“The Doctrine of (no Hell) can only be born in the quiet of the suburbs.” -Miroslav Volf
“Vengeance is Mine says the LORD.” -St. Paul
Last week, I started a Bible study with a young Muslim man from West Africa. A few of us are reading through the Gospel of Mark together talking about the life of Jesus.
When we came to the part of Mark where Jesus exorcises the demon from the man in the synagogue, I told our African friend that most of us around that table had never seen this kind of evil, and I asked him if he had anything to say.
Turns out he did.
Today I’d like to finish this little blog series on Evil, with one more final, and I think timely observation. I started this series because Vince Gilligan had captured America’s imagination with the story of a High School Chemistry teacher turned Meth Cook, drug kingpin, and murderer. Little by little, Walter White broke bad. And I’d like to remind you one more time of the Creator’s philosophy of this story:
“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something…I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
What an interesting way to say that.
The Hell of It
As fans of the show watched the unraveling of the character we’d grown to love to hate or hate to love, we noticed that there was also another character to Breaking Bad. Karma. Underwriting every scene was this idea that the other shoe was going to drop and evil people would get their comeuppance in proportion to their crimes against humanity.
But this is where I think Breaking Bad is more naive and hopeful than almost any fairy tale that has gone before it. Because the world doesn’t work as cleanly as that…and in some ways that is the point of the whole show. This is how Vince Gilligan wished the world worked.
And it’s why I believe in Hell.
But not the way you might think.
I’m not sure how God’s final judgment is going to work, I’m pretty sure it’s different than what most of us think of when we think of Hell and Satan with pitchforks. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it isn’t what most of my American friends think of when they bring it up. Because when the Bible talks about God’s final judgment it seems to always assume that this is a good thing.
In fact, the doctrine that God will judge the entire world was always seen by God’s people, not as a condemnation, but as a comfort. And it was also seen as a great resource for how to respond to evil in the here an now.
In the jarring words of the great theologian Miroslav Volf:
The practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.
Over the past week, it seems that there has been a resurgence of people claiming that the idea of non-violence is un-manly. Controversial Pastor Mark Driscoll is once again is being controversial, and once again the argument seems to be something like, to be a man means that you need to own a gun and be willing to take up arms against evil.
Now I own a gun, and understand the God-given instinct to protect the weak, but I don’t like this conversation at all.
It seems to me that the people who talk the most about Hell understand it’s implications the least. Because the good news about the coming judgment of God is that God will set the world right, And that His judgment works differently.
Think about how Jesus deals with those demon possessed. Whatever Jesus says, the demons obey. there’s no arguing with the Son of God for them. In Mark 5, Jesus kicks a whole legion of demons out of a person, and the person is still standing. Jesus’ judgment is for the person, and against evil.
Think about one of the few times that Jesus talks about the eternal fire of judgment. Look at what he actually says In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and His angels”
Hell wasn’t made for people. Hell was made to judge the evil of the world. Hell was made because God cares about all the ways we’ve hurt each other. It is God’s final way to break bad.
Which brings me back to my friend from West Africa. He told us about Witch Doctors and goat sacrifices, about voodoo spells that drove a friend crazy, and ultimately about the civil war that ravaged his country and killed his father. He had seen men light other men on fire, behead one another and he saw dark forces at work behind it all.
My African friend has no problem with the idea that God has some judging to do.
The good news about the judgment of God is that there is such a thing as justice for us to work toward, but we must also recognize we will never be able to fully bring it because we are a part of the problem too. None of us know exactly what people deserve, and if we are honest none of us are qualified to dispense the judgment of justice toward others because we are deeply broken ourselves.
If there is a judgement day, then we don’t have to take the burden of justice all on ourselves. If God will set the world right, we don’t have to worry about trying to fix it all by ourselves. And we don’t have to take up the means of evil to defeat it.
Is God a pacifist? In a word: No
But that doesn’t mean that God’s people can’t be.
Because vengeance is His. One day God will make every sad thing come untrue. At the restoration of all things, when death itself is dead, when bad is fully broken.