What Is God Like?regarding eternal suffering
I have one message, and those of you who know me have already smiled, maybe even rolled your eyes, because you’ve heard me say it more than once.
God is love, and His love is always good.
He looks like Jesus, and we exist to grow sure in His affection.
I believe Jesus is what God looks like, and it doesn’t get clearer than Jesus on a cross.
God looks like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reconciling all humanity to Himself, not counting our sins, deceptions, behaviors, arrogance, distrusts, theological non-negotiables, condescension, abuses, best efforts, striving, confusion, or misunderstandings against us. Nothing, He holds nothing against us. (from 2 Cor 5:19) Isn’t that good news!?
Jesus revealed that God is love. Every attribute of God has its foundation in Love.
In the New Testament, there are only three nouns used to define God, He is Light (1 John 1:5), Life (John 1:4), and Love (1 John 4:7). Everything else is an adjective, simply attributes of His nature.
God is Righteous (Rom 3:21) Adjective.
God is Holy, (1 Peter 1:15) Adjective.
God is Sovereign (Matt 19:26) Adjective.
God is Just (Acts 2:7) Adjective.
And so on…
For me, any thoughts I might have regarding His adjectives or His attributes must come into alignment with His always-good love or I need to repent, I must change my thoughts.
I have a God lens. It is Love, Light, and Life.
And I believe everyone has a God lens.
And I believe our God lens is everything.
I am becoming convinced that everything in our lives, our experiences, our relationships, our theology, beliefs, and choices—everything is determined by what we believe about the nature of God’s love.
Over the years, I have written and shared on many subjects through my God lens; His sovereignty, our nature, grace, family, honor, sin, justice, relationship, salvation, trust, punishment, leadership; on and on I have shared my thoughts through my God lens.
Recently, through the same lens, God is love, His love is always good, and He looks like Jesus, I wrote a couple of articles on the subject of hell. These articles were released on our ministry, A Family Story’s, website. You can read them HERE & HERE
This is not the first time I’ve written on the subject of hell. I have an entire chapter devoted to it in my last book, God Is (Not) In Control, titled, Heaven and Hell.
But the most recent articles seemed to touch a nerve as questions, concerns, anger, and even relational distancing has impacted my family over the last several weeks because of what I wrote.
The main issue some folks have had with the articles is over my thoughts regarding our Father’s always-good love and His redemptive nature, particularly regarding what God is like after we die. Below is a brief synopsis of the articles.
“I believe the love of God pursues us after we die (Rom 8:38-39). Love doesn’t fail. God is love, and His nature doesn’t change simply because we reject Him. I have never claimed to know what that looks like after we die; I have simply suggested that I am more than open to the idea that God is not just a relentlessly reconciling Redeemer on this side of life.”
This idea raised a sincere question in the article’s comment section. “Can we be saved after we die?”
It’s a great question, one many are quietly and fearfully asking within the church today.
But after weeks of in-depth conversations with theologians, pastors, and friends, I think, “Can we be saved after we die?” may be the wrong question, or at least not the question I am most interested in discovering answers to. I think there’s a better question.
“What is God like?”
That’s the question I have been focused on for so many years. And, when it comes to hell, what God is like was the underlying and ultimate question I hoped to address in my articles.
As I wrote,
“When it comes to hell, here’s the issue for me, I don’t believe God is about retribution. Punishment says something about the nature of God I just don’t see in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.”
Essentially, my article suggested that any conclusion about hell that is punitive in nature is flawed.
Over the last several weeks, every disagreement around the issue of hell, with every person, be they theologians, pastors, and friends, has come down to one thing, a disagreement regarding the nature of God.
Retribution. That’s the disagreement; that’s the issue.
I am not summarizing or interpreting. Each person with whom I had an in-depth conversation stated that punishment was a part of how God interacted and dealt with humanity.
Each person believed retribution is a part of the nature of God.
And each person believed hell is a final, non-negotiable separation from His love—an eternal act of punishment.
