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.
6 thoughts on “Might God Just Leave Us Alone?”
I read the Psalm that you have cited as inspiration for this post. As you said, I understand the position of the Psalmist as an oppressed and that therefore qualifies his rather negative Psalm. But the key to my understanding is also in the culture of brutal oppression. First, and correct me if I am wrong, would the opppressed not be destroyed if they took a pacifistic stance. But in the “modern” world there are few places in the world in which this culture of brutal oppression would be acceptable, all in the global south and most that I can think of are Muslim (Aghani Taliban, Darfur genocide, etc.). In all other circumstances I would then consider this reaction as inharmonious with the Psalmists intent. So, in other words, I’m not sure if I agree with your conclusion about this being merciful and just because I do not see the circumstance as in any way universal.
Second, as we are so fond of telling one another, I think that Dr. Thompson would disagree with you on your eschatological conclusions about hell. As you most likely know, those who are annihilationist (I count myself among them) see this view as the natural extension of the Kingdom of God concept. If God conquers evil as a condition of the eschaton, why then would God allow even a speck of evil to exist, including Hell? Is it truly just and merciful for God to eternally burn (in the metaphorical sense) his enemy, some might even call them those deceived by the enemy? If God conquers evil in the eschaton, I believe that he will justly punish his enemy by withholding eternal life, and he will mercifully annihilate them. Anyway, I am not a very studied annihilationist so don’t color your view of them on account of my poor argumentation.
Those are my thoughts, I know you are busy, but I would enjoy reading a retort.
The irony for so many people is that thay want God to leave them alone. So He honors their request. Yet when God does leave them alone they all of a sudden are crying out to him to intervene in their lives. Sad, so sad.
Tuttle always said that God created hell for those who rejected God because it provided them a place to attempt to hide from the awesome holiness of God. Do want you want with that.
Probably the oppressed would be destroyed, as you suggest.
I’m not trying to say that the psalm turns out to be merciful. The psalmist’s call for justice sent me on a flight of fancy, from his call for justice to final judgment, to thoughts of the consequences of final judgment, which led me to thought of hell. I know, it’s morbid. People easily reject the concept of hell because they think a loving God could not condemn people to flames and suffering eternally. I’m prepared to make the claim that even hell is a function of God’s mercy, while exacting justice.
Ah, what is “existence?” There certainly is no evil in the Kingdom, but what about Revelation 21? I just don’t see annihilation as merciful. No existence is better than suffering existence? (Remember, I don’t think of hell as the sort of graphic punishment as portrayed by Dante.) Have you read The Great Divorce, byt C.S. Lewis? He has an interesting view of hell.
I agree wholeheartedly that the resort to an annihilationist view because “God is loving” is illogical and therefore I do not claim it by those means. How do you account for the existence of hell after God has conquered sin and death in the eschaton? Does God maintain this once Satan has ceased to control (or exist?)?
Secondly on Rev 21. I’m not sure is a short answer. I am in need of better ancient commentary and would like to know what my long dead mentors think as I am well versed in Evangelical literalism (not that you fall in that category either).
Third, I have indeed read “The Great Divorce”. It sparked a two year obsession with Lewis in High School (I read nothing but his books for that period). I attribute my love for theology, literature, and philosophy to the recommendation that I read this book by a friend’s parent.
Additionally I find his eschatological suggestions (substantial or not) in the Last Battle interesting to compare with his view as put forth in The Great Divorce.
John, I should go back and look at The Last Battle.
On the existence of hell after God has re-created: I think the logic of hell is connected to what is at the end of Revelation 20. I think “death” in this sense means “separation,” not “ceasing to exist.” Thus, hell, as a place or experience or both, is nothing more than a place of separation from God, even though those in hell (as I mentioned earlier) are still sustained by God. Sin has been done away, so sin is not part of hell.
Jerry Wall’s book on hell (which I have not looked at in awhile) might be an interesting read. Shall we take a look?