How do we reconcile the passages in the Bible that paint a picture of a God who is loving, forgiving, and whose mercy endures forever, with the image of a vengeful, and punishing God who sends unbelievers to their eternal torment in hell?
Many people want to believe that God is just; he rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous. And then there are passages that might lead us to either of those opinions or views of God. I should mention that there are also verses in the Bible that speak of God rewarding us for deeds done in the flesh. See 2Cor. 5:10 for example. (I wonder how many people look up these verses.)
So let’s look at a couple passages about people getting their just due. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes: ‘9 …. if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ This is one of those verses the evangelical types like to share in order to convince others that there must be a confession of faith in order to be saved… sort of like ‘accepting Jesus’ or being ‘born again’. And that’s fine because there it is in the Bible. It’s in the same section of scripture that causes us to wonder what the fate of the Jewish people is. At one point Paul says he grieves over his own lost people and at another he speaks about how all Israel will be saved. There seems to be some uncertainty as to God’s plan of salvation for the Jews. I do like that verse in Romans 11:32 where Paul writes that ‘God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them ALL.’
Now consider this verse found in 1John 2:2 supposedly written by the Apostle John. ‘He (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Good Calvinists say that the death of Christ was sufficient for the whole world but only efficient for the ‘elect’. Now there’s another can of worms in trying to figure out the character of God.
Let me add another verse about God’s love and forgiveness. “Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19) I leave it to the reader to understand the parallels of ‘all’ and ‘many’ but it is clear that Paul means to let his readers know that God’s mercy is extended to all.
Ok. Let’s take a look at John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (NLT) See, it would seem that those who don’t believe would perish. But notice this, perishing is different from everlasting torment. You will have to do a dictionary study for this.
Now let’s go to a passage which helps us understand God’s will. In 1Timothy 2 Paul urges the people to pray for the leaders of Rome so that they can live a peaceful life, and he concludes in v.4: ‘This is good and pleases God our Savior who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (NIV)
Some folk say that the love of God wants all people to be saved but the justice and election of God only saves some. That’s interesting. I have always thought that Christ on the cross IS the justice and love of God together. Christ’s death allows us to know that God takes sin seriously and that he forgives sin at the same time for all people.
Recall the death of Jesus on the cross where he cries, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ It seems to be there are a whole lot of people in this world who don’t understand and therefore don’t know Christ. Are they condemned because they don’t confess Christ as Savior?
Now let’s take a look at a letter from Peter, the disciple who denied and then reconciled with Christ. 1Peter 3:18-19: ‘18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.’ (NRSV) I can’t be absolutely sure but it appears that there is a second chance for those who have died. This goes along with 1Peter 4:1-6: ‘Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.’
And there are many scriptures (see 1 Cor. 15 for example) that lead us to an understanding of God’s justice and love mingled together on the cross. (This may actually mean that there is post mortem salvation by the will of God who in his word says that one day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.) Our God’s nature is revealed in Jesus the Christ. It is the nature of justice absorbed by love.
And so I believe that there will come a time when God reconciles the whole creation to himself. That is not for the purpose of encouraging irresponsibility but rather magnifying the love of God. It’s love that saves and not fear. The Good News of God’s love has more drawing power than any warnings about eternal torment. Just something to think about.