When was the last time you sang about hell?
One area where I think evangelical theology will increasingly sell the shop in the coming years is the concept of God’s judgment and the corresponding doctrine of hell. Already there are signs that the important exegetical and theological discussions about eternal punishment vs conditional immortality/annihilation have moved towards a status quo of general evangelical uncertainty about what to think in these areas. In some places the postmodern fog has descended to such an extent that what generations ago would have been classed as theological liberalism now count as ‘honest’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘courageous’ expositions within evangelical theology.
It seems too that a certain emotiveness about the horrors of hell now govern the conversation, so that how we feel about judgment slips in as an implicit hermeneutical lens through which the biblical material is filtered. An oft repeated maxim here is that ‘No-one should ever talk about judgment or hell without tears in their eyes’. I think this rightly captures a strand of the biblical material: witness Jesus mourning for Jerusalem or listen as Paul agonizes in Rom 9 about those of his people who are cut off from Christ. Judgment cannot but generate the strongest of emotions and where we speak about hell easily or without broken compassion we do not understand what we are talking about, and it would probably be best all round if we kept quiet. But there is a danger here in absolutising maxims like this, so that instead of expressing one aspect of the emotional truth about hell it becomes instead an emotive argument against the traditional conceptuality of God’s judgment. Absolutise a slogan like this across one generation’s lifetime and the next generation will not easily stomach a God who engenders emotions like this in the first place.
The fact is that the Bible has a place for shouting with joy at the judgments of God. The range of emotional responses to judgment are multi-faceted and startling. The Scripture sets judgment to music.
Take Exodus 15 and the song of Moses which follows after ‘Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore’:
I will sing to the LORD, for he has
horse and rider he has thrown into
the sea …
In the greatness of your majesty you
overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed
them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters
Psalm 98 or Psalm 96 (also sung in 1 Chronicles 16 after David has defeated his enemies and entered Jerusalem as God’s victorious King):
Let the heavens be glad, and let the
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest
sing for joy
before the LORD; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with
and the peoples with his truth.
After this, I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:
Salvation and glory and power
to our God,
for his judgments are true
He has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her
and he has avenged on her the blood
of his servants.
And again they shouted:
The smoke goes up from her for ever
This is shocking. Oceans, alpine meadows and Amazon forests bursting with delight as the LORD executes his righteous judgment on the earth. Songs of triumph in the enemy's graveyard? What tune goes with wrath? Hallelujahs for vengeance? Would we know how or why to sing like this, and would we even want to?
Part of our discomfort is due to our historical and geographical location. In terms of history, we live in the age of absolute tolerance coupled with immense biblical illiteracy so that we are prone to think about God sentimentally and appropriate Scripture selectively. In terms of geography, we observe how most of the evangelical boundary-broadening on this topic is occurring in the rarefied atmosphere of white, affluent, western academia where our comforts are so numbing that it is hard to see what there is for God to judge. In some corners of this ivory tower there are flirtations with universalism; in others explicit endorsements of it; in others, cautious claims about God’s freedom so that eventually percolated down to popular theologians is a kind of cherished vagueness about the future and about what God has promised he will do. And it is all expertly packaged in the form of shiny ‘fresh’ arguments. This kind of thinking is, theologically, a million miles away from the searing traumas facing the persecuted people of God in some corners of the globe and where passages like 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 are a God-given means of sustaining faith under fire.
Where the church seeks to evaluate its location in time and space from the viewpoint of Scripture, and where congregations are lovingly taught to meditate on the whole of Scripture, then what we sing on Sundays will perhaps sound a little different. Believers who gladly sing God’s judgments grasp that God’s love is always displayed in perfect harmony with his glory and his holiness and all his other perfections, they hold tear-stained compassion for the lost together with joy-filled hope at future vindication and, above all, they treasure Calvary not as a sign of divine sympathy but as the pledge of eternal immunity.
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