Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (2 – The “Jesus Lens”)

The following is part of a series on Hell, partially as a response to the Love Wins controversy.  To catch up, go here.

As I stated in the first post, this section will be mostly based on Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell.


Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (Part 2)

Background Issues and the “Jesus Lens”

With a commitment to the authority of Scripture as a foundation, Baker lists seven “troubles” that the traditional view of hell instigates (which are discussed throughout the book with her conversation partners). These include: 1) We attempt to “justify God” for not intervening against evil in this world and the next (11). 2) Hell leads to “eternal hopelessness” for those who never heard about Jesus or those who might change their minds (13). 3) Evil exists eternally if hell also exists forever (14). 4) Justice is placed in opposition to love instead (15). 5) Eternal divine violence goes against the character of God as revealed in Jesus (16). 6) Retributive justice is not consistent with biblical restorative justice (16). 7) Eternal punishment for a temporal life of sin seems unjust (17). Baker adequately wrestles with the issues that each of these points create by thinking through areas such as atonement theory, violence in the Old Testament, images of fire and judgment in Scripture, and ultimately – the “Jesus lens.”

Sharon Baker argues that all of Scripture must be read through the “Jesus lens.” In Jesus, we see God and how this God reinterprets the Hebraic story through the grid of peace, justice, and reconciliation. She entertains the thought that God’s violent retribution might be the result of what many call progressive revelation (the belief that God was at work within the barbaric cultural constraints of the day and therefore accommodated progressively until the full revelation of God, Jesus Christ came in the flesh). However, because the Bible wasn’t written in a linear fashion like scholars used to think, but came together in its final form during and after the Exile, this logic is difficult to uphold. She comes to the following conclusion about the early stories of Israel and their perception of God:

Because they wrote from within a specific context and worldview, they may indeed have written their own perceptions of God into the text – unless we believe that every writer and editor of the Old Testament went into some sort of trance and wrote only what God dictated to them. But seeing the texts that depict God as a violent, rage-filled deity as part and parcel of the ancient cultural perspective in no way compromises the truth of God’s Word. In fact, understanding the stories through the eyes of those who told them and eventually put them into writing gives us a beautiful glimpse into the faith journey of those who walked with the same God we love and trust (54).

Although I tend to be more comfortable with various forms of progressive revelation and accommodation, her point is still a helpful one as it reminds us that God was at work within a broken people.

The “Jesus lens” then accepts that Jesus came to show us exactly who God is and what this God is like. Jesus, like the prophets, invites us to pursue peace and reconciliation at every level of life, because at the core “God is love.” Through this lens we see that the purpose of the atonement was to reconcile enemies to God. The result of this is that humanity can freely choose this non-coercive God or reject God. All the while, Christ pursues the purpose of the cross, the reconciliation of all things and all of humanity (69).

The result of this approach to Scripture is that it becomes clear that “…it’s very hard to believe, hook, line, and sinker, that the God revealed to us through Jesus would ever agree to throw sinners into eternal punishment in the unquenchable fires of hell” (64). Retribution is inconsistent with the whole witness of the New Testament and therefore we need to push back on the tradition that has imposed an unbiblical idea into the final judgment of sinners (79). Justice must be served, to ignore this would be equally unbiblical, but it is a restorative justice. Baker adds: “But when we read and interpret the Bible from the perspective of divine love (and through our Jesus lens), we see that the standards of justice are driven by a desire for restoration, relationship, and harmony with God and others” (90).

How does the “lens” we use to look at Scripture determine our perspectives about God’s love, wrath, and judgment?

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  • Kenton

    I really like the fact that you’re doing this series, Kurt.

    Your post has some parallels to a post today at Scot McKnight’s blog. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/04/17/jesus-as-god-but-which-god/

    That post is about whether we know God by seeing Jesus (which sounds like “Jesus eyes” here), or we already have a preconceived notion of who God is and we see elements of our concept of God in the life of Jesus. (I hate to contrast “Jesus eyes” with “God eyes”… maybe… “God myopia”???) Some of the comments between “Sam” and “Norman” were interesting.

