What is Justice?
One thing that is often said of God is that he would not be worthy of worship if He were not just. While I tend to agree with this thought at one level, I think it is very important to arrive at a sane understanding of justice if it is to have its proper meaning. Justice is indeed important, but what is justice?
The most common version of divine “justice” described in Christian churches is that each and every sin merits eternal conscious torment as punishment. So, if you have ever lied, cheated, stolen, lusted, or failed in any way, the deserved punishment is eternal misery. Some would go further than this and say that original sin is inherited and that you deserve said punishment simply because you are a human being and Adam’s sin is imputed to you, in which case even unbaptized infants would not escape their due eternal suffering if they died (Augustine, for example, was a proponent of this view). At any rate, the deserved punishment for sin of any kind is viewed as never-ending.
This is the standard explanation, it seems, in most churches. Nevertheless, no matter how comfortable you have become with parroting the standard platitudes about why this is just, I can prove to you that you do not actually believe it.
Picture a justice system on earth that operates this way. Imagine that the government decides to apply these principles and that your five-year-old daughter steals a lollipop, and then lies about it. That’s two sins times infinity (which is still just infinity). The government catches your little girl and ties her to the torturing table where she will remain in anguish, deprived of all good things, and be tormented (whether physically, psychologically, or whatever) for the rest of her days. If death seems imminent for the child at any point, the justice system has found a way to keep her alive indefinitely with the sole purpose of extending her torture.
Is this just? Yes, or no?
Have you ever sinned? Would you be OK with someone tossing you into a miserable dungeon and torturing you forever since that is what you “deserve”? Is this really justice?
I know that people will be tempted to try to explain their reasoning with a bunch of pious-sounding nonsense but resist the temptation and just answer the question. Are these scenarios just? Are they morally right and fair? Yes or No?
I imagine, if you are a sane person, that you answered “No” to the above questions. Any justice system on earth that assigned never-ending torment as the consequence for any lawbreaking would be considered perverse, backward, and evil. Why, then, do we ascribe this sort of evil to God Himself?
Now, some will argue that it would be different for a government to do this since they do not have the same rights as God, but that God can do something like this if He wants to. But this does not address the question of whether the penalty being given is morally right or just. An individual’s power to do something is irrelevant in determining the moral nature of the act. Certainly, Hitler had the power to send Jews to concentration camps and Stalin had the power to send millions of his own people to the gulag labor camps. But their acts were still evil and unjust.
At any rate, I do not dispute that God can do what He wants; I am arguing that He not only can do what He wants, but that He will do what he wants. It is rather curious that those who wish to defend the doctrine of eternal conscious torment by saying that God can do as he pleases do not consider the Bible’s words about what he pleases. But we will:
1 Peter 3:9 tells us that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And Ezekiel 33:11 shows us God’s heart, saying “'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” God can and will see his desire for all people to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth come to fruition, because He is God and has no limitation in His ability to act for the benefit of those He loves, not even physical death, for Jesus said, “I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).
So, it is clear that God does not want to send people to eternal torment and that He is not restricted to our timelines. It is also clear that eternal torment is morally evil and unjust. God is under no obligation to commit untold atrocities (tormenting billions of people forever) to fulfill the demands of the man-made justice system promoted by the “forever hell” camp. The reason I say it is man-made is that there is not a single verse anywhere in the Bible that says that each sin deserves eternal punishment. At most, we find that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but to interpret the word “death” as “eternal conscious torment” is an unwarranted stretch of epic proportions, especially since the context of Romans 6 prohibits such an interpretation (we are brought from death to life etc.). In what sense can “death” mean eternal conscious torment if we were brought from it to life?
