In my prayer time this morning I read Psalm 109, a prayer for vindication in the face of the psalmist’s accusers. Most of it describes the accusers’ accusations, but the final 1/3 begs God for vindication. And the psalmist is none too kind to his enemies. Verse 29 says, “May my accusers be clothed with dishonor; may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.”
Sensitive believers (both Jew and Christian) have long struggled with how such an idea – in a book purportedly revealing the heart of God – could truly express God’s will. Some would say, “It really doesn’t. It merely expresses the heart of the psalmist who wants God to step in and straigthen things out.” I think that’s too easy an answer. It’s also too easy to “harmonize” scripture and explain away the sting of this one with “spiritualzing” words. The psalmist wants his enemies hoisted on their own petard. What about forgiveness and mercy and all that stuff?
I can see justice as the assumption behind the psalmist’s prayer: he thinks of himself as the righteous victim. Justice necessitates his vindication, which means his enemies are publicly proven wrong (thus shamed). But can one truly be so identified with the just nature of God that one could pray such a prayer with a holy, pure heart? Well, clearly there are people in this world who believe that the justice of God will bring an end to their suffering, so it’s not too big a stretch to think that the psalmist is so in tune with God’s nature that he could pray such a prayer – and in so doing it might even reflect God’s heart.
Which leads me in this direction: the psalm also made me think of the end times, of final judgment. The Bible clearly has a vision of “the present age” and “the age to come.” In the age to come, God’s justice “wins” and the plans of God’s enemies are foiled. Are there truly such enemies of God among human beings? Could the accusers in Psalm 109 actually be such enemies of God because they are enemies of God’s servant? And if so, can they stay God’s enemies forever? Might God’s enemies incur God’s wrath forever?
These questions prompted a memory of Donald Bloesch’s (Essentials of Evangelical Theology) concept of hell. Hell is the ultimate expression of God’s wrath, but it is also a function of God’s profound mercy. As I remember Bloesch’s argument, every soul God has created has tremendous value. God is both merciful and just, therefore God must judge all evil even if God desires to be merciful. God’s nature thus creates a dilemma: what to do with people who hard-heartedly resist the will of God to the very end? To “annihilate” a soul (one of the theories about what happens to God’s enemies is that they just cease to exist) goes against God’s purposes for life and creation. To save everyone (universalism – another popular attempt to avoid the difficulties of the concept of hell) sounds wonderful, but it certainly seems to undermine the idea of God’s justice and, ultimately, it seems to take away from human freedom, a pretty important part of the image of God in people.
So, we’re back to the possibility of the reality of hell. According to Bloesch (and C.S. Lewis, among others), in hell, the enemies of God are still sustained by God, but they’re getting exactly what they want – for God to leave them alone. The “flames” of hell are symbols of what it is like to be left to our own sin-twisted resources for eternity. When we are left merely to our own devices, we wind up tormenting ourselves and others. Dante’s depiction of hell, though literary and not to be taken literally, is pretty apt.
In hell, God still sustains us. He just leaves us alone. We asked for it. We got it. That truly would be hell.