The Love of God and the Logic of Hell
The questions in this small group guide relate to the sermon from Jan. 24, 2021. If your group has not had a chance to listen to the full sermon related to this discussion guide, they can find it in our sermon library. Rev. Adam Hamilton preached this week’s sermon.
Lord God, psychologists describe our proneness to practice “projection.” So maybe when we use some religious ideas to make you sound angry, vindictive, or cruel we are just projecting some of our own inner darkness onto you. Guide us as we study this week to see that your very essence is love, mercy and forgiveness, and that even our understanding of the final destination of those who reject you needs to reflect your character accurately. Amen.
- Pastor Adam said, “Hell is one of the ideas in Christianity that trips up many thoughtful people. Fear of hell may draw some people to faith, but for many the idea that a good, loving God would torture people for all eternity for failing to become a Christian, or for their sins and mistakes if they were a Christian, seems not just problematic, but contrary to the character of God. It seems neither loving, kind, merciful or just to torment people for all eternity.” Has the notion of God as one who tortures people eternally ever raised any questions in your mind? The pastor also noted that, in warning of judgment, “Jesus was warning religious people with each of these words, his followers specifically.” Why do you believe Jesus warned respectable, temple-going folk about judgment, but didn’t preach “fire and brimstone” to his day’s “sinners and tax collectors”?
- Read Isaiah 59:1-2, Revelation 16:9-11. For some, belief in “hell” includes the idea that God arbitrarily, angrily chooses to “send” some people there. Yet the Bible time and again said if people end up apart from God, it’s because of their choices, not God’s. Deuteronomy 30:19 pictured Moses appealing, “I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life.” What are some ways in which you have seen refusing to follow God’s path sow chaos in people’s lives? Have you ever realized that some action or attitude was out of harmony with God, and had to struggle with whether you would choose to “turn away” from it?
- Read Psalm 136:1-4, 2 Peter 3:8-9. The refrain in Psalm 136 used the Hebrew word hesed, which the CEB Study Bible called “one of the most important words in the Old Testament” and “a one-word summary of God’s character.” * 2 Peter 3 said God is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish.” The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “wants all people to be saved.” Does that sound like the kind of God who would be pleased to lock even bad people up for eternal torture? Why or why not?
- Read Romans 6:23, Revelation 18:7-8. The apostle Paul was quite clear to the Romans: humans do not have “eternal life” on our own. It is a gift from God, and the result of refusing that gift is death, not eternal torture. Revelation, chapter 18 said the wicked Roman Empire’s judgment came “in a single day,” and she was “consumed.” The Bible’s central focus (unlike some medieval writers and painters) was not a scary picture of hell, but an appealing picture of God’s saving love and grace. As scholar William Barclay wrote, “The Christian gospel does not in the first place offer men an intellectual creed or a moral code; it offers them life, the very life of God.” ** In what ways have you received God’s gift of a hope-filled quality of life as you have chosen to follow Jesus?
- Read Matthew 25:30 , Jude 1:12-13. Today’s readings are only two of several dozen passages that name “darkness” as God’s judgment on evil and evildoers. If God’s presence is life, then it made sense for Bible writers to write about God’s absence as death. If God’s presence is light, it made sense to write about God’s absence as darkness. Could it be that these physical images were less concerned with giving us a physical description of the fate of those who reject God, and aimed instead at helping us picture the terrible spiritual reality of a life devoid of God? Have there been times when you have felt as though you were walking in darkness?
- Pastor Adam said, “On that final resurrection and judgment day, the righteous dead would become a part of a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. But, according to the Book of Revelation, the unjust would be cast into the Lake of Fire which is there called the Second Death. I believe this means that they will finally be extinguished forever. They had an opportunity to live in a realm where there is endless joy and beauty and goodness and life. But instead, like a candle, they will be extinguished….
I’ve often been asked if I believe in hell. I do….there is a logic I find in the idea of hell. God does not force anyone to call upon him, to ask for forgiveness, nor to yield their will to his….I do believe hell is an expression of God’s love in creating a place for those who, in C. S. Lewis’ words, are “Rebels to the end.” I believe the torment there is neither a literal fire nor darkness, but the pain of living in a place without love, compassion, or mercy. But here’s the gospel truth: we are all like that thief on the cross, and all we have to do is call out to Christ, and he will deliver us.” How can you, individually and as a group, offer the beauty of the gospel to others rather than trying to terrify them with metaphorical images of hell?
Lord Jesus, if we persistently love darkness more than we love your light, the Bible tells us that you will, in great sadness, honor our choice. But it also tells us that when from our heart we cry out, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” you always stand ready to receive us and deliver us from the darkness. Send us from this study with that confidence filling our hearts and minds with your life-giving power. Amen.
* J. Clinton McCann, Jr., sidebar note “God’s Faithful Love” in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 845OT.
** William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series: The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, pp. 228.