As I wrote yesterday, God rescued me from the precipice of hell not too many years ago—long after I was a professing Christian. I have wondered myself if I had died during that time of temporary “lostness,” would I still have been saved? I think I would have been—maybe—but God’s judgment would have been severe. I can only speculate.
Here’s what I do know, based on my experience and the teaching of scripture: I deserve hell. And so do you. That sounds so ugly to say, doesn’t it? Yet it is without a doubt the unanimous teaching of classic Christianity.
I wonder, however, when I preach this message—as I did even last Sunday—if it still communicates to other, more virtuous, people than I am. In my defense, our cultural imperative to accept everyone just as they are, without moral judgment, kicks against the goads of this core Christian conviction.
In his short systematic theology, Paul Zahl, who—as my family knows—has become a hero to me, responds to the objection that penal substitution, with its requirement for Christ’s atoning death in place of our own, is more than our problem with sin requires. In other words, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This means that the judgment of God is capital. That is not too extreme a statement of the case. If you were to take the sum of any one person’s life—her or his thoughts, conscious and unconscious; the dreams, both day dreams and night dreams; the sum of his or her concrete actions, both covert and open to public scrutiny; the motives and intentions; the “body language”—if you were to take the whole sum of a person’s life and show it to that person within a moment in time, the person would have a heart attack or a stroke, right on the spot. There are no exceptions to this postulate, certainly not in the Bible. Our inner fears of exposure confirm it absolutely.[†]