Apr 2, 2008

Justice, Forgiveness, and Transformation

By Dave Hunt

The Bible declares, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." After the creation of all else, God said, "Let us make man in our image....So God made man in his image." He then created Eve, a wife for Adam, and gave them the easiest command possible: of the innumerable trees of delicious fruit He had planted in the Garden paradise, there was only one of which they were not to eat: "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gn 2:9). It could have borne any variety of fruit. There was no spiritual power in the fruit of this tree any more than in any other fruit just like it.

The command not to eat of that particular tree was a test of His creatures' obedience. Disobedience even in such a simple thing would be rebellion for which they would be cut off from God, the giver of life, resulting in physical and spiritual death and expulsion from His presence forever.

Critics find it incredibly cruel that eating forbidden fruit should result in today's world of painful and deadly diseases, poisonous insects and reptiles, the suffering of innocent babies and children, wars, murders, rape, theft, and other horrors that continue, in pain and sorrow, to spell out human history. Yet Adam and Eve's seemingly insignificant act was done in defiance of their Creator. The rest, as they say, is history--the history of persistent rebellion against the God who created mankind to be the recipients of His love and blessing.

Here we are today, 6 billion-plus little egos, reaping the awful consequences of our own selfishness. We cannot blame God for today's world but only ourselves. This is not the world God made but the one we have made in our defiance of Him.

It is said that President Bush is a born-again Christian who prays on his face before God every morning. Yet Bush calls Islam a "religion of peace," even though it is the most vicious religion in history, responsible for the slaughter of untold millions--a slaughter that continues today worldwide. How can Bush be a true Christian and tell such a lie, not once but repeatedly? He calls Muhammad (the founder of this murderous "faith" and himself a murderer of many) a prophet of the true God-and the Qur'an the Word of God! Bush can hardly be ignorant of the fact that sixteen times the Qur'an denies that Jesus is the Son of God. It also denies that He died on the Cross for the sins of the world, denies the resurrection, and every other Christian doctrine.Yet Bush praises Islam?

Where is the practical evidence in everyday leadership that Bush is following Christ with his whole heart and not just playing both sides for political purposes? The rebellion that began with Satan in heaven and spread to Eden is rampant in America and worldwide. Neither God nor Christ is honored in the United Nations. What country's leaders actually seek and follow the guidance of the Creator of all? America is right where Israel was when God lamented, "Judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter" (Is 59:14).

As Creator of His universe, God must rule. Satan led a cosmic rebellion in heaven, taking many angels with him. Tragically, man followed this insurrection that God will not tolerate. No ruler can allow anarchy--this is why treason warrants the death penalty. How infinitely worse is a revolt against the Lord of the Universe!

God has written His moral laws in every human conscience (Rom 2:14,15). We each know when we continue the rebellion. Sin is high treason against the Lord of the Universe. Thus God told Adam and Eve that in the day they rebelled against Him they would "surely die." All of their descendants have likewise failed the "obedience test."

The Bible warns, "The wages of sin is death" (
Rom 6:23). If treason against an earthly government warrants the death penalty, how much more would high treason against the Lord of the Universe warrant eternal separation from the Life-giver! Jesus himself decreed for rebels eternal banishment from His presence into "outer darkness [where] there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

Does God sentence us to a severe but temporary punishment, then welcome us into heaven as having been "purged" of our sin in physical flames? On the contrary, the Bible says that Christ "by himself purged our sins" (Heb 1:3). If we could be purged of sin in any other way, then why did Christ die on the Cross? This erroneous idea of being purged of sin by torment in fire is common to both Roman Catholicism and Islam. The latter's concept of hell sounds as though Muhammad borrowed it from Catholicism's purgatory.

In Catholicism, the "purging" occurs in a place called purgatory, invented by Pope Gregory the Great in A.D. 593. Roman Catholicism declares that if one has not suffered sufficient "sorrows, miseries and trials of this life" then "expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments..." ("Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences," Vatican II).

The idea that physical fire consuming one's body could have a morally purifying effect (affirmed by both Catholicism and Islam) is not only heresy but unreasonable. Evangelicals, too, accept the idea of torment in physical fire as a fitting eternal punishment for moral and spiritual rebellion against God. That concept has numerous problems.

Bodily immersion in fire (as Islam, Catholicism, and many evangelicals propose) would cause such unbearable pain that it would be impossible to have a moral or rational thought. There couldn't even be a sincere regret for sins committed-only an overwhelming rage against the "God" who would torture in this manner and the desperate promise of anything in order to get relief. Of course, promises made under such duress would be worthless!

If those in the Lake of Fire have physical bodies (which the rich man in hell did not), their bodies would be consumed instantly. Thus, the "God" torturing them would have to instantaneously and continuously reconstitute their bodies to maintain the physical torment. This is the hell of Islam: "...cast into the Fire: As often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise" (Surah 4:56). The body is much more than skin, so this makes no sense. Yet Catholics and even some evangelicals have a similar view.

The question is often asked, "What about the bodies of evildoers mentioned in John 5:28-29? And what about 'I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God....The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them' (Rv 20:12,13)? Doesn't that sound as though their bodies have been resurrected?" No, it couldn't be. Nothing is said in these passages about "the dead" having bodies. How could those standing before God in judgment be described as "dead" if they had been raised body, soul, and spirit? Only through Christ's resurrection is death conquered. The bodies of the redeemed alone partake in that victory.

The fact that the dead are "judged...according to their works" (Rv 20:12) surely means nothing unless they are punished "according to their works." How could that happen through the torture of being thrown into the Lake of Fire? Will Hitler be in a hotter section? But how could physical bodies suffer greater or lesser heat in the split second of consumption? And how could degrees of physical torture distinguish between sins of so many different kinds and the motivation behind each? Physical flames could not do that.