In fact, we have abundant biblical evidence that God’s anger about sin is temporary. For example, Psalm 30:5 tells us that God’s “anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” The contrast in duration is clear: a moment vs. a lifetime. God’s anger does not continue to burn forever as He watches billions of tortured souls in hell. Instead, in Jeremiah 3:12 God declares, “I will not be angry forever” and in Ezekiel 16:42 He states, “I will be calm and no longer angry.” In contrast to a judgment that lasts forever, we know that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). In contrast to a God of hatred and anger, we see a God who is love (1 John 4:8). We see biblically that “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8) and that God’s “mercy endures forever” (too many places to cite, but you can click here to see them).
We never see equivalent statements about God’s anger, hatred, or judgment, despite the concerted effort by so many to make it seem so. The image of an eternally angry God who delights in the endless suffering of the damned is simply false and unbiblical. It is derived from surrounding pagan cultures that had exactly these types of capricious, angry deities that needed to be appeased.
Another Conception of Justice
What if the plainly unjust descriptions of “justice” that so many churches insist upon are not accurate? It is my firm conviction that true divine justice involves appropriate, fair punishment that is corrective and restorative in nature. The Bible describes in many places that people will be judged according to what they have done (see here , Revelation 20:12, etc.). God’s judgments will be fair and proportional to the wickedness of each individual, just as they are in any sane justice system on earth (many of which are based, incidentally, on biblical principles of justice). In such a system, people receive appropriate consequences for their sin that ultimately result in repentance and restoration. The wicked turn from their evil ways and live. Though the discipline is painful, all come to a saving knowledge of the truth, just as God desires. This is a fitting justice system for a loving Father who does not abandon his children, but rather disciplines them as part of the process of “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5). The end result is that “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). The victim and the perpetrator are reconciled to each other and to God, such that all will rejoice at the judgment of God.
Psalm 98 well describes this version of justice that results in rejoicing for all creation:
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it !
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
It is vital to notice that the joyful rejoicing occurs because of God’s judgment. It is also critical to notice that this joy is universal and inextricably tied to the fact that God himself has worked salvation by his own hand such that all the ends of the earth have experienced it. It is quite reasonable to believe that everyone will rejoice in God’s righteous, equitable judgment that results in salvation for all. It is not reasonable to believe that everyone will rejoice at God’s judgment if most of them are tormented forever and remain in a perpetual state of hatred toward God, as many hell theorists suggest.
The Necessity of Justice
The accusation that the salvation of all people denies God’s justice or ability to judge is false. Instead, God’s justice is a key concept in this worldview. An oft-cited passage* to show the necessity of divine justice comes from the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who “watched in horror as nearly a quarter of a million people died in Bosnia and Croatia and two million were left exiled or displaced” during the bloody civil war of the 1990s (Volf and Tippett, 2005 Interview). It describes the necessity of justice in our world:
If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. Here, however, I am less interested in arguing that God’s violence is not unworthy of God than in showing that it is beneficial to us … the fact that in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence …
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf pgs. 303-304, cited by Vanderklay)
Miroslav Volf’s thesis is essentially that divine justice must occur or people will inevitably seek to obtain justice on their own, through vengeance. He also concludes that a God who did not judge and “make a final end to violence” would not be worthy of our worship and that it is a liberal fantasy that God would not judge atrocities. Such a fantasy can only exist in a place where such atrocities are distant and unrelatable, in the quiet of suburban homes and Starbucks-saturated neighborhoods with white picket fences.
Let me begin by saying that I think that Volf’s conclusions are quite reasonable. What I disagree with is the persistent insistence by many that the sort of “justice” required of God aligns with the popular conception of many churches - namely, that every sin merits eternal punishment and that all non-believers in Christ in this life will experience this consequence. This sort of “justice” ultimately is profoundly unjust and does nothing to curb human vengeance. To see why, a little instruction on the Yugoslav wars that Volf is alluding to, is in order.