What I found most interesting regarding these disagreements, while each person stated they believed punishment is a part of how God ultimately deals with us, many also wanted to assure me that punishment isn’t God’s primary focus; it isn’t His heart toward us.
One pastor friend, after confirming he believed hell was ultimately about punishment, said, “But we are not punishment focused,”
That caught my attention. In my opinion, to suggest we aren’t punishment focused but it is a part of the nature of God is a little like saying, “God carries a gun but we’re not going to focus on it because He rarely uses it… or at least not in this life…or, well, not often…or…”
Eventually, that thought breaks down to, “God carries a gun.” Period. Full stop.
And this is where the heart of the issue lies for me. I believe hell exists, but for me, hell has nothing to do with God and a gun.
A gun is a gun. Its implication is in its design. While a gun can provide a sense of safety and security, it’s a false sense because it does so through threats or acts of violence. It can only be used for good if the person holding it is actually willing to pull the trigger. And when it comes to God, if He pulls the trigger even once, then how can it not ultimately command all of our focus?
Here is what I have discovered; the disagreements I’ve navigated these last weeks on the issue of hell, they ultimately haven’t been about hell; they have been about what we believe about the nature of God and His love.
What is God like?
Our disagreement is fundamentally over our convictions regarding the nature of God and His love—it’s about our God lens.
I do not believe God carries or uses a gun. Not once, not ever.
While punishment has certainly been in humanity’s perspective, it has never been in God’s nature as Jesus revealed Him. On the cross, Jesus revealed that nothing separates us from Him; not death or life, angels or demons, not anything in the present nor anything in the future, there is no greater power than His love, nothing higher or deeper, there is nothing in creation that could separate me or anyone else from the love of God that was so beautifully and perfectly revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (see Rom 8:38-39)
I know many reading this may have questions regarding scripture that seems to clearly show God as a punisher. I have posted several articles over the last several weeks regarding how I approach and interpret scripture (you can read them HERE), but feel free to ask.
And I know many reading this may respond with biblical proof that I’m wrong, that God is most definitely retributive. Over the last several weeks, I’ve experienced many “biblical” rebuttals. These days, “biblical” seems to be the word many Christians use to say, “you’re wrong.” But please, feel free to note scripture. This is a safe place, and I may be wrong.
I am not suggesting we shouldn’t be “biblical” when it comes to hell. I love scripture—my articles are littered with references.
What I am suggesting—maybe the conversation the church is having regarding hell isn’t best served through debating scripture references; maybe it’s best served by revisiting the lens through which we interpret them. Maybe the lens through which we know God determines everything; everything regarding how we interpret the bible and then everything regarding our thoughts on hell.
I have discovered over the last several years, and more intensely and painfully in the last weeks, that there are many Christians who believe we are saved both by grace through faith in Christ AND ALSO by our belief in the power of eternal punishment.
The more convinced I become in the non-punishing reconciling love of God, the more strongly I’ve been confronted by those convinced God carries a gun. Many have suggested that I am undermining the doctrine of salvation. And I understand the concern, anger, relational distancing, and rejection.
If a person believes punishment is in God’s nature, that God pulls triggers after we die, that hell is His final act of eternal separation, then simply asking the question, “Can we be saved when we die?” is sacrilege and attempting to answer, sheer heretical lunacy.
Here’s the thing, if a person believes God carries a gun and, at the end of the day, He will use it on those who have rejected Him, then what I wrote is not something that person can afford to ignore. That’s why I believe some have chosen over the last weeks to distance themselves from me and even reject me and, through me, my family. And as painful as this has been for my whole family, I get it. If God is ultimately about punishment, then my suggestion that He is a relentless redeemer both now and forever is dangerous, reckless, and to be condemned.
So, to those I have concerned, angered, or put in a relational rock and a hard place, I am sorry. Please know you are loved whether we can agree or not. When I write or speak, I have one passion, to reveal my Father’s always-good love so that the reader or listener would grow in revelation, in trust, and have greater access to intimacy. I did not seek to offend, and I understand why my belief that God is not punitive and, therefore, hell isn’t about punishment has shaken so many to their core.
