Recovering God’s Holiness
Three recent occurrences are the occasion for this article. The first was a conversation with a good friend and respected colleague, a fellow soldier in the pro-life, pro-family and pro-faith wars. We were discussing the judgments of God in the Old Testament, such as when numerous Israelites were killed after the golden calf incident (Ex. 32). My friend expressed concern that in some of these situations, children and other seemingly innocent individuals were included in the judgment. His way of resolving this was to simply say that such stories were “later Jewish additions” to the Bible.
The second incident occurred the same day. A friend mentioned that a group of twelve Christians were gathered together recently at an office. At a break they were discussing pre-marital sex. Only one out of the twelve Christians felt that sex outside of marriage was wrong.
The third event happened two days later when the newspapers reported that the Church of England had decided to abandon the doctrine of hell and instead embrace some version of annihilationism. (Mind you, three different papers gave three different versions of the story, so I am not quite sure what the Church of England actually said. But the point is, hell is not a popular doctrine today, even in the churches.)
Thus this article. If there is one sentiment that best describes the secular world of today, it is that of tolerance, inclusivism, pluralism. The only “sins” today are judgmentalism, intolerance, and moral certainty.
The church of course is never far behind the world. It has bought into this climate of tolerance and openness. As an indication, ask yourself when was the last time you heard a sermon on hell in church? Or on sin? Or on God’s judgment, wrath, or holiness. These great biblical themes are all but lost in much of the evangelical church today. This is unfortunate, for as a number of scholars have pointed out, the holiness of God may well be the overriding theme of Scripture. Yes God is love, but never to the exclusion of his holiness and justice.
Diluting God’s Wrath
My friend’s solution to the perceived problem of God’s wrath is itself problematic. One main problem is the idea that Christians can pick and choose those portions of Scripture which they feel comfortable with. Thomas Jefferson followed this method: he took a scissors and cut out of the Bible all those parts which offended him (the supernatural and miraculous). But what about 2 Tim. 3:16: “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” To pick and choose Scripture at our own whim is both idolatrous and dangerous.
Another problem with this method is that it is often impossible to purge Scripture of objectionable passages without simultaneously losing the “good” bits as well. What does one do about Dt. 28, for example, which lists blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience in the same chapter? Or verses like Dt. 30:19?: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life that you and your children may live.”
The same can be said of the imprecatory Psalms (Psalms calling for God’s judgment on the wicked). Here cursings and blessings are mentioned in the same breath. We cannot, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, pick out “the bad bits” because they are hopelessly “intertwined with the exquisite things”.
Another problem with the “cut and paste” method of Bible reading is that the “bad bits” are not just confined to the Old Testament. Most of the objectionable parts of the Old Testament are repeated, endorsed and authenticated in the New Testament. Not only the apostles but Jesus himself mentions many of these passages that selective Christians disapprove of.
Take the imprecatory Psalms for example – Psalms like Ps. 69: “May the table [of the wicked] become a snare. . . May their eyes be darkened. . . Pour out your wrath on them. . . May they be blotted out of the book of life…” (vv. 22, 23, 24, 28). Jesus quotes this Psalm approvingly (John 2:17; 15:25; 19:28, etc.). Indeed, as one Old Testament scholar has pointed out, the New Testament quotes from the imprecatory Psalms more frequently than it does the rest of the Psalms. There are five references alone to Ps. 69:21 in the New Testament.
And as D.A. Carson has pointed out, “within the first fifty psalms alone there are fourteen passages where God is explicitly said to hate the sinner, or to be angry with the sinner”. (How Long, O Lord, p. 96) Thus while there is truth in the evangelical cliché, “love the sinner but hate the sin”, we need to take much more seriously God’s holy hatred of sin and those who pursue it.
Other New Testament writers also approvingly refer to judgment passages. Consider just one: Paul in 1 Cor. 10:1-12 warns the church of unbelief and rebellion by referring to three plagues or judgments of God in the Old Testament. Verse 8 reminds us of Nu. 25:1-9 where 24,000 are said to have died from God’s judgment; verse 9 appeals to Nu. 21:5,6 where it says many died from snakes sent by God; and verse 10 speaks of Nu. 16:41-49, in which it describes the death of 14,700 rebellious Israelites.
In all these cases the New Testament writers do not soften the Old Testament teachings, but use them to warn of more severe judgments to come. In addition, Hebrews 2:2 states that “every violation and disobedience [in the O.T.] received its just [or appropriate] punishment”.
Also, the quick and severe punishments meted out by God in the Old Testament find parallels in the New. The harsh judgment of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, or of Herod in Acts 12, are cases in point.