The Yugoslav Wars
The Yugoslav Wars were largely due to ethnic and religious tensions in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The three primary ethnic/religious groups in the conflict were the Serbs (primarily Orthodox Christians), the Croats (primarily Catholic Christians), and Muslims (sometimes referred to as Bosniaks). Citing information from the United Human Rights Council, Wikipedia describes the conflicts as follows:
Often described as Europe's deadliest conflicts since World War II, the wars were marked by many war crimes, including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and rape. The Bosnian genocide was the first European crime since World War II to be formally judged as genocidal in character and many key individual participants were subsequently charged with war crimes ("Yugoslav Wars" 2018).
The brutality of these conflicts is indeed hard to imagine. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights “observed that practices of "ethnic cleansing", sexual assault and rape appear to represent the implementation of policy” ("UN Commission on Human Rights - Report on Human Rights Situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina” 1995). The apparent goal of the policy of setting up “rape camps” (in which thousands of women were repeatedly raped) was ethnic cleansing, forcing these women to become pregnant and give birth to half-Serbian children. It also served to “destroy cultural and social ties of the victims and their communities” ("Yugoslav Wars" 2018).
Massacres of unarmed individuals and the resultant mass graves are well-known events of these conflicts as well.The Srebrenica massacre , for example, involved the execution of “7,000-8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in a Bosnian town that had been designated a United Nations safe haven” (Theodorou 2015). The Foča ethnic cleansing campaign lasted nearly two years and involved many crimes against humanity, including systematic expulsion of Bosniaks from Foča, “killings, mass rapes, and the deliberate destruction of Bosniak property and cultural sites.” The number missing or killed from Foča as a result of this monstrous campaign is over 2,700 people ("Foča ethnic cleansing" 2018).
So, Dr. Volf is correct in asserting that justice must be done. But here is the really important thing to understand. Although there certainly was suffering on all sides in these wars, most of the victims of the atrocities discussed above were Muslims. Muslim Bosniak women were the ones being raped repeatedly. Muslims were the victims of the Srebrenica massacre and the Foča “ethnic cleansing.” Not only this, the perpetrators of these horrible atrocities were the Serbs, who identified themselves as Christians!
In what sense, it must be asked then, is it just for the Muslim victims to share the same hell as their supposedly “Christian” assailants, simply because they did not claim Jesus as their Savior before being murdered? Or worse yet, be consigned to hell, while the rapists and killers who victimized them go to heaven for claiming Christ? Where is the justice in that?
The absurdity and double-minded inconsistency of claiming that justice will be served by sending all non-believers to endless torment is well-illustrated in a sermon by Mark Clark, founder and pastor of Village Church in Canada. In this sermon, he is preaching that all non-Christians will be consigned to endless hell and attempting to explain why this is just. In this context, after quoting Miroslav Volf’s view of the necessity of justice, he says one of the most incredibly absurd statements I’ve ever heard. Remember, he says the following statement as part of his effort to prove his point that it would be just for all unbelievers to go to eternal hell. Here it is:
"Listen, ask a Muslim and a Jew how excited they are that everyone’s just going to go to heaven when they die, and all the grandparents and the friends and the history that they lost their lives fighting for truth, and monotheism, and election, and the idea that this land wasn’t yours and I’m going to fight. Don’t worry everyone, we’re all just going to be in heaven. Don’t worry about all that stuff that your parents died for; it was all false anyway. God’s just going to bring everybody into heaven. Ask people who actually live in the midst of pain and awfulness. But it does take a suburban life to come up with the idea that hell would somehow be unjust." (The Problem of Hell video sermon. Quote begins around minute 23:30)
The supreme irony of this blather is that he is claiming that those Muslims and Jews who lost their lives really did die for nothing, that their views really are false, and that they will suffer the same fate of eternal punishment as those who committed atrocities against them! He does not believe that Muslims and Jews are going to heaven since they are unbelievers! In keeping with the core beliefs of his church, he asserts “the everlasting, conscious punishment of the unbeliever” ("Our Core Beliefs"). It seems as if he is completely unaware of the implications of what he is saying. But we cannot really blame him – his argument seems to come from other sources I’ve read, who thoughtfully left off his “ask a Muslim and a Jew” flourish.
