Friday, August 19, 2011

How Wide is God’s Mercy . . . Really?

By George W. Sarris

The controversy about the nature of Hell continues.

USA Today published an article in its Opinion section last week by Oliver Thomas, a Southern Baptist minister and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, challenging the traditional view. The article asked, Should Believers Fear Hell – And God?

His conclusion?

Though we may speak of such a God as loving . . . deep down, we know it's a sham.

Then, last Sunday, John Piper asked in a sermon, Is God’s Salvation Plan a Failure Since Many Are Going to Hell? Piper acknowledged that God desires that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but he went on to explain,

God does not act on His desire. . . . God knows what he's doing in having this desire and not fulfilling it at this level of decisive action in peoples' lives. He has his reasons.

He concluded that God’s plan is not a failure because some of those He desires to save are, in fact, saved.

The Real Issue

All true believers know that salvation is by grace. But, the question at the heart of the controversy is, “How far does that grace extend?”

To put the question in context, it is helpful to note that the current world population is rapidly approaching 7 billion people. Of that number, about one-thirdroughly 2.3 billion peoplecall themselves Christians in some way. That includes liberal and conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and a large variety of other groups.

Even if all of those who profess to be “Christians” were true believers, that would mean that well over 4 billion people are currently outside the faith – the vast majority of whom will not profess Christ in their lifetime. Of that number more than 2 billion are non-Christians living in unreached people groups where Christ is unknown. Historically, even larger percentages of the world’s population have never heard about or professed faith in Christ in any way.

If God is sovereign and God is good, why would He cause or allow billions of people – the vast majority of the human beings He created and supposedly loves – to suffer conscious torment forever?

He Has His Reasons

The answer most often given to that question, and the answer that John Piper gave in last week’s sermon, is that “God has His reasons.”

There is certainly a great deal of truth in that simple statement. God obviously has many reasons for doing things that are far beyond our limited ability to understand. God is infinite. We are finite. There are many mysteries and questions about life where God has chosen not to reveal to finite human beings the reasons why He has chosen to do certain things in His infinite wisdom.

The example of Job comes quickly to mind. That blameless and upright man never received a specific answer to his questions, except that he needed to trust God’s character. That was the answer God gave to Job . . . and it’s the ultimate answer He gives to us, as well.

But, Job was arguing with counselors who were asking him to believe something about God’s character that was not true. He was asked to believe that God was punishing him for great sins that he had not committed. In effect, they were asking him to believe that God was not good.

Job was perplexed and tested to his core, but in the last analysis he trusted in the fact that the God he worshiped would not unjustly punish a righteous man.

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him with my own eyes – I, and not another. . . . He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

Does God Mean What He Says?

In the present discussion about the nature and duration of Hell, are we, like Job, being asked to believe something about God that is not really true?

The original Greek term the apostle Paul used in I Timothy 2:4 where he tells his readers that God desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth actually meanswill, as translated in the KJV:

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

Young's Literal Translation reads:

. . . for this [is] right and acceptable before God our Saviour, who doth will all men to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth.

Are we justified in translating that comment to mean that God would like it if all were saved and came to a knowledge of the truth, but that it is not really His will? Or, as John Piper explained, God does not act on His desire?

The Ways of God

Scripture clearly teaches that God’s ways are different from our ways, and He certainly has reasons for doing things that we will never know or fully understand. But, His ways are not baser than ours, they are higher. He is not less merciful than we are, He is farmore compassionate than we are. Jesus, quoting the prophet Hosea, told the Pharisees who held to the traditional view they had received from their elders that they should go and learn this – I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

We rightly look with contempt on earthly rulers who either torture their subjects or sit by idly and watch them suffer. How can it be “good” for the Ruler of all things to do the same on a scale so vast that it dwarfs the imagination?

John Stuart Mill, nineteenth-century British philosopher and economist, correctly observed,

. . . I know that infinite goodness must be goodness, and that what is not consistent with goodness, is not consistent with infinite goodness. . . . To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good? To assert in words what we do not think in meaning, is as suitable a definition as can be given of a moral falsehood.

Somehow, the idea that a sovereign God has a desire to save His creatures but choosesnot to act on that desire seems hollow. It doesn’t square with the idea that God really is good.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, many in the Early Church had a the deep conviction that God loves and desires to save all, along with a fundamental confidence in His ability to carry it out. Perhaps, we should look more carefully at their reasons for that belief.

How far does God’s grace extend? How wide is His mercy . . . really?

Could it actually be wider than we think?

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