The rich man in hell did say he was tormented in a flame; and death and hell will one day be cast into "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels....The lake of fire...where the beast, and the false prophet...shall be tormented...for ever and ever" (Mt 25:41; Rv 20:10,14). But the "devil and his angels" have no physical bodies, so how could physical flames, to which they would be impervious, have been prepared for them? The rich man's body was in the grave, not in the flames of hell, even though he spoke of his tongue.

Certainly, the fire that shall "try every man's work of what sort it is" (
1 Cor 3:13) is not physical. It must be the "fire" of God's justice, holiness, purity, and truth that exposes motives and would surely torment the conscience of the damned forever. This alone could constitute the flames in the Lake of Fire. No longer is any excuse plausible even to the most perverted. With no tree to hide behind, no fig leaf to cover, and standing naked before God, the flame of His justice burns the conscience with supernatural conviction. That eternal torment will be beyond anything we could imagine.

The Qur'an has far more to say about hell than does the Bible. Qur'anic descriptions are vivid and terrifying. Hell is for those who reject the teachings of the Qur'an (Surah 5:86). And like Rome's purgatory, every Muslim must spend at least some time in hell (S 19:71,72). Some "will abide therein forever" (S 2:217), while others will be delivered after they have sufficiently suffered in the flames: "Whoso is removed from the Fire and is made to enter paradise, he indeed is triumphant" (S 3:185, etc.).

Of the rich man, Jesus said, "In hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments" and begged for a drop of water to be placed on his tongue (
Lk 16:23,24). That strange request betrayed confusion between the physical and spiritual/moral, since his body and its tongue were rotting in the grave. Having sought pleasure, joy, and fulfillment in the physical alone to the exclusion of the moral and spiritual, the rich man was apparently locked into that delusion for eternity.

Why wouldn't torment in the Lake of Fire bring the most hardened sinner to repentance and thus to salvation? As already noted, if physical, the pain would be too severe to allow any rational thought, much less a genuine free-will response to the gospel, even if offered. Biblically, it is too late. After death comes "judgment" (
Heb 9:27), not a second chance.

Every parent knows that a child caught in disobedience will tearfully repent and promise the moon to escape punishment. The same is true of criminals. I helped a former chairman of the Federal Parole Board write his biography. He learned that prisoners begging for parole could bring one to tears with their apparently sincere promises to "go straight" and never return to prison. Yet very few fulfill such promises. Prisons have revolving doors, with a high percentage of "graduates" returning to continue the lesson they never learned.

The United States, with by far the highest per capita church attendance in the world, also has the highest percentage of its population behind bars at any time. This reflects both the fact that many criminals live more luxuriously in prison than they did in the outside world-and that prison sentences for criminals are not biblical. Instead, God requires restitution to the victim, and that has a morally restorative effect for the offender. Of course, most people never commit a crime that sends them to prison, but they could be engaging secretly in adultery, fornication, lust, homosexuality, envy, pride, jealousy, etc., and "repent" only when caught.

A number of high-profile religious leaders, both Catholic and evangelical, have within the past few years been exposed for committing horrible sins and have supposedly publicly repented, some with tears. The shame is hard to recover from and the suspicion can never be removed that no matter how sincere the repentance may seem to be, it didn't come because the one exposed was truly repentant but was merely embarrassed at being caught. If the sin had remained hidden, would the person have come forward to repent, or would he have continued to enjoy the sin in secret? God alone knows the answer to that vital question (Jer 17:9).

There is no way for any sinner, no matter how repentant, to cleanse his heart! God knows that we cannot change from what we are to the new creation He wants us to be. For God to justly forgive, the penalty must be paid. Since it is infinite and pronounced by God upon all mankind, no one but God himself could pay it. But that would not be just, because He is not one of us. So God became a man through the virgin birth to take our place under His wrath, paying the penalty for everyone's sins so that all could be justly forgiven.

The penalty of eternal death having been pronounced by God even He cannot change. Why? Whatever God says is a reflection of His holy character. For God to go back on His word even once would undermine His perfection. If He could change His mind once, why not twice, or three times-or any number of times? If He only once broke His Word, we could never again rely upon what He says. The possibility would always remain that He might change His mind again-and again.

But this is impossible: "I am the Lord, I change not....For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven" (
Mal 3:6; Ps 119:89).

In contrast, Allah says, "Such of our revelations as we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring (in place) one better or the like" (Surah 2:106).

The redemptive work that Christ accomplished on the Cross is the foundation of our faith and for that very reason it is the object of continual attacks aimed at discrediting it. Islam, in the Qur'an, denies that Christ is God come as a man (though it affirms the virgin birth) and denies that He died on the Cross, much less that He paid or even could pay the penalty for others (Surah 4:157-8). The very concept of Christ, the sinless One, dying in the place of sinners is attacked not only by Islam but by atheists who claim it violates the principles of justice.

In Romans 3:21-26, Paul argues the justice of Christ's death as the substitute for all mankind. His conclusion sounds as though he has fully proved it: "...that he [God] might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (v. 26). Paul gives no explanation why this, which seems so contrary to all human reason, could be true.

To understand, consider Barabbas and Paul. The former was the only one who ever lived who could say that Christ literally died in his place. What a testimony he could have given! But Christ's death in his place effected no transformation in his heart but merely set that criminal free to live for himself. In contrast, Paul testified, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

Those who truly believe on Christ as Lord and Savior are accepting His death as though it were theirs. The life that one once aspired to live for self has been crucified with Christ, and His life has been accepted in exchange. Faith in Christ effects a miraculous transformation in the believer's heart that can only be described as being "born again...of the Spirit" (Jn 3:3-8). Those who do not know Christ in this way can receive Him by faith right now and begin this new life that will last for eternity!