And thank you for reaching out. Concerns and anger are a part of iron sharpening iron; to be loved enough that one would share their concerns or to believe strongly enough that one could be angered, these are expressions of our humanity, and when honestly and humbly conveyed, these emotions can often lead to deeper understanding, friendship, and trust.
And for those with questions. We’re honored to run together toward discovering His affection and, in His affection, revelation.
We are grateful for all those we’ve met with. We love it when we can sit with someone across a meal or coffee and seek understanding without having to agree. It’s a powerful family that can disagree and still love one another.
And to those who have rejected us intentionally or otherwise, we forgive you.
I pray that they will be one… so the world will believe (from John 17:1). That was Jesus’ prayer; that we would know His love and in this knowing, reveal His love. That is my prayer as well.
I am a fellow traveler who is discovering God as Love, Life, and Light. So while there is certainly room for disagreement about what hell looks like, at the end of the day, I make no bones about my God lens. I have not hidden my Jesus hermeneutic. Nor will I. I will continue to believe that God is better than my ability to understand. And to that end, I will continue to live and write.
What is God like? That is my focus in everything. My greatest desire is to grow in my one message. And those of you who know me have probably smiled again, and this time definitely rolled your eyes.
God is love, and His love is always good.
He looks like Jesus, and we exist to grow sure in His affection.
May you grow sure.
Love you all. God bless!
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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There are two things in these verses that stand out to me, ‘creation’ and ‘in Christ’. These indicate to me that the subject of these verses is Christians (believers).
The Old Testament refers several times to ‘eternal sleep’, through that lens of God’s love, I lean towards an annihilation theology…
Side not on the subject of the’God love lens’, God forgives ’unknown’ sin…
Thanks for sharing!
I’m not a great scholar and by that I mean, I’ve done just enough reading on Annihilationism to get the concept.
I love time travel movies but even they get confusing. I do tend to think it’s better than Annihilationism and I’m convinced heaven is gonna be way cooler than the movie Interstellar. But how it works, thankfully that’s above my paygrade.
I love the wide-open talks about it though, especially when they include time travel, which I know, I brought up 🙂 Blessings!
I believe there is punishment, because the Bible talks about it, but it is not God doing the punishing. God does not send people to Hell, they go their willingly.
I wrote a song, “If You Don’t Want Him Now”, why do you want to go to Heaven… and be with Him forever?
I see Hell as an extension of God’s mercy, because the alternative would be for an un-transformed, un-regenerated Soul, to exist in His Holy presence, which would be infinity worse.
Your thoughts, thanks…
I believe punishment is certainly something we can perceive and experience, I just don’t believe it in His nature.
I wrote on hell and universalism in these two articles – they’re the ones that have gotten me in trouble with some believers.
I give my thoughts on hell in particular HERE – http://afamilystory.org//2019/10/does-hell-exist/
And I give a few more in the first article on Universalism HERE – http://afamilystory.org//2019/10/why-i-am-not-a-universalist/
Blessings and love from the Clarks!
Got it, I’ll look them over…
I agree that punishment is not God‘s nature, because, as you say, God’s nature is love and doesn’t fit with the base nature of punishment.
As I understand it biblically, we punish ourselves by rejecting that Love; By rejecting God’s nature of love. Just as in the physical realm there are consequences of going against God’s created nature, there are consequences for going against God‘s spiritual nature.
As created sovereign beings, God is powerless to force us to make right choices, however, by his infinite grace and mercy, he has the power to forgive us for our wrong choices (sin); which is provided through His Son Jesus Christ.
With all that said, I don’t think the fear of Hell before death, or the full knowledge of God after death, will change the mind of an arrogant prideful human being who has rejected the full knowledge of God on this side of eternity.
