While some “cultural” Christians and others recoil at any notion of divine wrath–after all, God is love–the more Biblically literate understand the proper place of God’s retributive justice in the grand scheme of things. Most Christians understand how a doctrine of divine retribution serves as a warning to those who are unsaved, but it would appear that a far fewer number comprehend that the idea of divine retribution–which encompasses, among other things, a belief in Hell–affords the believer with considerable hope and comfort. At the very least, they seem unwilling to express that understanding.
Ordinary people want to know
Perhaps their silence reflects due caution. After all, what critic hasn’t already asked a thousand times, “How could a loving God have created a place called Hell?” Perhaps a reluctance to talk of Hell in any way that might be misconstrued as a bit gleeful is well considered. In my own experience, however, away from the “ivory towers” in which the critics ply their trade, ordinary people are asking just the opposite question: “Why does a loving God take so long to bring justice to hurting people?”
It may be that the events of September 11, 2001, have caused the majority of Americans to reconsider for themselves which is the more important question to ask. After all, what civilized person did not cry out to God for justice on that day, when a band of Islamist terrorists brutally murdered about three thousand people in Lower Manhattan, rural Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.? If there were calls for understanding toward the perpetrators, they were understandably drowned out.
My experience suggests that it is not just the headline-making stories that provoke questions in ordinary people. What loving parents would not cry out for justice upon seeing disappointment in their children’s eyes when the children find that their hand-crafted outdoor decorations have been stolen away in the night? It seems a trivial matter, to be sure, but how do you explain the depravity in a human heart that would wantonly steal the joy from the heart of a little child? Indeed, our questions are shaped by our experiences. And right now, it would appear, we do not have the luxury of questioning Hell.
Vengeance is God’s responsibility
Actually that last incident is what happened to my family one brisk, late autumn morning. My wife broke the news: “Someone has stolen all our decorations.” After a few seconds of commiseration, I responded, “Well, that’s what they made Hell for.” Okay, so my attitude at that moment may not have been wholly sanctified. In fact, a very necessary emotional “reset” did admit a more compassionate response soon afterward. Still, I knew there was more than a kernel of truth in what I had said. After all, every evil act, however it may be directed against another person, is yet a sin against God. “Against You, You only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). My wife stood in silence for more than a few seconds, before finally responding in a matter-of-fact tone, “That’s right—that’s what they made Hell for.”
At that moment we both knew everything would be all right. In fact, both of us did get on with our day, happy for the good time we had enjoyed the night before, working together as a family to put the last touches on those festive pieces. See, we cry out for justice. It is built into our very constitution. We are made in the image of God and, among other things, God is just. That is why God answers our pain both with a precept and a promise: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). In other words: While you may think like Me in brief moments of moral clarity (you are made in My likeness), do not suppose that you can usurp My place (you are not Me). I am God, and you are not.
So knowing that God has already promised to avenge my enemies is all the reason I am given for not striking back. I may desire vengeance upon an unjust enemy all I want, but I may not act out that wish—it is for God to act out, on His turf and in His own time, either through divinely appointed authorities (Romans 13:3) or directly by Himself. Now, if all that musing has had an unsettling effect upon the reader, please just reread Romans 12:19. It is very much a part of New Testament teaching.
It’s okay to ask for retributive justice
A view of retributive justice has always been difficult for us to process in this grace-enlightened age. In some quarters, Christian leaders would have us believe that all are saved in the end (universalism). Others would have us believe that lost people are, at the very least, spared the pain of eternal suffering (annihilationism). Still others are calling for restorative (as against retributive) justice within our nation’s temporal penal system. Very few people, it seems, have a stomach for retributive justice, even from the side of God.
Perhaps that is why some Biblical expositors attempt to relegate the so-called imprecatory psalms to a bygone day. In moments of despair, and owing to relentless pursuit by his enemies, David cried out to God for divine retribution: “Arise, O Lord; Save me, O my God! For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; You have broken the teeth of the ungodly” (Psalm 3:7). Owing to a mix of their high view of Scripture and a dogged measure of discomfort at its message, some Christians seem compelled to come to the Bible’s defense. They do so by supplying the nuance that they feel is lacking: “Clearly this passage cannot be considered paradigmatic for believers today.” But why not? I am not to execute justice for myself, but surely I can request it. David did—this “man after God’s own heart.”
I preached a sermon series on rethinking the way we pray, from various psalms. As part of that series, I preached a two-part sequence called “Plotting Justice in Our Prayers,” based upon Psalms 3 and 55. It is not recorded that David wondered about the rightness of his request for retribution. Moreover, God honored that request. This whole discussion reminds me of growing up with my older brother. Whenever he would do something wrong and the act was directed at me, I would go running to Mom—in the knowledge I was right (at that moment, anyway) and with the anticipation of justice. Mom never disappointed. Likewise, there is an expectation of justice on the part of one who is righteous and whose confidence is in God.
Justice is a sure thing
Justice on a cosmic scale will be served against the many acts of brutality visited upon God’s people. Those acts may go unreported and unpunished for a time. But “since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:6–9).
How interesting that divine, retributive, eschatological justice (all of which is really code word for “Hell”) should be the comfort-inducing response by God toward those who are being persecuted unjustly for their faith. To be sure, God reminds His children of the benefits of suffering for themselves (Romans 5:3, 4), but He satisfies their God-given sense of justice as well.
God’s love calls for justice
We began with the critic’s question, “How could a loving God have created such a place as Hell?” The question must be answered with another question: “How could a loving God have not created Hell?” God’s love is just; His justice is loving. Hell is God’s final answer to the questions posed by untold millions of tortured and maimed Christians, battered wives, abused children, and victims of any number of other equally abhorrent crimes: “Where is justice?”
Thankfully God does not wink at evil. Human wickedness either is judged at the Cross, or it is judged in Hell. No one ever gets away with sin. “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13–15). Either a person gives his or her sins to Christ, or that person must bear those sins for him- or herself. Even sins that have been forgiven can bear lasting consequences. King David knew about that truth: though forgiven of his sin of adultery, he endured the death of his infant son and his son Absalom.
On September 11, 2001, nineteen men carried out a heinous act of murder-suicide on a massive scale. They were guilty of willful ignorance (Romans 1), and then they acted on that ignorance. Sadly, it appears as though those men are now bearing the eternal consequence of their sin. To our knowledge, they did not confess their evil deeds prior to dying in the carnage they plotted, nor did they express sorrow for the pain they inflicted, nor did they redress the wrongs they committed. Indeed, of their own volition, they appear to have left for themselves no such opportunity of repentance. Had they lived, our courts could have brought them to legal justice, but not spiritual justice.
This spiritual justice is only possible through a change in God’s records, on the basis of Christ’s finished work on the cross. Those who commit sinful acts always merit the penalty of their own sins as well as the sin nature inherited from Adam. But when sinners repent and are justified by Christ, their despicable acts are “under the blood” and forgiven by God. Whether they merit Heaven or Hell, the matter is in God’s hands. So we are confident that God’s justice has been served, and I take great comfort in that.
Charles J. Colton holds a DMin. from Baptist Bible Seminary. He is pastor of Panama Baptist Church, Panama, New York, and author of Core Christianity—The Tie That Binds.