Elmer Colyer, Hell: The Love and Wrath of God
Elmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of
Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.
JMF: We want to talk about hell today. A lot of churches will not even preach about it. In those, you never hear anybody preaching about hell. Other churches, that’s pretty much what they preach about every week. So why the divide? What does Trinitarian theology have to say about hell? And how can we understand it in terms of the grace of God and the judgment of God?
EC: There has to be something amusing about inviting a United Methodist to talk about hell. When I ask my seminary students how many of them have heard sermons about hell in the United Methodist church, virtually none of them have. Hell, in many circles, has become almost an unpreachable doctrine, and therefore is not mentioned at all. In other circles, as you mentioned, hell becomes prominent. The question is, Why did hell become an unpreachable doctrine for some?
We have to go back in history and look at that. Part of it was because of the hell that was taught and preached in the church. If you go in, say, Reformed Scholasticism, particularly in the Presbyterian Church in North America in the 19th century, hell was related primarily to the wrath of God, heaven to the love of God. God loves the elect, God hates the reprobate, so you have God’s attribute of love related to heaven and God’s wrath related to those in hell. Hell was portrayed in very grotesque and graphic terms.
If you were going to be ordained in the Presbyterian church in America in the early part of the 19th century and you went before your presbytery and you were asked various questions, one of the questions you were asked is, “Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?” Because, if hell is the place that manifests the wrath of God to God’s glory, God’s numinous holiness and justice is manifested in hell, then you ought to be willing to be damned for the glory of God, so that that attribute of God can be seen – God’s wrath and God’s holiness. So the proper answer is yes.
There was a young Presbyterian who was going to be ordained, and he was asked by his presbytery if he was willing to be damned for the glory of God, and he was a hyper-Calvinist, and he said, “Yes, not only that, I am willing for this entire presbytery to be damned for the glory of God.” That was not the correct answer.
In the hymnal at that time there was a hymn that sang that part of the glory of heaven was for the saints in heaven to watch sinners suffer in hell. That kind of depiction of hell is what made the doctrine unpreachable. It went something like this: People who knew something of the love of God in Christ revealed on the cross, just sensed something profoundly wrong with that kind of picture – that God would so hate the reprobate that they would suffer for all eternity, and that part of the glory of heaven would be to watch the reprobates suffer in hell – maybe even one’s relatives and friends – suffer there. There’s something incommensurate with that, with the picture of the love of God revealed in Christ.
Because of that, hell, at least in mainline Christianity in North America, gradually slid off to the side, and the emphasis became much more on the love of God. In a lot of mainline circles, God is often portrayed as a nice God, and we’re portrayed as nice people, and we should get along in the church. That doesn’t work very well, either.
Part of the reason that hell became unpreachable is because it was related only to the wrath of God. This is not tenable. God’s attributes are not separate. You cannot divide God’s holiness and God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s justice and wrath – God is ultimately simple – all of those attributes are integrated. We have to think about this in a different way – a way that unifies it, a way that brings hell into relation of God’s love and not simply God’s wrath.
JMF: How do we know that the wrath of God isn’t the predominant thing and the love of God is secondary to that?
EC: This goes to how we think about the attributes of God. One of the problems, both in popular culture and in Christian circles, and even in some respects the great tradition of the church, is there’s been a tendency to focus first on the attributes of the one God and only afterwards talk about the Trinity, and often God’s attributes are not related to the doctrine of the Trinity. You see this in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The second through the 26th question in the Summa deals with attempts to prove God’s existence, conversations about God’s attributes, and then only afterwards does Aquinas engage in any kind of conversation about the doctrine of the Trinity, and that prior discussion of the one God and God’s attributes is never really integrated with the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s one way of approaching the attributes of God.
If you look at the arguments, often they are developed on the basis of general revelation and a natural theology. This happens a lot of time with laity in congregations. They have some kind of concept of goodness and love, some kind of concept of knowledge, of other attributes of God, and they posit the perfection [of those qualities], and then attribute them to God. But that doesn’t work very well, because how do we know anything about God’s attributes?