Again, if we don’t want a relationship with Jesus now, why would we want to have one later, if not by the fear of God when we see Him face to face? But, the fear of God, is not the love of God; or is it?
Great article, so many people are having a difficult time understanding God’s love in relation to eternal punishment, the two appear to be an oxymoron, one may even wonder if God is schizophrenic. Thank you for having the conversation. I have never found being scared of Hell a good motivation. I do however, find having a relationship with a loving father very enticing. We need more brave pioneers like you to push the conversation forward. We need to be careful of losing the story of the Bible in exchange for systematic theology. (The Blue Parakeet, by Scot McKnight is one of the best books I’ve read on this).
Cheers my friend.
Yeah, a good and loving Father is the most transformative revelation on the planet. I’ve heard of the Blue Parakeet, but haven’t read it. Thanks for sharing. Also, thanks for the encouragement. Miss the long convos we had back in the day. Love ya bro.
I see what you’re saying. I don’t know what it looks like after we die, but in this life, I would suggest that most if not all who reject God don’t, “have the full knowledge of God.”
I do believe we have the ability to reject Him but most of us (I can speak with absolute authority when it comes to me) have a very small understanding of just how good His love is. We don’t fully know Him.
When it comes to rejecting Him I would suggest most aren’t rejecting who He truly is, they are rejecting some distorted understanding of who He is. Distorted by their sin or the sins of those around them; distorted by those who have painted God with a controlling brush. Distorted by parents and teachers and abusers and hell preachers and so on and so on…
So many are not rejecting God, they are rejecting an angry Lord or disappointed Master, or any other variation of a controlling sovereign. They don’t fully know Him.
For me, who gets in and who doesn’t can’t be predicated on some decision we make regarding our understanding of who He is.
We have free will but I think you’re on to something when you write about fully knowing Him. I think the more we know Him, the less likely we reject Him. And it’s His kindness that leads us to repentance. I believe in free will but I believe it’s way better than how we teach it because He is way better than how we know Him.
CS Lewis had great insight into this when it came to his salvation. (from Surprised by Joy)
“The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.”
I would say it this way, His love experienced, His grace encountered, His Kindness discovered is our liberation.
Lewis continued describing his salvation moment, writing that his choice to follow God was an act of free will. But had he rejected God, it would have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.
In other words, he didn’t fully know God.
… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…
To the question you presented, “if we don’t want a relationship with God now, why would we later?” I would write that I don’t know any whole person who wouldn’t want a relationship with Him now. “Whole” is the keyword.
“If your eyes are healthy, your body is full of light…” Matt 6:22
I don’t know how it happens after we die but I like Robin Parry’s analogy of how a good Father interacts with someone who isn’t thinking right, who isn’t whole or seeing things healthily.
“Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door.”
I don’t have any definitive thoughts on how it all works after we die. But I’m continuing to learn how it works here and now. I know there is heaven and hell here and now. And I know that His kindness leads us to change the way we think so we might be set free and transformed. I am convinced He is a good Dad who can break through our broken ideology, misunderstanding, and sinful choices to heal our minds and reveal Himself more fully so we, like CS Lewis, in a perfectly free act, choose Him.
My heart is that we would more fully know Him, that we would more fully see Him so we might freely choose Him. I know that’s your heart as well.
Bless ya man!
Good concise thoughtful response. Thank you.
I love theological discussions about my God and Savior because it either grounds me deeper or challenges me to move – you, along with others, have moved me…
Appreciate you, Lee, appreciate your grace and generous thoughts. I enjoy theological discussions as well. Thankful for you. Thanks for the encouraging words. Praying joy and grace over your 2020!
Thank you. Since coming face-to-face with Jesus almost 30 years ago, I’ve wandered through much of our Western, theological landscape, often wrestling with these tough questions and sometimes getting myself into trouble for it. Until a few years ago, I was largely unaware that our Orthodox brothers and sisters, as well as the early Church Fathers had so much to contribute to the conversation. Having a few trusted friends to discuss things with openly, has been a gift. The Gospel is more beautiful and mind-blowing to me than ever. Your writing has contributed to that.
