One problem all believers encounter in our walk of faith is facing issues in our thinking we can’t seem to work through. Maybe it’s a “theological” problem we can’t figure out. Maybe it’s some verse we can’t understand. Maybe it has to do with our Christianity, or even our own brains. We’ve all been there.
More and more though, I’ve been thinking about how often these problems in our thinking come from getting caught in one small perspective, one that doesn’t help us solve the problem, and then, just getting stuck there working away at a knot we can’t untie. (Or worse yet, we may just give up.)
This is especially true when it comes to problems in our understanding of God and the Bible. For instance, a couple months ago I was in a conversation with a friend about the Bible’s teaching on God’s wrath against those who die without repenting of their sin and trusting Christ. Hell. In the course of the conversation we hit a point where this idea came up: If we are God’s children, and God is our father, how could the traditional understanding of hell be correct? Some people might say, “Take even someone like Hitler–if I’m his father, I might want him to be punished, but to suffer for eternity? I couldn’t wish that on my son?”
Right here is the crux of the issue. When we frame the question this way (“Would a Father want his son to suffer for all eternity?”), it’s hard to find a way back to what the Bible clearly teaches. It can seem like the Bible is contradicting itself. Or maybe we just got it all wrong?
But no, here is one of those times when perspective is crucial. Specifically, we’ll help ourselves in our reading and thinking if we realize that–God being who He is and we being who we are–it is often impossible for us to see all there is to see from a single perspective or metaphor (such as “God=Father, Humans = Children”). This is why, for many truths, God uses several pictures to describe what we need to know. These pictures are not identical, but they are complementary. They inform each other. And the more of them we can try to hold in our mind at the same time, the closer we’ll be to the actual nature of things.
Take, for instance, the Bible’s teaching on Hell. In scripture, God is not only seen as a Father to children. There are other images used as well–Judge, King, Bridegroom, and Shepherd immediately come to mind.
So let’s look at the question of eternal punishment from each of these scriptural perspectives (and I encourage you to search the scriptures yourself to see if I’ve misrepesented anything here):
Imagine a Judge presiding over the case of a proven, guilty, criminal. This man has been caught offending in the worst ways, against both the helpless and the highest authorities, and has proven to be incurably, consistently evil in what he does. What’s more, he shows no remorse and gives every indication he’ll continue this life of crime if he is free. What will the Judge do?
Imagine a King who has brought before him a traitor and rebel against his rule. This man has not only publicly refused to acknowledge the King’s authority, he has continually gathered others to stage insurrections and challenges to the King’s administration. If left free, he will certainly continue his campaign to subvert and overthrow the rule of the King. What will the king do?
Imagine a Bridegroom who encounters a man who has been trying to seduce his bride-to-be. This man constantly discourages her from believing in the Groom’s love, or even that he’ll ever come marry her. What will the Groom do?
Imagine a Shepherd, who catches a wolf who has been ravaging his flock. The wolf has stolen and eaten many sheep. What will the Shepherd do?
And while we’re at it, take the biblical image of God as Father. When it comes to final judgement, the picture would not be something like a father casting his children into suffering, but more like: a Father encounters, at his door, someone who wants to force entry into his house and trouble his family. If this man gets in, he’ll bring destruction to the house and the children. What will the Father do?
Do you see how these images are helpful in understanding the depth of Scriputre’s teaching on God and Humanity? Now, for even more of the picture, add the attributes of God to each of these images, and imagine that we’re talking about a perfect, totally righteous, all-knowing Judge, King, Shepherd, Groom, Father.
The more biblical data we bring to bear on any question, the more we can start to see our way out of some of these hard questions.