The place that we most preeminently know about God’s attributes is in God’s self-revelation to us in Jesus Christ, realized in our life by the Holy Spirit. If you want to know what God’s love and holiness is like, rather than start with human experience, posit its perfection, and attribute it to God, or even do a concordance method where we look up everything the Bible has to say about holiness or love or justice in the Bible about God – the appropriate way to do that is to look through Scripture and see what God is actually revealed in Jesus Christ. There we find out that God’s attributes turn out to be rather different than what we might assume they were, based on these other ways of thinking about it.
JMF: I wonder how many Christians realize that there are two totally different views of God, and a lot of times that they hold both at the same time?
EC: That’s a good observation, and it goes to the heart of this problem. The real problem with it is when you have this kind of view that God hates those in hell and loves those in heaven. The problem is you end up with what we call in theology a Deus absconditus, a dark inscrutable deity that we don’t understand, behind the back of what God had revealed in Jesus Christ. What tends to happen then is the love of God that you see in Christ gets only related to heaven, the wrath of God relates to those in hell, and that’s simply not tenable. It’s the same God. God’s attributes cannot be divided.
The fundamental problem with the doctrine of hell that made it unpreachable is that it was only related to the wrath of God and not to the love of God. A more helpful way to think about hell is to relate it to the love of God. We don’t want to get rid of the wrath of God. It’s an important aspect of God, but it has to be united in a seamless way with God’s love. This is what oftentimes tended not to be the case, so that you have basically two different doctrines of God – a God of love and a God of wrath – and they’re not reconciled. They just sit there irreconciled, and we hope that the God of love is the one that relates to us.
This is the problem that you find in later Calvinism. The doctrine of double predestination was designed to emphasize the sovereignty of God, to give the elect the assurance that they persevere, so that they wouldn’t have any kind of fear in this life. But the great irony is, is when you have a doctrine of God behind your doctrine of salvation where God’s wrath and God’s love are separate, you’re always a little bit ill at ease wondering which God you’re going to finally meet at the end.
In later Calvinism, what immediately becomes the question? “How do I know whether I’m among the elect or the reprobate?” When you look at Scripture, what does it say? “You’ll know the tree by its fruit.” So the very thing that Calvinism and double predestination was designed to kick out of soteriology – any kind of fear that you wouldn’t persevere and you would go to hell and you wouldn’t go to be with God – comes in the back door, practically, and people have to somehow assure themselves that they’re among the elect. So they worked really hard to produce fruit. The very kind of legalism and works righteousness comes back in at another level, and has haunted that later Calvinism.
But the fundamental problem is these divergent doctrines of God: a God of wrath on the one side, a God of love on the other. Fundamentally, when we talk about how we really know God, if we do it through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, what we see in the cross is that God’s love and God’s wrath are not finally separate. They’re two aspects of a single attribute that is the fundamental character of God. The love of God in Christ is patently real on the cross, but we also see God’s hatred toward sin. It isn’t that God loves the elect and hates the reprobate – God loves us all, but hates the sin in our life. Therefore I think we have to relate hell to the love of God.
JMF: How does hell fit into that picture?
EC: Where do we see the holiness and wrath and judgment of God against sin finally find its proper place? It’s on the cross. That’s where the moment of darkness and judgment occurs. When you look in the book of Revelation in chapter 5 and it talks about the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who alone can open the scroll and initiate the final process of judgment, in the next verse, what does John see? He sees a Lamb as if it was slain on the judgment throne.
There’s no contradiction between the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Lamb of God looking like it’s slain as the one who is finally going to judge us, because the final judgment isn’t something different from what takes place on the cross, it’s the revelation of what takes place on the cross and the final outworking of it. It’s there on the cross that we see the wrath of God meted out against human sin, and guilt, and alienation, but it’s Christ our older brother, who had assumed our broken diseased humanity, turned it back to God, and taken it into judgment against sin and guilt.
Christ is the one who bears the wrath and the judgment of God as the incarnate one, as the second person of the Trinity, not just an innocent man. It’s within the relations between the persons of the Trinity there on the cross that God’s wrath and justice and holiness against human sin is dealt with ultimately in Christ our Lord. This means that whatever punishment can take place in hell, it cannot be the same punishment that Christ has already endured for human sin and guilt, alienation, there on the cross. It can only bear witness to that fact.