But since he brought it up, maybe we should also ask a Muslim and a Jew if they view it as just that all of them will be tormented forever alongside their enemies (or worse yet, apart from their enemies who are experiencing eternal bliss for claiming to be Christians)! Maybe we should ask Muslims how just it is that they suffered execution and rape at the hands of “Christian” Serbs, only to end up in eternal misery for not being Christians themselves. It is hardly surprising that the women who were repeatedly gang-raped in those conflicts by supposed “Christians” did not come running to Jesus as their Savior. The “lights of the world” that they were exposed to certainly did not shine brightly or represent Christ well.
Or perhaps we can consider the impression left by “Christians” on the Jews in Nazi Germany. It is no secret that Nazi propaganda painted the extirpation of Jewish people as a Christian duty. Consider the following quotes from Adolf Hitler:
“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” (Mein Kampf, p. 65)
“The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life." - Speech delivered at Berlin 1 February 1933; from Adolf Hitler (1941). My New Order . New York: Reynal & Hitchcock. p. 144. (Retrieved from here . You can see the speech in its entirety here .)
“It must be at this point established that there are ten thousands and ten thousands of priests of all Christian Confessions who perform their ecclesiastical duties just as well as of probably better than the political agitators without ever coming into conflict with the laws of the State. To protect these the State regards as its task; the destruction of the enemies of the State it regards as its duty.” - Speech delivered at the Reichstag 30 January 1939 ; from Norman H. Baynes, ed. (1969). The Speeches of Adolf Hitler: April 1922-August 1939 . 1. New York: Howard Fertig. pp. 398-399.
So, you see, Nazi Germany viewed itself as “Christian.” It also viewed the destruction of the Jews, who were considered “enemies of the state,” as a duty (and many thousands of “Christian” priests said nothing to contradict these claims). Are we really to believe that these millions of Jews who were sent to concentration camps, tortured, experimented on, and murdered will be sent to hell forever for not believing in a Christ whose “followers” represented these atrocities as virtuous Christian duty? And then are we to have the audacity to ask them what they think of the “justice” of this hell? What absolute drivel!
The Slave Trade
The number of examples of incomprehensible injustice that would result from the traditional hell doctrine could be enumerated ad nauseum, but for now we will just discuss one more. The African slave trade was, by all accounts, a brutal business in which Africans were kidnapped from their homes, savagely mistreated, and enslaved. Here is a description of a slave ship from a BBC article:
Ships carried anything from 250 to 600 slaves. They were generally very overcrowded. In many ships they were packed like spoons, with no room even to turn, although in some ships a slave could have a space about five feet three inches high and four feet four inches wide. The slaves were kept between the hold and the deck in appalling conditions.
Olaudah Equiano gave the first eyewitness account of life on a ship from a slave's point of view.
"I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn towards us blacks, but also some of the white themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it."
This same source discusses accounts of “rebellious slaves being tortured by having hands, arms and legs cut off, on order of the captain as a lesson to the rest of the slaves, and of women being attacked and disfigured.” It also quotes Alexander Falconbridge, (who served as a surgeon aboard slave ships and later became the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone) on the appalling conditions on slave ships:
"... the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse."
In addition, many slaves died during the journey:
“It's estimated that an average of twenty percent of slaves were lost in transit, and as many as half the slaves have been known to die in one journey.” ("BBC World Service | The Story of Africa")
Most of these horribly mistreated people were likely polytheists or perhaps Muslims since these were common religions in Africa during this time period (Sambol-Tosco 2004). It is highly doubtful that many were Christians and most of their exposure to “Christians” would have been contact with slave traders and other exploitative, oppressive Europeans. Is it justice that these Africans be sent to eternal conscious torment, while the men who kidnapped, mutilated, and sold them enter into eternal bliss for being “Christian”? We know of at least one former slave trader who became Christian: John Newton, writer of the extremely popular hymn, Amazing Grace, was captain of a slave ship prior to repenting of this terrible practice. I do not doubt his salvation or the sincerity of his repentance, nor am I claiming that he must be punished for past sins. But it must be asked whether it can truly be called “justice” for him to experience no post-mortem consequences while those whom he was party to grievously mistreating end up in further never-ending torment. Is that really justice?
