(Photo: Dan Delzell)
The last thing any of us want to think about is eternal torment. And yet there we find it....smack dab in the middle of God's Word, and regularly mentioned by the very One who suffered on the cross for our sins. As much as we would like to ignore it completely....or pretend it doesn't exist....we find ourselves compelled to honestly accept everything God has placed in His Word....even when it has such extreme consequences.
Nothing could be further from our natural way of thinking than the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell....and the Son of God suffering on a cross....and a land of inexpressible joy as the alternative to eternal torment. Who could come up with this stuff? That is, if it wasn't true.
Oh wait. I forgot. God and his eternal declarations will only be fulfilled if we understand them....and if we give the go ahead....and if we find them acceptable. It all boils down to our approval, right? We are the masters of the universe....and the ones who get to call the shots on eternity. Yea right.
Speaking of "right," N.T. Wright was an Anglican bishop in the Church of England from 2003 until his retirement in 2010. In recent years, he has written some questionable opinions and made some provocative statements concerning heaven and hell. Wright is very direct when talking about the resurrection of the body....especially for those who will spend all of eternity with Christ. But he becomes quite vague when asked about hell. He tends to view hell more as a "progressive shrinking of human life" in this world, rather than as a literal "lake of fire" in the next world. (see Rev. 20:14,15)
Wright doesn't, however, completely rule out any judgment in the next life for some people. In an interview a few years ago he stated, "My description is neither an annihilationist view nor an eternal conscious torment view." And so he lands somewhere in the middle. He has adopted a theory that makes sense to him. Frankly, I don't think any definition of hell makes much sense when funneled through our human reason. Other than God....and those who are in hell right now....who can truly grasp the reasoning behind the doctrine of hell?
N.T. Wright has asked on various occasions, "Why are Americans so fixated on hell?" On a subject of this magnitude, he is asking the wrong question. The question he should be asking is simply, "Why did Jesus talk so much about hell?" And why did our Lord spend more time talking about that subject than most Americans ever talk about it? (see Matt. 5:22; Matt. 5:29,30; Matt. 7:13,14; Matt. 8:12; Matt. 10:28; Matt. 11:23,24; Matt. 13:49,50; Matt. 16:18; Matt. 18:8,9; Matt. 18:34,35; Matt. 22:13; Matt. 23:15,33; Matt. 25:30; Matt. 25:41; Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 10:15; Luke 12:5; Luke 16:22-24)
Jesus talked about many things, and hell is just one of the topics he discussed. But when he addressed it, he gave us a glimpse behind the veil. Hell is so horrible that our words and thoughts can barely begin to express the torment which takes place there. It is the second toughest thing that Spirit-filled Christians think about, or talk about....the toughest thing is the painful ordeal which our Lord suffered on the day of His crucifixion.
Let's face it. God hates sin a lot more than you or I do.....and He punishes it far more severely than you or I would punish it. The cross proves it. And so does the reality of hell, which by the way, was originally prepared for the devil and his angels. (see Matt. 25:41) It's above our pay grade to fully comprehend it, but that doesn't make hell any less real. When you interpret the Bible with honesty and integrity, you end up with both heaven and hell....sin and grace....law and gospel....forgiveness and punishment....eternal joy and eternal torment.
N.T. Wright has said that Americans seem "really determined to be sure that they know precisely who is going to be frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on." Really? Not in my experience. Wright's comment speaks volumes concerning the cavalier manner in which he tends to address this somber issue. I wonder how many Christians he hangs around who are filled with compassion for anyone who is on the highway to hell.
The Lord has provided a way for man to escape hell and make it into heaven. But there is only one way. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) Just as there was only one door on the ark of Noah at the time of the great flood, so also, there is only one door that leads to heaven. Jesus said, "I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved." (John 10:9)
The Bible reveals to us that God wants people on the road to heaven rather than the road to hell. "God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) "The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) "God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
Just as God's punishment is far greater than we would ever hand out, so also His love is far greater than we would ever demonstrate. And yet amazingly, we often speak and act as if heaven and hell should make sense to us....being the all-wise ones that we pretend to be. When we attempt to pontificate on heaven and hell using our own wisdom, we don't have a clue what we are really talking about.
And then there are the Lord's words on the matter. Jesus is God. He knows everything. He chose to give man serious warnings about the reality of hell....and the eternal nature of it. Many Christians in America rightly believe His words about both heaven and hell. That doesn't mean most Christians in America are glad about it….and rejoice in it. That is unthinkable. Again I must ask, "Who has N.T. Wright been hanging around?" It sounds like he needs to get out more….and meet plenty of Spirit-filled believers who shudder at the thought of people suffering in hell.
N.T. Wright seems to pick out the parts of the Bible he likes....and he trusts that those things will come to pass. But when it comes to hell, he takes the easy way out....and the dangerous way. He relies upon his human reason rather than the words of the King. Will he eventually attempt to alter the "eternal" aspect of heaven as well? I guess he could just publish his own version of the Bible (the "Wright" Bible) and define heaven and hell according to his own preferences and opinions. But don't tamper with God's Word and attempt to pass it off as anything more than wishful thinking. The clear teaching of the New Testament....and the clear teaching of Christ Himself....is that the Son of God suffered for awhile, in order to rescue men from suffering forever.
If that were not actually the case, would Jesus have left heaven and come here to suffer the way He did? No. The truth is that Christ's suffering points as much to the reality of hell as it does to the reality of heaven. If you take N.T. Wright's comments a step further, perhaps Christians in America spend too much time thinking and talking about the suffering of Christ on the cross. Wright's opinion concerning eternal torment seems to me to be the equivalent of saying, "Jesus Christ may not have actually suffered that much physical torment for that long on the cross."
You see my point. It is futile to live in a fantasy world where we pick and choose those parts of the Bible that are pleasing to us. The words of our Lord are either entirely true, or entirely false. When you tamper with God's inerrant Word and call the "hard stuff" into question, you are being misled....and you are also misleading others on those difficult doctrines.
So let's see....N.T. Wright seems convinced that when our Lord referred to "everlasting life" for believers, He meant forever. But when he talked about hell, He didn't really mean what he said about it being a place of eternal torment. So did the Holy Spirit teach that progressive interpretation to this former bishop, or was it simply wishful thinking on the part of this biblical theorist from Scotland?
If I could snap my fingers and make N.T. Wright's version of hell become the real one, I would do it. Who wouldn't, in our natural understanding, desire less punishment for sinners rather than more punishment? But is it up to us? Did we create the world....and man....and give him boundaries not to cross? Is it up to us to hand out the punishment to lawbreakers....and the free gift of eternal life to sinners who repent and believe the good news? All of this is beyond us, and outside of our human understanding. Apart from biblical revelation, who knows anything about heaven and hell?
Oh but man assumes that he does. We are so smart. After all, we made it to the moon....and we created computers....so why wouldn't we know what we are talking about when it comes to eternal joy in heaven....wherever that is....and eternal torment (or not) in hell....wherever that is. Yea....we got this one nailed, just like everything else we have discovered through scientific research and development. Yea right.
If that's what you want to tell yourself, I suppose you will just keep on believing it. Not me.
If Jesus was telling the truth about eternal torment for those who reject Him, then N.T. Wright is wrong to cast aspersions upon our Lord's words regarding eternal punishment. They can't both be right. So was Jesus telling the truth, or wasn't He?