The other side of it is that at the same time that the cross is the judgment of God, it’s also the revelation of the love of God for sinners. God loves the sinners who are in hell, and therefore we have to relate hell not only to the judgment that takes place on the cross but also the love of God that takes place on the cross.
What if hell is a better place for sinners who in the end, in their folly, reject the love of God in Christ and heaven? Whenever in Scripture we see a sinner, apart from the mediation of Christ in the presence of the high and holy God before whom the angels veil their faces, they’re always like Isaiah in chapter 6, “Woe is me, for I am undone. I have seen the Lord on his throne. I am a man of unclean lips, I live among a people of unclean lips.” What if hell isn’t simply a place of punishment, what if it’s a place of refuge, where the sinner is shielded from the unmediated presence of God, because they finally turned away from Christ?
Listen to the words of Altamont the Infidel on his deathbed, “My principles have poisoned my friends, my extravagance has beggared my son, my unkindness has murdered my wife, and is there a hell, O my most holy yet gracious and loving God? Hell is a refuge, if it hides me from your frown.”
So we relate hell to the love of God, and it becomes not simply a place of punishment, but a place of refuge for the sinner, where the sinner, in his or her un-repentance and sin-sick folly, is shielded from the presence of God, because they would be more unhappy and uncomfortable in heaven than they would be there in hell.
JMF: It sounds like the fundamental issue that keeps a person from being able to understand grace and hell, judgment, mercy, and so on together in a healthy theological way, a biblical way, is the idea that most have of when they think of God, they think of God as a single solitary individual in heaven, some kind of a fatherly figure, whatever it is they have in their mind as fully being or whatever – but one individual, one God who does all this, who has hell and he has grace and mercy, and most do not typically think of God as a Trinity – as Father, Son, and Spirit in relation eternally. And if you don’t think of God that way, you’re going to have these problems understanding the relationship between hell and heaven, and so on, that you wouldn’t have if you had the thought of God in a triune way.
EC: Yes, that’s true. It’s part of the problem, particularly in North American culture with our individualism. The doctrine of the one God and the attributes of the one God have played a far more pivotal role in virtually all forms of Christian faith.
JMF: Then this idea of the single one God, as you were saying before, we construct ourselves by sitting down and saying, “What would he be like? Well, he has to be perfect in love. And one other thing, he has to be perfect in power, and he must absolutely know everything, so he must be omniscient, he must be omnipresent, he has to be everywhere. So whatever superlative thing we can think of, we attribute that to God, and then we construct that, raise it up, and then think that is God, and how is he going to deal with hell and heaven and so on, instead of the scriptural revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit, and it totally messes up everything.
EC: You’re right. The whole theodicy question (of how can God be all good and all powerful and yet there be evil) has been such a question for North American Christians. We create the problem ourselves by the way we construct our doctrine of God. We think we know what God’s power is like. We think we know what God’s goodness is like, and we think we know what evil is like. So we start out with presuppositions based on our human experience, we direct those to the one God, and then we create this problem for ourselves.
When we look at what God has revealed about God’s power, God’s goodness, and the problem of evil on the cross, we find out that we really don’t understand any one of those. What’s fundamentally important in this is, how do we think about God and God’s attributes? Here we have to go back to the biblical witness and look at what God has revealed.
A prime example of this is the depiction of Jesus coming back at the end of time, in final judgment. There’s that wonderful bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming back, and boy is he (I won’t even say it) ticked.” That kind of picture of Jesus coming back as a conquering warrior, going to send the evil to hell and the righteous…going to rapture them or carry them into heaven at some point.
JMF: Isn’t this what most American Christians are looking forward to, and that’s their whole worldview, is that God is going to come back and smash these people I don’t like?
EC: This is part of what the Jews were hoping for in a messiah when Jesus came. They wanted a political conqueror who was going to come and free Israel. There was that wonderful story in Matthew 20 where the mother of James and John comes to Jesus with a little request, “Jesus, when you come in your glory, when you’re on the throne where you’re going to judge, would you allow these two sons of mine, James and John, one to sit on the left and one to sit on the right?” It has a little ring about it – “Jesus, James, and John.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
The writer or the redactor of Matthew 20 adds this interesting parenthetical insert, and I wish he would have taken about two chapters to explicate it more fully, “When the other disciples heard about this, they were indignant.” “Your mother did what? You want to sit where?”