Of course, the atrocities of Serbian war criminals, Nazis, and slave traders do not represent authentic faith in Christ at all. This horrible treatment of human beings is clearly morally wrong and ignores Jesus’ clear commands to love our neighbors and even our enemies. Nevertheless, these people claimed to represent Jesus and surely maligned the gospel to many, so that they would not come to faith. Will God do worse than these evil men by tormenting people for all eternity simply because they did not understand and believe the gospel before death, even though the message they received was no gospel at all?
To help answer this, we should reconsider Miroslav Volf's ideas on justice, and ask the appropriate questions: Whose innocent blood soaked the decks, the fields, and the concentration camp floors? Whose land and property was scorched? Who was raped and whose throats were slit? In the examples we have discussed, the victims were Muslims and polytheists, not Christians. And what about human trafficking victims or impoverished Hindus who never come to know Christ? How is justice served by condemning all of these victims to eternal punishment? The answer, of course, is that it is not.
As a final point, Volf claims that a God who did not "make the final end to violence" would not be worthy of our worship. Does endless hell in which countless human beings dwell in perpetual hatred of one another and of God satisfy this condition? Of course not! Violence and evil never, ever end in such a scenario. There is no resolution. But true justice is not like that. God will truly resolve the problem, not just sweep it under the rug.
Biblical justice is not revenge. It is making things right.
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’
Notice that true justice is doing what is right by showing mercy and compassion, especially as it relates to the treatment of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. With this in mind, what would truly make things right for a poor widow with no livelihood because her land was confiscated by greedy men after her husband's death: restoration of her land and livelihood or watching those men tortured? What would make things right for an orphan who is exploited by corrupt slaveholders: being set free and experiencing the true love of a loving family or getting empty revenge? And what of the Bosniak men, women, and children (or people of any ethnicity) who suffered the atrocities of war? In all of these circumstances, it is clear that the only just outcome is restoration of all that was lost and healing of all that was broken. Revenge solves nothing. It does not bring the dead back to life. It does not restore dignity or relationships. It does not heal the festering wounds of humanity. But God does. That is His justice, and that is why He is worthy of worship, doing what we never could.
In addition to restoration, true justice is inextricably tied to mercy, compassion, love, and salvation.
I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!
This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.
It is because the Lord is a God of justice that He will be gracious and show compassion. It is because of His salvation that we too should be just and merciful as He is just and merciful. This salvation is for all and is why the islands (other nations and people groups outside of Israel) look to God and hope in His arm that brings justice. God's justice is not a bludgeon to beat down those who doubt or those who are enslaved by sin; it is light and salvation for all people. As stated by God in Isaiah 51:4-5, instruction and illumination are the purposes for His justice: “Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: Instruction will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations." Isaiah 26:9 reinforces this illuminating purpose of justice, saying that when God's "judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness."
In what is often considered a messianic prophecy, God describes His servant (Christ) who "will bring justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1) as follows:
"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
Notice the gentleness and patience of Christ, the servant who faithfully
establishes justice throughout the earth. In this establishment of justice,
He does not break those who are bruised by life's cruelties. Nor does
He snuff out those whose doubts and fears have stolen their light so that
they are only smoldering wicks that no longer experience the flame of God's
love in their hearts. No, instead His justice opens blind eyes, frees
captives, and releases those who are trapped in dungeons of darkness. His
justice seeks and saves the lost, making all new, making all wrongs right.
