God's Merciful Judgement
Chapter Five of "The Really Good News About God" investigates judgement and punishment as God's rehabilitation program for restoring his creation.
Actually, judgement is a decision or a verdict: not a sentence or a punishment.
A judgement and its subsequent course of action are two connected, but quite separate, components of any legal system.
A judgement is the result of a process for deciding between right and wrong or between guilt and innocence.
It is this judgement which then influences what the next course of action will be.
So a judgement may have a favourable or an unfavourable outcome, not always an unfavourable one as some people believe the word “judgement” implies.
However, in the case of an unfavourable outcome, the penalty is designed and administered with the purpose of improving the guilty person’s behaviour or character so that he or she will eventually be different.
Once that penalty has been paid and the change in behaviour or character achieved, the previously guilty person will then become as free as a person who was immediately acquitted.
So whatever the initial result, judgement is a good thing, not a bad thing, as all the results of judgement immediately or eventually lead to freedom.
So here’s the difference.
Justice occurs when offenders get what they deserve.
Mercy occurs when offenders don’t get what they deserve.
Grace occurs when offenders get what they don’t deserve.
God fulfils his role as Judge using all three, usually spread over a period of time.
Let's see how this might work out.
So, my tongue-in-cheek advice?
If you want to hear the best sermons preached, avoid church and attend funerals conducted by Christian celebrants !!
Seriously, isn’t it amazing that when real people in real-life situations are involved, the real good news that Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world is usually admitted.
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"The Really Good News About God" has been published in various formats. You can purchase a copy, or download a pdf version, using the "Book" link.
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Many Christians believe that the ultimate penalty for not being saved during their earthly lifetime is eternal torment in a place they usually call hell.
Let's see if this is a Biblical view.
We may get a clue from the event that introduced sin into the world.
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
[Genesis 2: 16 - 17 NIV]
Clearly, the consequence of sin is death, not eternal torment in a place called hell.
As Paul reminds us, " ... the wages of sin is death." (Romans 6 : 23)
Indeed, I can't find anywhere in the Bible that says what evangelical preachers teach, as paraphrased above. There are some spots where that view could be read into the text, if that is your intention, but nowhere that directly says that the penalty for sin is everlasting torment in hell.
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Popular opinion suggests that when we sin we make God angry. Indeed, the more we sin, the angrier he becomes, and the harder it is for us to get to heaven.
Even some church-goers believe this.
One of the Bible's outrageous verses contests this view.
It is Romans 5 : 20.
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (NIV)
Let's explore this verse.
When there was no law, wrong doing was just suspected. If someone stole from you, you would think "that doesn't seem fair, that doesn't seem right".
But when the Law arrived, wrong doing was clearly seen, named and shamed, and so magnified. Our suspicion that stealing was not right was confirmed with the arrival of the Law.
Many people think that the Law was given to improve humanity's behaviour or moral fibre.
Actually it is a side-play, not the main game at all.
The Law was given to show us God's righteousness, and our inability to attain it. It shows us how hopeless we are to meet God's righteous standard. It was the necessary fore-runner to the Messiah's entry into the world.
The second part of this verse is the outrageous part.
Because of Christ's death dealing with all and every sin, it doesn't matter how much sin increases, God's grace has it covered.
Those of us who have played card games like Euchre, Bridge, 500 and Whist know full well the power of trump cards. A trump card always wins no matter how impressive the opposing card looks. Even the smallest trump card defeats an opposition Ace.
If Paul was writing this verse in our time he may well have said, "Grace always trumps Sin". It doesn't matter what sin card you play, God's grace card trumps it.
And the next verse (Romans 5 : 21) puts the icing on the cake.
Although sin was in control of us, had us heading towards death because the law could never be fully obeyed, God's trump card, grace, declares us righteous.
Paul also repeats this awesome news to other Christians to whom he wrote.
Here's an example:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5 : 21 NIV]
How outrageous is God's grace?
The question raised in the first verse of the next chapter confirms that. We'll look at this question next.
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Readers of the previous post may well be thinking ...
If by increasing sin God's grace can be increased even more, then let's sin up a storm so we will be swamped with God's grace.
That's reasonable, logical, isn't it?
If you put more fuel on the fire, surely the fire will burn more fiercely.
That point of view is so reasonable and logical to unbelievers and skeptics that Paul addresses this very question at the beginning of Romans 6.
"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?"
Paul then spends some time declaring not only that we should not keep on sinning, but that we cannot keep on sinning.
His argument is that if we are in Christ, we have died with him. Jesus paid the death penalty for our sin, so our enslavement to sin is over. The old me is dead and buried with Christ.
And a dead person can no longer be a slave to sin. We may still be tempted on occasions, but we have the power of the risen Christ within us to help us choose to say NO.
Grace has trumped sin for me, for all believers. Indeed for everyone, for Jesus paid the sin penalty for the whole world.
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. [Romans 5 : 18 - 19 NIV]
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [1 John 2 : 2 NIV]
Indeed, Paul tells to rely on the Saviour of all mankind, as he does.
We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people ... [1 Timothy 4 : 10 NIV]
Anything less than this would be insufficient as a perfect conclusion to God's purpose and plan for His creation. Even King David saw that centuries before Paul was born.
Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord;
no deeds can compare to yours.
All the nations you have made will come and worship you, O Lord;
they will bring glory to your name.
For you are great and do marvellous deeds;
you alone are God. [Psalm 86 : 8 - 10 NIV]
Does everybody deserve that?
What, even the rogue who lives next door?
Even the ISIS crowd who are currently terrorising the world?
No, of course not. They don't deserve it and neither do we.
Let's return to our opening thought - where sin increases, God's grace increases even more. As one translation puts it: Where sin increases, God's grace super-exceeds. Grace will trump sin for everyone eventually.
The whole purpose of Paul's statement that God's grace trumps mankind's sin is to demonstrate that no matter how serious or extensive our past sin has been, God's grace has it more than covered.
It's not a challenge to see how much sin we can credit to our account, but to save us from discouragement if our past has been particularly bad.
Of course the greatest advantage is gained by responding to God's call to salvation and discipleship immediately we hear it. There are so many benefits of being an early believer, gaining life by the empowering Holy Spirit while still on planet Earth.
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The magazine section of The Adelaide Advertiser a few years ago included a review of a book called "The Big Mo", with the subtitle "Why Momentum Now Rules the World", by Mark Roeder.
This title also has relevance to some of the ideas that the institutional church perpetuates and is shaped by.
For example, the popular concept of 'hell', including the view held by much of mainstream christianity, has gained its own momentum since Augustine got the ball rolling centuries and centuries ago.
It's a bit like the word 'Jesus'. If you asked an "unchurched" child (a child uneducated about such things) what the word 'Jesus' means, you would most likely get the answer that it is something you say when you get angry or when things aren't going your way. This would not have been the answer of a generation or two ago, but the momentum of the last few decades would certainly make it so now.
So what is 'hell' ... really?
The common view is that 'hell' is a place of fiery torment where God sends "bad" people forever to execute His justice on them and to appease His wrath.
Even much of mainstream christianity agrees with this view, while simultaneously declaring that God is love and unconditionally loves all of His creation.
Most people would say that this is the view of the church, and they would be right. Most people would also say that this is the view of the Bible, but, in this case, they would be wrong.
So let's find the correct or original meaning of the English word 'hell'.
Dictionaries are designed to give the meanings of words as they are used in society. They are not definitive authorities on the correct meanings of words, but are reporters of the popular and current use of language. Some dictionaries also give older and even obsolete meanings and uses of words as well, and many discuss word origins and their histories.
Let's see what www.dictionary.com says about 'hell'.
Used as a Noun
Used as an Interjection
Used as a Verb Phrase
Used as an Idiom
Amazingly, in defintion 5, an original meaning of 'hell' is still listed, although it is rarely used this way today.
The original meaning of 'hell' means the concealed or covered or invisible place, and therefore the abode of the dead, or the grave, having been derived from the Saxon word 'helan' meaning 'to cover' or 'to hide'.
Irish potato farmers regularly talked of helling their potatoes, meaning to mount dirt on them, or to dig holes and bury them, so hiding or covering them. Even today we still use the word 'helmet', which is a perfect example of the use of this meaning to convey a covering or hiding of the head.
Isn't it amazing how this correct meaning has been almost lost and completely overtaken by an incorrect one, and how this incorrect one has totally infiltrated our language and is used whenever a concept of harm or mayhem is being expressed?
Using the original definition, 'hell', or 'the grave', is then the correct translation of any Hebrew or Greek word used in the Bible that means hidden or concealed or covered, or where these meanings are inferred. 'Sheol' in Hebrew and 'Hades' in Greek should therefore be translated 'hell' (correctly understood) or, better still, 'the grave' while we are trying to rid people of their incorrect understanding of the meaning of 'hell'.
There is no connection with punishment or everlasting torment or fiery judgement. Even Job said he preferred going to sheol (hell or the grave) rather than staying on earth experiencing God's wrath.
If only you would hide me in the grave (sheol) and conceal me till your anger has passed! If only you would set me a time and then remember me! [Job 14 : 13 NIV]
The more modern translations have corrected the confusion caused by the KJV in translating 'sheol', but have usually allowed the confusion with 'hades' to remain. As an aside, it's interesting to note that the translators of the King James Version, steeped in the mainstream understanding of 'hell' as a place of never-ending torment, often translated 'sheol' as 'the grave' when referring to good people and as 'hell' when referring to bad people.
Summarising, 'hell' is correctly a place of concealment, a place hidden or invisible to others, the abode of the dead in relation to those still on the planet. So whenever we notice the word 'hell' or 'the grave' in our English Bibles, if it is a translation of 'sheol' or 'hades', we can be assured they are correct translations, provided we have the correct definition of 'hell' in mind.
The translation of 'sheol' and 'hades' is easy to sort out with a good Bible dictionary. The real problems arise when 'hell' is used to translate two other Greek New Testament words.
Since we have established that 'hell' (using its original old English definition) is a suitable translation of 'sheol' in Hebrew and 'hades' in Greek, it is unlikely to be a suitable translation of any other Hebrew or Greek words.
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Two other Greek words do have "a place of concealment, a place hidden or invisible to others" or "grave" connotation to them, although their meaning is much more specific than that.
They are "Tartarus" and "Gehenna".
Tartarus is described in 2 Peter 2 : 4 as the specific location where sinning angels are being held in primitive conditions awaiting their judgement. However, I feel the word would be better left as "Tartarus" in our English translations to convey that specificity.
Gehenna was the name of the rubbish dump outside the south-west wall of Jerusalem in the days of Jesus. It had a more ancient history than that, but it no longer exists today, except as a scenic park in a valley.
But in Jesus' day it was a public spot where the city's garbage, including the dead bodies of criminals, was incinerated. It was a filthy place that continued to burn day and night, and so was always available to perform its cremation duties.
Jesus referred to this place on about four occasions when speaking to the Jews living in Jerusalem and, because most of our popular English Bibles use the word 'hell' to translate the Greek "Gehenna" when translating these conversations, 'hell' has became known as a place of perpetual fire and destruction.
But Jesus was speaking to the Jews of His day advising them to shape up and obey the law of God they had been given, else they would risk being thrown into the rubbish dump and miss being part of the kingdom age He was trying to prepare them for.
He was no more telling them to literally pluck out an eye or literally cut off a hand as He was literally telling them that they would be tormented by fire for eternity.
But that didn't deter many of our best selling translations from using Gehenna to help them support their belief that hell is a place of eternal torment where most of God's creation will end up at the end of the ages.
So poor and biased translations supporting a traditional church doctrine have the institutional church giving God a bad name and making it guilty of character assassination of the Creator of the Universe. Who is the God of love who torments His wayward children with fire for eternity? Ugh!
Just as other place names are translated correctly in the Bible - Bethlehem as Bethlehem, Nazareth as Nazareth, etc., maybe our translators ought to do the same with Gehenna, Tartarus and Hades.
But if they really must use the word 'hell' somewhere, which is not really a place name in the Bible, then let it be used exclusively for Hades and hope their readers know its original Old English meaning.
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In Chapter 5 of The Really Good News About God, we discuss several possibilities of what might take place at the Great White Throne (GWT).
A careful analysis of John's account shows that some of the more adventurous guesses offered there are really quite likely.
In Revelation 20 : 11 - 15, we have the following:
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books (scrollets Greek: biblion) were opened. Another book (scrollet Greek: biblion) was opened, which is the book (absent in Greek text) of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books (scrollets Greek: biblion).
13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.
14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.
15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book (scroll Greek: biblos) of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
In verse 12 all the books mentioned were scrollets or small scrolls (Greek: biblion), but the one mentioned in verse 15 is the normal scroll (Greek: biblos).
The Book of Life clearly gets bigger, becomes a full-sized Scroll, during the Great White Throne judgement !
It seems that those who become believers by sight at the GWT are added to those already in the Book of Life, those who became believers by faith on planet Earth.
This raises many possible scenarios. Let's explore one of them.
Those whose names were included in the initial, smaller Book of Life (scrollet) would have been those who became believers by faith in their earthly existence, were raised in the first resurrection, and had been ruling with Christ for the 1000 years described at the beginning of Revelation 20.
And probably they are seated with Christ in the throne itself during this judgement event.
Those now resurrected and standing before the throne are those who had not previously known Christ, and therefore had not been alive during the millennium age. This was their first conscious moment since leaving planet Earth, knowing nothing of the kingdom rule of Jesus and the Body of Christ.
Those added to the Book of Life during the GWT judgement would have been those saved by sight there, those who became believers and responded to the gospel announced by Jesus during proceedings there. (A bit like the experiences of Pharisee Saul and Doubting Thomas.)
Those remaining, those not in the enlarged Book of Life (scroll), are maybe those who have also become believers by what they have now seen and heard, but remain unappreciative. (A bit like the demons whom James describes as believers who shudder.) These are sent to the Lake of Fire, God's holy rehab centre, to be immersed in the irresistible love of God, and so cleansed and purified, reconciled to God, ready for the step into eternity with all the previously saved.
I appreciate this is only one of several possible scenarios, but it is consistent with ...
God's plan "to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ";
The Lake of Fire being "the second death", the destruction of all that offends God; and
Death being "the last enemy" of God's to be destroyed, so that only life remains at the consummation of the ages.
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The Lake of Fire (LOF) is mentioned five times in the book of Revelation ..... Rev. 14 : 10 - 11; 19 : 20; 20 : 10; 20 : 13 - 15; and 21 : 8.
Many people have very firm views on what the LOF could be.
But since The Revelation is so full of symbols, what the LOF stands for will always be open to conjecture, depending on your view of God, as much as anything else.
Those who view God as a vengeful judge see the LOF as a place of horrible physical torment in flames of fire that last for ever and ever.
Properly translated, "for ever and ever" really should be "for the ages of the ages", but that doesn't alter the ugliness of this view very much.
I personally can't see how people are comfortable worshipping a God who has such horrible intentions for the majority of His creation.
Those who view God with a bit more mercy than that see the LOF as a place where people are annihilated and removed from existence rather than tormented.
Those who view God as a loving Father and the Saviour of the world see the LOF as the place where those whose names are not in the Book of Life are purified and made ready to move into eternity in fellowship with God.
Using this last view, I see the LOF as a reformatory for the rebellious.
Looking at the last reference from above, we see that John gives a definition of the LOF.
Revelation 21 : 8 says that the LOF is "the lake that burns with fire and sulphur".
The 'fire' is a symbol representing purification or cleansing or changing of form. Chemically, fire never destroys, it only changes the nature or form of things.
Wood that is burning in a lounge fire is never destroyed but is changed or converted to other substances like smoke, char, ash, heat, light, etc.
So fire in the LOF is a symbol for change or conversion of one form or nature into another - the reforming process of the reformatory.
The 'lake' indicates the size of the operation - not a small fireplace, or a forge or even a commercial furnace, but a huge expanse of conversion.
The 'sulphur' adds information about the character of the fire.
The Greek word that we translate as sulphur or brimstone is "theion", which is probably the neuter form of "theios" that means divinity.
The verb derived from "theion" is "theioo" which means "to make divine".
Putting all these together paints a picture of the LOF being a large scale purifying or reforming process that produces character of a divine nature.
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