I have some good orthodox friends who have greatly encouraged me over the last years. And the particular discovery of how our early church Fathers interpreted scripture has been so incredibly encouraging as I’ve leaned into His goodness.
It is most incredible to have trusted friends to discuss openly with and to challenge and encourage all along the way. It truly is a “more beautiful and mind-blowing gospel” every day!
Praying grace and wonder over your 2020.
Thanks for the encouragement!
Well written (as per usual) and I can appreciate your point of view. Your teachings have always intrigued me, made me think and often had me saying, “YES, finally someone that gets it!” (I once wrote a post titled God is NOT in Control, only to find out about a year later that you existed and had a book by that name!) I haven’t had enough of a brain to chew on this particular topic yet, but I intend to chew on it for a while, if for no other reason than to seek understanding and fine-tune my own theology.
My favorite part of this whole post though, was this: “I love it when I can sit with someone across a meal or coffee and seek understanding without having to agree. It’s a powerful family that can disagree and still love one another.” THAT is what is so vital, and something we have always believed as a family. Appreciate you (and your fam) and we’re so thankful to have you (in a small way) in our lives!
Family is what this thing is all about. Amen. That is Karen and my heart, it’s really the only thing that moves us. Thanks for the encouragement.
I too am chewing on these new thoughts and continuing to grow and trust He is good regardless of my understanding. Grace over you guys, lot’s of love from the Clarks!
Mate ..I just read this and my 💓 breaks for you and your family…. By what I’m reading you’ve lost fellowship with friends…. Regardless of the topics of discussion etc(my thoughts are very similar), to lose that is so so sad…
I guess it touched me because I’ve traveled similar roads and lost friends because I believe God is better than I think.
So, I write this merely to say that from my family to yours, we love you guys although never having met….. and I’ll pray for you and for his grace to cover each situation that arises
Keep sharing, Keep loving and keep walking in the manner you have been….
Also… Your responses to people on social media are out standing… You display grace and kindness with each comment…..
I’ll subscribe to your posts (my wife already has been)… And I’ll continue to hold you up to Jesus for strength
Thanks so much for the encouragement and grace-filled words! So thankful!
There will be a day when we find ourselves on your side of the planet and won’t that just be amazing! Thank you for reaching out, for the prayers and great kindness you have shown.
Lots of love from the Clarks!
Thanks for having the ‘nads to write about this. I think we are at the point in this current Reformation to look at every aspect of what we believe and why. Asking ourselves who taught me this and is it actually biblical has been a big thing in my life these past few years. Hell is one of those issues I have yet to tackle publicly yet have done so personally. Thanks for being a leader who leads and digs into the hard questions. Ultimately it boils down to God is Good. Period. Our job (if that is a job) is to find out what that looks like.
Blessings from Canada!
Thanks for the encouragement. I agree. I think we are at a point where the conversation is happening whether leaders are ready or not. As the church continues to awaken to the perfection of our Father’s always-good love, the emotional, spiritual and intellectual disparity in the evangelical teaching of a punitive hell is exposed.
I think it really is something on His heart. It certainly has become something I’m looking for greater revelation on.
I do think His goodness has been maligned long enough with the current teaching on hell. And I feel this stronger today than two months ago. And almost completely by accident haha.
Blessings to you as well, grace and joy over your 2020!
Thank you so much for courageously sharing the truth! I see so many sweet Christians that are tormented not experiencing Abba, Jesus and Holy Spirit’s Peace, Love, Joy, goodness! It is sad now their kids are going through hell too. I feel like I can relate so much as it was a family story for us too, always encountering God’s amazing Grace and sweet love, ectascy Joy….then all of that crashing down because of the fear of eternal punishment. Jason you have been such a blessing from the Lord to all of us! Thank you and please continue to share. Our family loves you all and appreciate your heart for the Love, Goodness, Glory of God to be revealed to Poppas Sons and Daughters! It is time that we start living loved, knowing all that Jesus finished on the cross for us. My Father Tony who experienced an NDE and saw Jesus, and came back to share about the bliss, peace that he could never forget would say, we are loved more than love can even imagine. Bless you Jason and family. We are so grateful for more of God’s kids sharing this glorious pure gospel with the world.