Any theology of justice that reduces this beautiful picture to mere
revenge, or that pits God's love against God's justice is a shameful
caricature that is unworthy of God. Love and justice are not antithetical;
love is God's very nature and the impetus that drives His restorative
justice. This is why Psalm 96:13 can say, "Let all creation rejoice before
the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge
the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness."
Justice, properly understood is truly something that all creation (which obviously includes all people) will rejoice in. Indeed, it is the reason given by the Psalmist for why everyone and everything will rejoice.
The necessity of justice in our world does not in any way support the conclusion that hell should be eternal. This interpretation of "justice" so often paraded about in churches bears no resemblance to actual justice, but instead results in horrible injustice. While Volf may be correct in saying that "it takes the quiet of a suburban home" to believe that God will not judge evil, it is equally true that it takes the prejudice and historical ignorance of such a life to arrive at the conclusion that all nonbelievers deserve eternal torment, no matter what injustices and evils they experienced. What right do we have to judge the unbelief of another person whose entire life has been one of suffering (the likes of which we have never experienced)? Can we really assert, having grown up in Christian homes or cultures with incredible privilege, that people do not believe because they just want to go on sinning? What if the only exposure they had to "Christians" was being raped, enslaved, or murdered by them? What if the only "evidence" of God they have experienced is the cold asphalt of a smog-saturated slum where they have been sold as sex slaves since childhood without ever even hearing the gospel?
If evil and suffering continue indefinitely, and the victims are punished with the same sentence as the perpetrators of cruelties, then God truly would be unjust and fail to put an end to violence. In short, if the traditional hell doctrine were true, then God would not be worthy of worship by Volf's standards. It is the god of eternal conscious torment who fails to bring justice to the world. Such a god is not worthy of worship.
True justice fixes the problem of violence, cruelty and oppression permanently, not by consigning most of the human race to eternal misery and hatred toward Him and one another, but by restoring each person to a right relationship with Him and with one another. Wickedness dies because it is replaced by righteousness. Violence dies because it is replaced by love. This belief that God will ultimately restore all people does not deny God's justice. Evil is still punished, but it is punished fairly. Rapists and murderers do not experience the same unending punishment as their victims. Instead everyone is judged according to what they have done, as the Bible repeatedly describes, and receives the appropriate discipline that fully cleanses them of all unrighteousness as they recognize their wrongdoing in light of God’s perfect holiness and love. But this good purpose in no way denies the fact that the wicked should shudder about the judgment that awaits them if they persist in doing evil. It is still a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” after a life of unrepentant wickedness (Hebrews 10:31). Nevertheless, though the cleansing treatment is painful, the disease of sin and death is cured permanently when all are subjected to Christ and God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). In this sane, perfect, restorative judgment, we can truly rejoice along with all of creation.
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Citations and Notes
* I first read this idea of Volf’s in Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God some years ago. It is also cited in Mark Clark’s sermon, the website I pulled it from, and elsewhere I’m sure.
“BBC World Service | The Story of Africa.” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1624_story_of_africa/page53.shtml .
Clark, Mark. YouTube, 8 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1394&v=ZQ7u5mODYOM . Sermon
“Foča Ethnic Cleansing.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 July 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foča_ethnic_cleansing .
Hitler, Adolf, Ralph Manheim, ed. Mein Kampf. Houghton Mifflin, 1998. ISBN 0395951054 . Quote retrieved from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Adolf_Hitler
“Our Core Beliefs.” Village Church, www.thisisvillagechurch.com/welcome-locations/our-core-beliefs/ . Accessed 7/17/2018
Sambol-Tosco, Kimberly. “Slavery and the Making of America . The Slave Experience: Religion | PBS.” THIRTEEN - MEDIA WITH IMPACT, 2004 www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/religion/history.html .
Theodorou, Angelina E. “How Bosnian Muslims View Christians 20 Years after Srebrenica Massacre.” Pew Research Center, 10 July 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/10/how-bosnian-muslims-view-christians-20-years-after-srebrenica-massacre-2/ .
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