I said in my sermon on Sunday that we Methodists speak of grace so loosely sometimes that we may give the impression (never saying it out loud, since it sounds so blasphemous!) that grace is God’s finally giving in to us, letting us have our way, not getting so worked up about sin. Is there a small, sinful part of us that may wish that God would just leave us alone?
In Romans 1:18-32, however, Paul says that God’s leaving us alone is the opposite of grace: it’s punishment. After all, what does Paul say is God’s response to human rebellion? What, in other words, is the consequence of God’s wrath? Paul says it three times: “God gave them up.” This is exactly the meaning of letting us do our own thing.
Paul isn’t speaking here of final judgment or hell, and let’s please be careful: God’s letting us—as punishment that may lead us to repentance—experience, however partially and imperfectly, the consequences of our sinful actions in this life does not preclude punishment in hell. It can’t, as a matter of justice. But I wonder if Paul’s words don’t point in the direction of the nature of that punishment.
C.S. Lewis thinks so. In the chapter entitled “Hell,” of his beautiful book The Problem of Pain, Lewis takes a cue from Paul’s words in Romans. He describes hell as the final and ultimate state of God’s “giving us up.”
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.†
† C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 130.