    • Kenton

       Whoops. I meant to say “Jesus LENS” when I wrote “Jesus eyes”.

  • Aaron

    Awesome perspectives. While I understand many may have more experience looking through this “Jesus Lens”, I have been looking through these lenses for a relatively short period of time, despite growing up in a Christian home! Some very refreshing thoughts, thanks.

  • Darren

    This perspective you are articulating has been one that has helped me immensely in the last few years in understanding how to reconcile the angry, bloodthirsty God of the OT with the NT God and Jesus.  I’ve learned to view the OT as an anthology of stories of how God’s people viewed and understood Him throughout the ages.  Their beliefs were shaped by their situation and their worldview and also by an honest attempt to understand the character and nature of God, but were by no means always an accurate depiction of our unchanging God.  

    That is not to say that I think that we now have anything like a perfect understanding of God, but I think through the revelation of Christ, we have a much better picture than did the ancients.  God has been progressively revealing himself to us throughout human history as we have progressed as well.  The new revelation of Jesus to an audience finally (almost) ready to hear it was that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  That love trumps legalism.

  • Charlie

    Hey Kurt, haven’t read this particular book you reference, but I see where the author is going a little bit. 

    One thought I have is why we tend to see God’s characteristics in a tier rather than as one whole combination. For example, many will pose the question, “Why would a loving God send people to hell?” My rebuttal, when ever that question comes up is usually, “Who said God was solely loving?” While it is an important characteristic, it’s not the ONLY characteristic we know about Him, as revealed by both the OT authors and prophets and Jesus himself, through teachings and his life. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the above view sounds to me like it puts more emphasis on restorative justice than it does retributive justice, meaning that even though both are talked about in the bible (either equally or not) we tend to elevate one over the other, giving one more weight. Perhaps I haven’t studied it enough, but I have to wonder where this idea of the semi-eternal slap on the wrist comes in, while we are very quick to validate eternal life. I just don’t see that in Jesus’ teachings, where the punishment will end rather than continue on.

    Another thing that you and I have spoken about is the idea of “evil” continuing on forever if hell is eternal. I don’t share that view. Once judgment happens, and God begins the process of making all things new, labels like good and evil cease to exist. We are simply either God’s or not. If God defeats evil once and for all with Jesus’ return, how can it last? I believe fully that Jesus won that for us on the cross, yes and Amen. But it has not come to full fruition until He returns. I think a more consistent view might be punishment FOR evil having been done, not the punishment of evil itself. In order words, once evil is conquered, and judgment is rendered, the evil stops. Crimes cease (theoretically) once a person is sent to prison. You don’t continue being a criminal, you are now a prisoner because of crimes done. In the same way, we who are called according to God’s purposes will one day no longer be anything except His children, because of what’s been done for us. 

    I still wrestle with the same things you mentioned, eternal punishment for a few years. Yet, as I touched on, we are so quick to give out the reward (eternal life for a few years) as well. That may sound dualistic, but I believe it’s consistent with the New Testament. Jesus says there will be a separation between the righteous and the unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, those who find the wide road or the narrow path. I don’t, however, see any sort of bridge between the two once that has come and gone. 

  • Andy J. Funk

    With concepts such as “progressive revelation”, I wonder if that has more to do with how humankind has received those revelations, and not so much about how God reveals. In other words, I do not find it ultimately helpful to hold to a view that pictures God playing along with those “simple-minded ancients”, who could only understand justice in a retributive sort of way, and patiently waiting until we finally get it right. To me, progressive revelation teaches more about humanity and how we hold to our present world views and allow them to shape our theology. Maybe the story of God, the bible, is showing us a trajectory in what his will is for all the world. Each step of the way, God has been teaching humanity how to treat each other, the earth, and God, and seems to be trying to curb humanity’s use of retributive violence. 

