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Dear Rob: Please don’t think I’m being snarky posting an open letter to you. But the issues you’ve raised over the last year or so remain vital, and an incident yesterday powerfully put me in mind to review a part of the wider conversations surrounding your recent work on heaven and hell. So permit me a few musings, not at your expense I hope but in dialogue with a topic in which you’ve engaged so many people.
Yesterday I made the mistake of clicking on an embedded link on a CNN newspage about the massacre in a Syrian village Saturday. The link took me to a 2-minute silent video. The footage toured the house of a family that had been slaughtered. It began grimly enough with a scene of 3 adults lying in pools of blood in a corridor. But then the camera panned into a bedroom where two little boys–perhaps 8 and 9 years old–were facedown on their beds, each with two bullet holes through their temples. The brains of the one child were spilling out the exit wound on the back of his head. Then we saw a little girl, perhaps 4, lying on her back in the kitchen her soft brown tresses looking like they had been lovingly brushed by her mother not long ago. She might have been asleep with her mouth slighltly parted. But the dark and clotted blood that had dried and caked around her little right ear told the true tale.
In your Love Wins book when you talk about hell, you mostly try to focus on the “hells on earth” that we create for ourselves. You wrote about Rwanda. And you’re right: there are places on earth that we turn into little hells of suffering and mayhem. But sometimes it seems as though you mostly want to limit your focus on hell to the Syrias and Rwandas of the world, as though we ourselves create a set of circumstances the likes of which God himself would be unlikely to create for anyone.
The problem with that line of thought–as Mark Galli points out in a book I just reviewed for Perspectives in the May issue–is that the hell on earth I saw in the video footage yesterday is a hell only for the victims of rank evil, not for the perpetrators (most of whom go on their merry way and sometimes end up doing very well for themselves, thank you very much). The barbaric animals who shot those dear children at close range–you could see the powder burns on the foreheads of the little boys so you know the killers were close enough to see the children’s eyes–got away with it, have been getting away with it, and may ultimately on this earth get away with it (even as the wicked mastermind of it all, Mr. Assad, remains ensconced in his palace).
You often ask in your book “Does God get what God wants?” The implied answer is “Of course!” and the only thing you supply in the book to fill in the blank as to what it might be that God wants is “God wants all people to be saved.” But God wants so much more, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he want justice? Isn’t that his primary message to Israel throughout the Old Testament? And did Jesus as God incarnate show any less interest in justice coming upon the earth? I have to believe God wants justice and although it’s true that God worked the ultimate justice by having the punishment for all sin land squarely on the shoulders of his Son, those who resist that sacrifice and who continue wantonly to pursue violence and murder need to be dealt with by God.
After my wife saw the pictures from Syria, she tearfully said what she’s said before: “I hope there’s a special place in heaven for children who suffer in this world.” I hope so, too. But I cannot squelch the thought that there may be also a hell–special places notwithstanding–for the brutes who carried out this weekend’s massacre in Syria and who do such things on a routine basis in this world.
I’ve never been some cheerleader for hell and I’m no fire-and-brimstone preacher. I’m with you on that one, Rob: we preach Grace, Good News. And if one day in the sweet hereafter heaven is a whole lot more crowded and hell more underpopulated than even many of our fellow Christians across history would have ever guessed, that will be a cause for rejoicing, no doubt about it.
But on some days, like yesterday, the hells on earth force one to consider the possible need for a hell somewhere else for those God-resisting, shalom-wrecking, child-murdering people who so high-handedly rupture all that God once made good. It’s not a pleasant thought and I don’t wallow in it. But just remembering that “love wins” in Christ is not quite enough sometimes to banish that thought, either.
Just thinking out loud here.