What's He Like?regarding eternal suffering
I have one message and those of you who know me have already smiled, maybe even rolled your eyes a little, 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 fully convinced that everything in our lives, our experiences, our relationships, our theology, beliefs, 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, 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 Relentless Redeemer on this side of life.”
Because of what I wrote, I was asked, “Can we be saved after we die?”
It’s a great question. One that many in the church are asking today.
But after weeks of in-depth conversations with academics, 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 ultimate question I was endeavoring to answer in my articles.
As I wrote,
“When it comes to hell, here’s the real issue for me, I don’t believe God is about punishment. 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 academics, theologians, pastors, and friends, have come down to one thing, a disagreement regarding the nature of God.
Punishment. 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 with humanity.
Each person believed punishment is a part of the nature of God.
And each person believed hell is the final, non-negotiable, 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.”
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. The disagreement isn’t, “What do we believe about hell, it’s “What’s He Like?”
Our disagreement is regarding 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. I believe this is perfectly revealed through Jesus on the cross. Love revealing 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. (from 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 on how I interpret scripture over the last several weeks 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 punitive. 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. My articles are littered with bible references.
What I am suggesting is, maybe the larger conversation the church is having regarding eternal suffering isn’t about who knows more bible verses about hell, maybe it’s about how 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.
Because of this punitive lens, many have strongly suggested that I am undermining the doctrine of salvation. And I understand the concern, anger, and even relational distancing.
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 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 Fathers 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 but 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 lead to deeper understanding, friendship and trust.
And for those with questions. I’m honored to run together toward discovering His affection, and in His affection, revelation.
I am grateful for all those I’ve met with. 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.
And to those who have rejected us intentionally or otherwise, I 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 to write.
What’s He 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 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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