far as I can tell. But I also think that the judgment of hell is not arbitrary – it is a natural and just response, on the eternal plane, to the trajectory that sin already sets in our temporal lives. In some cases, you can already see the process as someone’s life becomes more and more of a hell as they persist in evil. We have all known things that start off so simply, but – given enough time – snowball into previously unimaginable proportions. This can happen to the clutter in your fridge or the quality of a friendship, your Saturday morning “to do” list or your soul. Maybe one way to think about hell is simply the logical conclusion of evil + an everlasting duration of time.