Do you remember what Jesus does? He calls the disciples into a little circle because they have fundamentally misunderstood the character of who he is as Lord, and the fundamental character of the kingdom and how it operates. He calls them into a little circle and says, “You know how it is with the Gentile rulers.” Look at human experience. What does it mean to be a lord? You have power and authority and you exercise it over others – not unlike the many ways Christians expect Jesus is going to return. You remember what Jesus says in the text? “It will not be so with you.” Why?
Then Jesus shows us the way in which we think about the Lordship of Christ, or any other attribute for God or any other aspect of who God is. He doesn’t say that we begin with human experience and posit it as perfection, he doesn’t say, “I’m a little bit like human lords and I’m a little bit not, and this is how you adjudicate between those conflicting attributes.” That’s not how he does it. He says, “You know how it is with the Gentile rulers, they lord it over one another, but it will not be so with you.” Why? “Because the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life for ransom for many.”
Jesus takes the concept of lordship and turns it 180 degrees on its head, defines it in a radically counter-cultural way, in terms of suffering servanthood that he demonstrates throughout his ministry. In the upper room, the disciples still don’t get it. Jesus puts the towel around his waist, he washes the disciples’ feet, and when he gets to Peter, Peter doesn’t want him to do it. Peter still doesn’t understand that lordship is not lording it over one another in power. Lordship means suffering love.
When we look at the relationship between the persons of the Trinity revealed in the gospel (because we don’t have any access to the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit except what we see in the life of Jesus, that’s where we see the relations between the persons of the Trinity actually lived out and embodied, in Jesus’ life), we don’t see any kind of hierarchical relations.
It says in John’s Gospel that the Son only does the will of his Father. Do you have any sons? I’ve got three sons. Do your sons do your will? My sons don’t always do my will.
Remember what else it says? John’s Gospel says the Father entrusts all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t entrust all judgment to my sons. Indeed, even though they’re adults, I have a clause in my will if something happens to me, they don’t even get all of their inheritance at one time, because I don’t even trust them with that.
Remember what Jesus says about the Spirit? When the Spirit comes, he’ll not bear witness to himself, but he will bear witness to Jesus. What we see between the relations between the persons of the Trinity lived out in the life of Jesus is a kind of humility of mutual self-deference to the other. It’s very unlike the hierarchical relations that we see between human beings. When you look at the attributes of God revealed in the gospel, revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, they turn out to be very different than what we would think of if we start with our human experience and posit its “perfection” and attribute it to God.
JMF: Isn’t it ironic then that the church can look at those passages and can say, you see how Israel was expecting a different kind of messiah, and so they didn’t recognize Jesus when he came as messiah, so they rejected him. And yet here right now, this year, the church…at least the church in America…has an idea of what Messiah should be – somebody who’s going to come back and bash all the enemies and set up the church in his glory. In other words, the view of the church is exactly what we say was wrong with the view that the Israelites had when he came the first time.
EC: It’s so different than what we see in Jesus. He comes into Jerusalem, and he weeps over the city. It’s interesting that when Jesus talks about the final judgment, there are all kinds of surprises. Maybe one of the surprises is the kind of Jesus who is coming back to do the judging. It’s going to be the lamb looking as if it were slain on the throne, not this triumphant conquering Lord and King who is coming back to wipe people out.
JMF: The triumph being the cross itself.
EC: Yeah, the triumph being the cross itself. The interesting thing about this is that when you look at what the New Testament says about judgment, it has as much to say at least about the judgment of Christians, as it does about the judgment of those who are not. You can’t simply leave hell and not relate it to the love of God – you also have to relate heaven to the judgment of God. It says that there will be many books open. It says that some Christians will pass through the final judgment clothed in white raiment, and others will come through barely at all.
People tend to view this, that this is some kind of reward for good works, when I don’t think that’s the intent of those texts. What’s the joy for those who receive the crown of martyrdom or the crown of glory? To lay it down at Christ’s feet in praise of him. That the final judgment will entail a revealing of all things not only in non-Christians and in Christians is very clear in Scripture.