Obviously therefore, those who wish to chop up the Old Testament to rid it of judgmental or wrathful material will be taking big holes out of the New Testament as well. Such an expurgated Bible would be very slim indeed.
Australian theologian and Biblical scholar Leon Morris has said this about hell: “Jesus plainly taught its existence. He spoke more often about hell than he did about heaven.” Jesus warns about the horrors of hell for the unrepentant in at least 21 passages in the four gospels. And judging from the responses he received, teachings about hell were as unpopular then as they are today.
Perhaps the main reason we do not like the doctrines of God’s wrath, judgment, hell and the like is because we have lost the doctrine of sin. We no longer think of sin as horrible and heinous, so we no longer think it deserves stern censure. We need to be reminded again of God’s view of sin. One thinks of Is. 64:6 which speaks of our righteousness as being “filthy rags”. The English translation is too kind: the original language really says “menstruous cloth”. Not exactly a pretty picture of human “righteousness”. How much worse, then, in God’s eyes is human unrighteousness!
R.A. Torrey put it this way: “Shallow views of sin and of God’s holiness, and of the glory of Jesus Christ and his claims upon us, lie at the bottom of weak theories of the doom of the impenitent. When we see sin in all its hideousness and enormity, the Holiness of God in all its perfection, and the glory of Jesus Christ in all its infinity, nothing but a doctrine that those who persist in the choice of sin, who love darkness rather than light, and who persist in the rejection of the Son of God, shall endure everlasting anguish, will satisfy the demands of our own moral intuitions . . . the more closely men walk with God and the more devoted they become to His service, the more likely they are to believe this doctrine.”
Hell is but a reflection of the righteous character of God. We forget passages like Ps. 5:5 which says “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong”. Or Psalm 11: 5: “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates.” Yes, God does hate evil. We have lost that sense of hating sin, especially in our own lives.
The wrath of God is a natural part of God’s love and holiness. And lest we think that the wrath of God is somehow just an Old Testament doctrine, no longer relevant in the new covenant, bear in mind that our Lord Jesus experienced the wrath of God. The “cup of wrath” so often referred to in the Old Testament (Jer. 25:15-29; Ps. 75:2-7, etc.) is the cup that Jesus endured: “Shall I not drink the cup my father has given me?” (John 18:11). Yes, Jesus prayed that this cup would be taken from him (Mt. 26:39-44), but he endured it for our sakes. The doctrine of God’s wrath, of hell, of judgment, all make perfect sense in the light of Calvary.
The horror of sin can be seen by the radical remedy which God provided: the horrible suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. If we ever doubt the ugliness of sin, just look at the divine medicine for it: the cross of Calvary.
Many of us today have been battling “political correctness” in the world. Unfortunately we seem to have to equally battle “theological correctness” in the church today, even in evangelical churches. But this should come as no surprise. We have been forewarned. As Paul said in 2 Tim. 4:3,4: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Yet I do not wish to finish in a misleading fashion. Truly our God is a God of love. But as I said in the beginning, we need to affirm his holiness and justice as strongly as we affirm his love. We need to keep in mind that the good news of salvation always starts with the bad news of sin. It is only as we reflect on the horror of sin, that we can all rejoice that God’s anger lasts but a moment (Ps. 30:5) Our Lord loves us with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3; Hos. 2:19) while his anger passes quickly (Is. 26:20; 54:7,8; 57:16-19). The love and grace of God are wonderful things. We will only really appreciate them as we affirm the horribleness of sin and selfishness and the awful judgment they rightly incur.
Let me close with the words of Charles Spurgeon: “When men talk of a little hell, it is because they think they have a little sin, and they believe in a little Saviour. But when you get a great sense of sin, you want a great Saviour, and feel that if you do not have him, you will fall into a great destruction, and suffer a great punishment at the hands of the great God.”
To keep this all in balance, I must conclude with a quote from J.I. Packer: “To announce the reality of hell is a testing and gruelling task. The compassion and fellow-feeling that should mark all Christian communicators require us to do it, not with gloating and contempt, but with tears, if not in our eyes, then in our hearts.”
Blanchard, John, Whatever Happened to Hell? Evangelical Press, 1993.
Kaiser, Walter, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. IVP, 1988.
Kaiser, Walter, More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. IVP, 1992.
Lewis, C.S., Reflections on the Psalms. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958.
MacArthur, John, The Vanishing Conscience. Word, 1994.
Peterson, Robert, Hell on Trial. P&R, 1995.
Wenham, John, The Goodness of God. IVP, 1974.