Wow wow! So thankful for you and the incredible encouragement! It is such a joy and honor to be friends from a distance and watch how Father loves on and through you guys! You are His favorites, His beloved.
Love the story of your Father Tony, “we are loved more than love can even imagine” haha, that’s amazing! His Love is beyond all we can ask or imagine, that’s the good news!
Bless you, guys, grace, and joy over your 2020. Thanks again for the encouragement – love you guys.
Jason, I wonder if your god lens isn’t just a pair of rose colored glasses. People have always made gods to their own liking. Historically, God has eventually pulled out His gun and shot them. I can’t help but believe that what God says about himself trumps all of our “god lens” observations. I know this sounds harsh, but it takes a bright light to cut through all the smoke you’re generating. I know God loves you and I know you want to love Him but can you love Him even if He offends your sensitivities? I don’t expect this to stay on your site for long but that’s ok. It was to you.
Unkindness, offensive or graphic language, or argument just for the sake of argument is really the only comments that we would pull off the site. You haven’t offended my sensitivities.
I think my ‘God lens’ is different than your ‘God lens.’
Historically, man has given God the credit for all kinds of horrific things.
Historically, and theologically, man has put a gun in God’s hand and given Him credit for all the pulled triggers: Natural disasters, wars, sickness, poverty; Historically man has attributed these things to God.
But, historically Jesus revealed that God played no part in the destruction of man.
Historically, Jesus revealed He had not “come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:56).
When it comes to what He’s like, my ‘God lens’ is Jesus on a cross revealing His heart for us and our value to Him.
You are correct, it does take a bright light to cut through all the smoke. Jesus is that bright light. God is love, and He is way better than we think He is.
The goodness of God has been offending the sensitivities of man’s understanding since the fall, mine included.
There is one constant in my life, God is love, just like Jesus, and better than I think He is. If those are rose-colored glasses, then I’m guilty as charged.
Don, I am wide open to being offended by God, but in my life, when I have been offended by God, it’s not been by how “bad” God is, it’s been by how good He is in light of how poorly I thought of Him.
Whenever I have been offended by God, it’s because He is better than how I have historically perceived Him. And when that’s happened, I’ve repented. And then somewhere along the way I’ve written about my discovery.
I continue to grow ever-more convinced in His always-good love. And I’ve found sometimes that’s offensive. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and hope my response doesn’t offend.
God is always about redemption, ” God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. God sends no one to hell. Those who refuse God’s majestic grace choose an eternal separation from God, which grieves God. God has done everything possible so that all might be saved, except take away free will. So no God is not about punishment. He is about creating an eternity free where only righteousness exists. Because he is a good, good Father he cannot allow anything to remain that would harm his children.
Hey Matt, appreciate your thoughts!
I know them well as I once shared them, but over the last 15 years, my thoughts have changed, widened, become more inclusive.
I’m with ya, free will is a big deal, I don’t know how love works without it. That said, I think it might still be a big deal on the other side of this life, when time runs out.
What if God is a relentless redeemer in this life and the next? What if grace isn’t constrained by time? What if transformation is a journey? What if justice is about reconciliation?
These thoughts and more have led me into a hopeful view of eternity. I don’t have any certainties, just hope.
Anyway, appreciate you.
Bless ya man!
Jason, love your writings. Been walking a similar path that you have been.
Maybe another question to ask here regarding punishment is the question of evil.
Does evil exist? Why did our sovereign God allow it into existence?
Did God cease to be loving, or does he cease to be loving by permitting evil into the universe?
Does evils existence require a resolution by our soveign God?