    With Jesus, we see the fulfilment of what God wants. In Jesus, we see who God is. As so aptly stated by Hauerwas and Willimon in “Resident Aliens”…”turn the other cheek is not advocated because it works; we all know it most often does NOT. It is advocated because that is the way God is.” (loosely quoted) God is patient with those who reject him, and those who are selfish. 
    The issue I have is that the bible as a whole seems to be witness accounts of God. Some witness says God is angry and will destroy, while others say he is patient, loving and kind, ready to receive those who have strayed, back into the family. God is violent, and then God is peaceful. Somehow, we have also justified our violence with references to God’s violent acts. Which witnesses do we discount? Are some witness accounts false, or tainted? To conclude, this leads me to the question, are these witness accounts to be treated as absolute “evidence”, or is each account telling a greater story? I struggle with these questions, and I am convinced that there is no simple answer to them, but I’m wondering if the church is going to be a place where it is safe to embark on such journeys of the search for understanding, without being branded this or that. I wish that were the case…

  • I haven’t read Sharon Baker’s book, but my husband and I have been choosing to look at the entire Bible including the OT through the Jesus lens. We like to say that Jesus is the gold standard of how God behaves. This is biblical and based on Heb. 1:1-3 where the author says Jesus is the exact expression of the Father.

    Jesus also said, “The Father and I are one.” and “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father. Add to that the words of Paul that “Jesus was the rock the Children of Israel drank from,” and Jesus’s own words that He is the great I Am which are the code words God used with Moses at the burning bush so I think Jesus IS the God of the OT.

    There is not enough room here to discuss reasons why there are so many discrepancies between the teachings of Jesus and Moses, but they might include the Near East’s view of gods and the fact that God meets people where they are.  In the case of the law where an “eye for eye” contradicts the words of Jesus to turn the other cheek, I think God/Jesus was limiting them to one eye for one eye– instead of ten eyes for one eye. I think God/Jesus had to use His yelling voice with slaves that had been in slavery for 400 years. They didn’t know how to govern themselves. That would be like our ancestors being in slavery since the the first settlers arrived. If we, as a nation have a lot of baggage and stuff to unpack, I am sure the people Moses led were overwhelmed. 

    Jesus not only called Himself the I Am, but He said He is the Truth the Life and the Way and no one comes to the Father except by Him. While this has been interpreted to mean that only those who pray in Jesus’s exact name will be saved, I think maybe He meant that we won’t understand God unless we look long and hard at Jesus.

  • Authors like N.T. Wright, Christian Smith, and Brian McLaren all recommend changing the way we read and understand Scripture. Rather than reading it as a “constitution” which most evangelicals do today, we should instead read it as narrative. Rather than reading the Bible, we should let the Bible read us. And, as Smith suggests, reading it through the lens of Jesus, both in the OT and NT. And, if we truly do read the whole of Scripture to capture the big picture, then Baker has it right:  “we see that the standards of justice are driven by a desire for restoration, relationship, and harmony with God and others”. And, I would assume this big picture is how God operates with His creation for all of eternity, both in the hear and now (reconciliation of all things) and in the afterlife, drawing all people to Himself.

  • D-ron

    Just curious- what’s the seventh trouble that the traditional view instigates (you’ve got six listed)? Also, I realize this is a 30,000 foot view of her book but she does do business with the individual hell references in the NT, right? I understand her argument (broadly speaking) but I’m curious how her logic plays out in the minutia? Maybe I need to add this to my reading list and find out…

  • Aaron

    Would be interested in reading more information sometime about progressive revelation if you think you have time. I have heard a little about some ideas, but would like to know more.

  • Hell is a scenario or destination for many that I would love to remove.

    BUT, we are the clay and not the potter. Maybe if we understood the severity of sin and the consequences of sin we would understand the necessity for Hell. It is another reason why we need to tell everyone about the forgiveness of God through Jesus. This is the good news for an otherwise hopelessly doomed mankind. The punishment for sin is unavoidable without the sacrifice of Jesus. The only way to the Father is through Jesus (to quote the words of Jesus).

  • Clever title! Hell yeah! 🙂

  • The reality is that we all have lenses through which we read scripture, whether we acknowledge them or not!  Usually these lenses are favorite verses, pet theologies, and cultural biases.  Our thinking on hell is much more rooted in Dante than anything biblical, so my hope is that we are able to put aside our Dante lens and get something much more biblical, like, maybe, a Jesus lens

  • Dave

    Why do we consistently pile “warm and tingly” doctrines on top of each other and push straight-forward Scriptures out of the way? Jesus talked about punishment – a lot – and the consequences for those who don’t believe. If someone doesn’t believe, then they can’t relate with God, because God is Spirit and requires that we relate through faith. So if there is a rejection of relating to God constantly without repentance (a necessary step to Salvation), then there is no room to relate to God and access His manifest presence. 

    If God is not worthy of fear, then why do we care about anything? Doesn’t it cheapen our precious faith (not to mention martyrs who were brutally tortured and executed for their faith) to eliminate from our doctrine a true justice system? The saints killed for their faith cry out beneath the throne of God, 
    “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”  (Revelation 6:10)

    I am ALL FOR grace. I don’t want anyone – including myself – to experience harsh judgment. But I can’t make that desire a doctrine, because it simply isn’t true. Jesus – if we look at what He ACTUALLY said rather than how we perceive (or think we should perceive) Him – said some really hard things. But part of the journey of the narrow road is forsaking our perspectives and taking up our cross – His way. 

    Jesus said that many will take the wide path to destruction. And He said that we aren’t to fear man, but God, who, after killing the body can throw the soul into hell (or gehenna, or sheol, or hades, or whatever – the point is that it’s a dreaded punishment after death). 

    Jesus wasn’t just the Son of Man on earth. He is the same One who presents the revelation God gave Him to John the Beloved. That Jesus has eyes of fire, and a sharp sword that emerges from His mouth, who wears a robe dipped in blood and rides a white warhorse. 

    Please don’t accept the world’s system of softness and sensitivity toward things that God hates. Don’t make God the “bloodthirsty” bad guy. He is our Master. That means we do/believe what He says whether we like it or not. And like with Job, He does what He wants, and by nature of the way things work, what He wants defines justice, love, and righteousness. 

  • I know this might be rather Thomist, but what about the comments Jesus makes concerning “the unforgivable sin” that he contends is subject to “eternal condemnation” (Mark 3 and Matthew 12)? If we must interpret with the Jesus lens, which I am completely convinced of, could this be part of it, or might Baker argue that the NT writers “have written their own perception of God into the text?”

  • Jonolevin

    the bible was never created in the image and likeness of God, but YOU were Genesis 1:26 🙂 i love the scriptures and study them daily, but if i dont understand what the scriptures are all about i miss the Message….in john 5:39 Jesus says you have your head in your bibles cause you think you find eternal life in these but if you MISS ME you MISS THE POINT< he says he is what all the scriptures are about….all of scripture is about Jesus and all of jesus is about YOU 🙂 cause in 1 john 4:17 its very clear : AS HE IS SO ARE WE IN THIS WORLD:) Hebrews 1:3 states that in these last days God has spoken his final word which is Jesus…Jesus is Gods mind made up about YOU….and "Hades" which is used to describe hell means Not too see…which is basically not too see the truth about you and believe the Lie that  says YOU NOT…but i so thank God that Jesus says I AM, and That I AM lives in each one of US collosians 1:27, because in HIM we LIVE MOVE AND HAVE OUR BEING(Acts 17:28)…We are Gods property(psalm 24) and to say that many are on there way to this so called HELL is giving the thief ownership and to me is a reflection of ignorance, cause if one died for all we can conclude that ALL have died…2 corinthians 5:14…only the Love of Christ can make that calculation…Jesus is the beginning and the end, and 1 john 5:20 is a little golden nugget to chew on and get HIgh on the Most High….Happy days cause the Good News is only Good News , we dont have to preach the devil back into business He was stripped at the cross and owns nothing….collosians 2:14….its our unbelief that blinds us, 2 Corinthians 4:4-7 Awaken oh sleeper to realise you have always been included and are now reconciled, God IS LOVE, LIGHT AND LIFE as John describes so clearly and Hell is not your destination nor any of Gods Children…..Glad tidings of great JOY is what the angels came with and for the WORLD…if you not included or Joe Soap smoking his crack pipe then unfortunately the Gospel is not Glad Tidings of Great Joy to the WORLD but only to those that believe…