In looking at what happened on the cross, I have looked at:
I think most agree that the big thing that happened on the cross was Jesus dealt with death and sin, and conquered both! (I wrote that sentence, and then sat and frowned at it. How do I adequately convey how astonishing and marvelous this victory is?)
I think most also agree that Jesus' dealing with sins means that our faith can save us from God's judgment. Or, to put it better, our faith allows us to let God do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We then breathe a sigh of relief because we are not going to hell.
I remember watching a parade float once, filled with zealous youth playing Christian rock and waving poster board telling people they were going to burn if they didn't believe. Even as a baptized Christian, I was put off by this. The crowd sat back with furrowed brows. This did not feel like “good news”, this felt like a threat.
Are some Christians trying to scare people into faith? Is fear more effective than the promise of hope?
The idea most of us have of hell isn't actually Biblical. There are no mentions of little red creatures with long spiked tails and horns. There is no mention of demons stabbing people with pitchforks. There are certainly no nine circles. Much of our modern imagery comes from Dante's Inferno, a poem written in the 14th century, one that influenced many artists to paint some pretty horrific art.
Sometimes though, crazy as it seems, there are times when the idea of hell is something we want! We want to know that people who committed unspeakable cruelty will not get off with anything so easy as a long sleep in oblivion.
So judgment after death is a fear, but it also gives us hope for righteous justice.
When we soberly stop to consider hell, who do we feel deserves to burn for more than a trillion, trillion years without mercy?
I feel the trained answer on the tip of my tongue, "all of us", yet something about that sits wrong with me. Eternity is a long time. God knew we would be sinners. Is He eagerly waiting with a hammer to smash us, but Jesus leaps in to rescue those who cry out for help? I don't see that in the scriptures. There has to be more to it than this rote answer. Not that it is necessarily wrong, but that it is too simplistic.
Quick pause here: I'm not trying to distort the gospel!
I've known since I was a child that all have sinned, and our justification is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24). I have learned that sin runs deeper than breaking rules, it is about separation and severing relationship to God. It is about being swept up in the great sin that began in Genesis 3 when death and decay and destruction were brought not only into mankind but into the whole creation that has been suffering ever since. (Romans 8:21)
Sin is real, and it's deadly!
God has provided a way out of judgment throughout all the centuries. He knows we will mess up and has graciously and lovingly provided a means of atonement and forgiveness. This is a great comfort to those who are in Christ. It is harder, however, when we look out at the world at average people living average lives, but apart from Christ.
Is an eternal hell fair?
The trouble with hell is, if ALL are sinners, if no matter how hard we try we mess up, is an eternal hell fair? Is it fair that someone can be a loving humanitarian, but because they don't subscribe to Christianity, they're doomed to eternal torture, flames, and flesh-eating worms and all? Is the person who stole a chocolate bar going to get the same punishment as the one who ordered the murder of millions? Or what about those who are so broken by their childhoods that they commit horror without remorse because of the torture they were put through? Is it a one-size-fits-all when it comes to eternal justice?
What I'm getting at, is phrased well by Jim McGuiggan, “It is critically important that the wrath of God remains personal rather than mechanical or automatic. As Rabbi Heschel has taught us, a careful reading of Exodus 32:10 stresses the personal involvement of God who decides whether or not, in this case or that, to punish or withhold punishment. Jonah 3:9-10 reveals that God” changed his mind” about punishing Assyria. In Hosea 11:9 he decides not to carry out his fierce anger and in Isaiah 48:9 he delays his wrath for his name's sake. All these texts and more make the point that wrath doesn't operate on a slot-machine model – sin goes in and wrath pours out. Jeremiah 18:1-12 develops this truth for us. Even a surface reading shows us that the Bible is utterly opposed to all views of God that are non-personal.” (emphasis mine)
Go back, and read that again if you only scanned it. Go look up those scriptures. There is huge comfort there, I think, that the judge (One we believe can see right into the heart) will judge fairly on a case-by-case basis. Whatever punishment there is, whatever hell looks like, it will be just, and the judgment made will be deeply personal. Whenever I go down the foggy road of wondering if hell is actually fair, I remind myself that I can't see beyond my own two eyes. This is beyond my scope, and it is not my job.
Understanding prophetic language about hell
That said, I also try to remember that prophetic language is difficult! It is not always literal or translated the way we think. Speaking of the fire as eternal could mean that the fire burns long after you've become ash—until there is nothing left of you whatsoever. Speaking of eternal judgment might mean that it is irrevocable once dealt out. We are grappling with an idea beyond our understanding, like trying to explain color to a person born blind.
We are to fear God's wrath, which means to show it it's proper respect and attention. We know that much. I think to try to understand exactly what eternal judgment is and how it works, goes further than what the Bible tells us.
Focus on the flipside of hell, the hope we have in Jesus
Where we want to be, and where the joy is, is in God. So when Jesus died on the cross and cleared away our sin, it was to break the walls that divide God and man, to let the Holy Spirit flood into the believers, to throw open the gates to the start of something SO big the universe will be swept up in it, something hinted at by the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
When Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins he gave us a way to get right with God and to avoid eternal judgment, but it was about so much more than escape! Jesus speaks of hell and hades yes, but he speaks of the kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God far more! That right there, is where I think our focus needs to be, in both our lives and in our ministry. The glory, the hope, and the longing is life everlasting, purchased by the blood of Jesus.
This hope should be so all-encompassing, we would run to God eagerly, even if there was no such thing as a fiery hell. I'm not talking about softening the scriptures or the nature of sin, to make it easier to accept, but about keeping God as the center and heart of judgment. Judgement does not stand on its own apart from God, and He is not shackled by it.
When I teach my children about why they need to believe, I tell Bible stories about the power and glory of God. He made everything. He loves them. He has a plan for a new heaven and a new earth, and don't they want to get in on that? Don't they want a personal relationship with the Most High when it's been offered to them?
Quote from Jim McGuiggan was taken from The Dragon Slayer page 55