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).