If Christians are afraid of that, though, I think it’s because they misunderstand who is going to do the judging. It’s our Lord and Savior who identified with us fully in our brokenness and sin, the great High Priest, it says in Hebrews 2 and 4, who is able to empathize with our weaknesses. He is going to be one who’s going to judge us and therefore it will always be judgment and righteousness and holiness that’s tempered in love.
JMF: A lot of this boils down to the way people interpret the Bible. Like the bumper sticker, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The same people who believe that, will still argue over how to interpret those passages they think are settled. It lies at the heart of a lot of this, so let’s talk about that next time we get together.
EC: Yeah, we should talk about Scripture and our assumptions around it and how we interpret it. Very pivotal, and it is behind all of this. One final thing I’d like to say about this whole subject of the attributes of God (because in the United Methodist church, and we don’t like to talk about the wrath of God, we like to talk about God as a nice God and we’re nice people): The wrath of God and the holiness of God is very important theologically and pastorally.
In one of the churches that I served, if you’ve been a pastor for a number of years and you have been faithful and the people know that you love them and they trust you, there are many of them that have dark secrets that they want to tell somebody, and they finally have gotten to the point where they trust you and can tell you, but they don’t do it until they know you’re going to go. So, the last few months before you leave oftentimes, if you’ve been a faithful pastor, people come out of the woodwork to talk to you about problems in their life.
A woman came to talk to me who has profoundly influenced how I think about these things, and she turned out to be a better theologian than I was at that point in my mid-20s when I was first a pastor. It was a story of tragic abuse. When she came to my office, she couldn’t even tell me; she had to write it down on paper. It’s one of those things that we hear all too often today, about a woman who as a teenager was sexually abused by her father. After talking to her, I knew that I was way over my head and I wanted to refer her to a friend of mine who was a licensed psychologist/psychiatrist and a Christian.
But she had gone to a counselor earlier and had had a bad experience, and so she wouldn’t go to him. I said, “I don’t propose to counsel, but I’ll listen to you tell your story.” And so over several weeks she told me her story about the abuse that she endured. I never really understood human powerlessness until she told me her story. It started when she was about 14 or 15 and lasted until she was around 20. Tragically, her father twisted her emotionally, so that she felt like “the other woman.” When her father and mother went through a divorce, she felt responsible for it. One day she said, “Pastor El, there’s never been a day in my life when I didn’t remember what he did to me and how I felt about it and how dirty and guilty I feel.”
There was a large family, and every Memorial Day weekend, the brother and sisters would send her money and she would have to buy flowers and put them on her father’s grave. She told me about the torment that she went through doing that.
You know what finally brought her healing? It wouldn’t have been what I ever would have thought from everything I knew pastorally and theologically. It was the fatherhood of God and the doctrine of hell. It was the fatherhood of God, because finally it was the fatherhood of God (and here’s where she was a better theologian than I was) that gave her a criterion by which to judge her father.
Instead of starting with a human father and project it onto God, which is what I thought she would do and that she never would even want to talk about God as father, no, she wanted to talk about God as father because it was the fatherhood of God revealed in the New Testament that gave her the criterion by which she could judge her father as decadent.
And it was the doctrine of hell, not because in the end she longed that her father would go there, but the doctrine of hell for her was the final testimony that we live in a moral universe and that God says an ultimate “no, not in my world will you ever do this.” In other words, hell points back to the cross – that God does take seriously the sin and the brokenness and the evil of this world and deals with it objectively.
When we let go of the justice and holiness of God, those who have perpetrated heinous evil or have had heinous evil perpetrated to them simply cannot relate to a “nice” God, because the nice God is not able to face the ugliness of the brokenness and evil that’s done in this world and overcome it. She finally was able to let go of her guilt and remorse. She discovered that she was angry with her father, and she was able to let go of that, because of the fatherhood of God and because of the holiness and justice of God of which hell is a testimony pointing back to the cross.
We are wrong to get rid of the wrath of God. We’re equally wrong to separate it from the love of God and to have God hate some and love others. The holiness and the love of God are, essentially, two sides of the same coin. A love of God that loves us and wants us to flourish and therefore has to say an absolute no to all those things that dehumanize, degrade us, all the things that we do and have had done to us that are contrary to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross.