It’s become a truism within Christian circles to speak of God’s “unconditional love” for humanity. But is this the most accurate way to describe God’s love? In this episode, following the lead of the late United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden (who first popularized the phrase “unconditional love” within theology), I argue that God’s love is best described as “one-conditional,” not unconditional.
As I warn in this episode, the difference between the two couldn’t be more consequential.
This is the second of two podcasts on the authority of scripture.
Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17
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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, October 12, 2018, and this is episode number 31 in my ongoing series of podcasts.
You’re listening right now to “Unconditional Love,” by the Altar Boys, from their 1986 album, Gut Level Music. The Altar Boys were a Christian punk band—yes, they had that sort of thing back in the glorious ’80s, when I was coming of age. This song was not one of their original compositions, however. It was written by two Christian musicians—the former “queen of disco,” Donna Summer, and producer-songwriter Michael Omartian. If you remember the eighties the way I do, you’ll recall that the song was a minor hit for Ms. Summer in 1983, and the music video featured the Jamaican boy band Musical Youth, who had just had a hit on MTV with their song “Pass the Dutchie.”
In a little while, I’ll switch gears and play the song “Crossfire” by Kansas from their 1982 album, Vinyl Confessions. This was the second album the band made after lead guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren—the writer of “Carry On, Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind”—was converted to Christianity, along with bass player Dave Hope.
You’ll hear that song later. But I’m starting with the Altar Boys because we Christians today practically take for granted that God loves us with un-conditional love. We use that expression all the time: unconditional love. In fact, I still remember an argument I got into many years on my blog with a dear Christian friend who challenged me on the notion of God’s unconditional love. God’s love, he said, is not unconditional. And I thought his words were borderline heresy!
Imagine my surprise, then, just a few years ago, when I read a theological memoir called A Change of Heart by a well-respected theologian—who also happens to be United Methodist—named Thomas Oden. (Oden died in 2016.) In this memoir, he sheepishly admits that he was responsible for either coining the phrase “unconditional love,” or at least popularizing and applying it for the first time to theology—and to God’s loving relationship with humanity. He said he borrowed the concept from the psychotherapeutic work of psychologist Carl Rogers.
When Oden first began writing about God’s unconditional love, he was a progressive Christian theologian. But he changed. In the late-’60s he experienced a conversion of sorts; by his own admission, he embraced orthodox Christianity—not capital O orthodox; he remained a humble Methodist. But he was no longer enamored with innovation in Christian theology; when it came to theology he liked the old stuff. In fact, he told Christianity Today that he had a dream once in which he saw his tombstone. His epitaph read as follows: “He made no new contribution to theology.” Oden became, in his own words, an “orthodox, ecumenical evangelical.”
This means, of course, that Oden made a move that most Methodists I know believe to be impossible: he moved from the theological left to the theological right. He left progressive Christianity and became a theological conservative—an evangelical. And I can relate! I did the same thing on the much smaller stage of my own ministry. Regardless, by the time Oden became an orthodox Christian again, this “unconditional love” genie was already out of the bottle. “Soon,” he wrote, “I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God…
Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.
In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.
I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.
These are strong words! Oden would agree with me, I’m sure, that it’s almost true to say that God loves us with “unconditional love.” It comes very close to the truth. I would say, in fact, that it comes dangerously close. See, I almost don’t mind if we talk about God’s unconditional love, so long as there’s an asterisk next to it—so long as we qualify exactly what we mean, and what we don’t mean, by that expression.
So let me spend the next few moments talking about what’s true when we say that God loves us with “unconditional love.”
First, it’s true to say that God loves everyone in the world, regardless of their sinfulness: John 3:16: “For God so loved the world”—and by this Jesus means that God loves this world of sinners, a world of people who commit treason against against God and his Son, their true king, in a million different ways—a world of rebels against God’s righteous rule. That includes all of us. Yet God loved us—he loved this sinful, rebellious mass of humanity without condition—indeed, he had to—in order for God to implement his plan of salvation for us.
If God had to wait for us human beings to get our act together—even a little bit—if he had to wait for us to reform ourselves even a tiny amount—if he had to wait for us to make even the first small, tentative step toward him before he began to do something to rescue us from our sins—well… he would still be waiting. Waiting eternally. Meanwhile, we would be lost in our sins; dying in our sins; and all of us would be in hell—or at least bound for hell with no hope of salvation.
Every single one of us is utterly incapable of doing anything to save ourselves. To believe otherwise is to commit the heresy of Pelagianism. So if we’re going to be saved, God must take the initiative—without respect to anything we must do… other than confessing that we can do nothing; and believing that Christ has done everything to make our salvation possible.
As Romans 5:8 puts it: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners. Before we had done anything or could do anything to deserve God’s love or earn it or pay for it or anything… Christ died for us. In this sense—by all means—God’s love is without condition: Because God so loved the world, he sent his Son—to give us a gift of eternal life of which we are utterly unworthy. And the overarching story of the Old Testament is what God did to prepare the world for his coming in Christ. This love doesn’t depend on us. So God’s love, in this sense, is unconditional.
Moreover, it’s unconditional in the sense that nothing God does is less than perfectly loving. As the apostle John makes clear, God is love; his very nature is love. Therefore even God’s wrath, his justifiable anger toward sin—indeed, even hell itself—is and must be a necessary consequence of God’s love. God’s wrath, in other words, does not contradict or stand in opposition to his love.
Pastor and author Tim Keller makes this point nicely in his book The Reason for God:
When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.
What Keller is describing here, in so many words, is God’s commitment to justice. God will see to it that justice will be fully and finally done. In fact he must do so… if he truly loves. The absolute certainty of God’s wrath is the premise upon which God’s people can foreswear retribution and personal vengeance; God’s wrath makes it possible for us instead to forgive. As the apostle Paul tells his fellow believers in Rome,“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
In other words, the reason why we feel like we have to avenge a wrong that has been done to us or our loved ones is because we fear that otherwise the perpetrator will get away with it. He’ll get off scot-free. And this would be a terrible injustice. But notice what Paul says: he says that no one, in the long run, gets away with anything! Vengeance belongs to God and he will repay!
Therefore, every sin—every instance of evil perpetrated by human beings in this world—will be paid for… by God’s wrath—and it will be paid for in exactly one of two ways: in hell for eternity or on the cross of God’s Son Jesus. There is no other alternative. Biblically speaking, if we sinners don’t avail ourselves of the cross of Jesus Christ, on whom God laid all of our sins and suffered the punishment for them (2 Corinthians 5:21) and through whom God paid our otherwise insurmountable debt of sin that we owe him (Colossians 2:14), we will be separated from God for eternity.
But I get it: God’s wrath is not a popular subject today. In fact, despite the Bible’s many warnings, many Christians deny that God has wrath. I got into an online debate one time with a popular United Methodist blogger, pastor, and author who argued that God’s wrath didn’t really exist—except in our imaginations; that what we human beings perceive as God’s wrath is really just our own guilty feelings for our sin. In other words, we perceive that God is angry at us and wants to punish us for our sins; and this perception itself is what the Bible calls “wrath.”
So God sent his Son Jesus to show us that God isn’t mad, after all. Indeed, according to this blogger, there’s nothing we can do to make God angry, or to prevent God from loving and accepting and forgiving us. According to him, it would be no exaggeration to say that forgiveness itself is nothing more than realizing that nothing needs to be forgiven. Did you hear that? According to this fully credentialed, fully ordained United Methodist pastor, God’s forgiveness happens when we human beings realize that nothing needs to be forgiven… at least as far as God is concerned. God has no problem with us. He loves and accepts us just as we are! He loves and accepts us with… unconditional love.
I promise I’m not making this up. And we wonder why our United Methodist Church seems to be headed toward schism. Ugh!
But it’s not just United Methodists! I listened to a recent debate between Michael Brown and a popular so-called “emergent church” pastor named Brian Zahnd. (I’ll insert a link to the debate in the episode notes of this podcast—it’s a very enlightening debate.) They were debating the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. While I agree that that’s an awful name for what God did to reconcile the world to himself, it describes one of the most important biblical truths: that God in Christ took our sins upon himself and suffered and died for them—paid the penalty for them—suffered hell for them—in our place… so that we wouldn’t have to.
Obviously, if you believe that God’s love is completely without condition, then this kind of substitutionary death on the cross would be unnecessary. After all, God loves us and accepts us “just the way we are.”
If, by contrast, you believe that our sin really is a problem, that our sin separates us from a holy God, and that God wasn’t lying when he warned Adam and Eve that sin deserves the death penalty—and not just physical death, but spiritual death. Or as Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.” If you believe what God’s Word says about the deadly seriousness of sin, and about God’s commitment to perfect justice, then you’ll understand why the cross was absolutely necessary for our forgiveness.
But Brian Zahnd did not see it that way. From his perspective, God didn’t need the cross to forgive us. He said—and I quote—“God forgives us because God forgives us.”
God forgives us because God forgives us. From Zahnd’s perspective, whatever the cross represents, it doesn’t represent something objective that God did to purchase our forgiveness; it was instead a statement about how much God already loved us. God didn’t need to do anything to take care of our problem with sin—except to tell us that our sin wasn’t ultimately a problem. However tragic the cross was, it was unnecessary for God’s purposes.
I mean, listen to the debate… tell me if you think I’m misinterpreting what Zahnd says. I don’t think I am. Zahnd wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t heard before. This is precisely the kind of false teaching in which I and my fellow future Methodist ministers at the Candler School of Theology were immersed. And as I said last time, it’s not just at Candler; it could have been any number of other mainline Protestant seminaries.
What these seminaries are teaching—and what so many preachers are preaching—is that God’s love is unconditional. Without qualification. And by that I mean that there is absolutely nothing that stands in the way of our relationship with God—of becoming God’s children, of our being forgiven, of our spending eternity in heaven with the Lord… nothing whatsoever… not even our sin.
I heard a sermon recently by a Methodist minister in which he said, “Jesus died on the cross to show us how much God loves us!” And again, that comes so close to being true! That’s almost true. It’s so close… dangerously close! If it were possible, I would like to place an asterisk next to that sentence as he spoke it out loud: By all means, I would say, the cross does show us exactly how much God loves us; it’s the fullest, most perfect, most beautiful statement about God’s love imaginable. Just think: When Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he is literally experiencing hell itself on our behalf—and he’s doing so… out of love… voluntarily… willingly.” How many people would not merely die for us but go to hell for us—how many would suffer God’s wrath for us—so that we wouldn’t have to? That’s what Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—did for us! So, yes… to say the least, the cross demonstrates God’s love better than anything!
And yet… It’s not true to say that Jesus died on the cross in order to show us how much God loves us—as if the full measure of God’s love were already available to everyone, and all God needed to do was convince us of it.
No! God the Son went to the cross primarily to take care of our problem with sin—after which we can experience the full measure of God’s love! And our problem with sin is related to justice—it would be unjust for God to ignore the harm that our sin has done in the world; it would be unjust for him to ignore the evil and not punish it. Indeed, it would be unloving. Because, as I indicated earlier, justice is inextricably linked to God’s love. In other words, because God’s nature is love, God is committed to justice. If we’re asking God to merely forgive us… while at the same time ignoring the demand for justice… we’re asking God to deny himself… to deny who God is… because justice is a part of God’s own nature.
The good news is that on the cross of God’s Son Jesus, God’s perfect justice and God’s perfect love meet. The apostle Paul describes this in Romans 3:21-26: the cross, he says, demonstrates that God is both just (because he doesn’t overlook sin but punishes it through his Son’s atoning death) and justifier—he thereby forgives our sins and imputes Christ’s righteousness to us sinners, as a free gift. Again, the demands of God’s perfect love and his perfect justice are completely satisfied on the cross.
And what happens as a result? All of us now have the opportunity to repent, to turn to Jesus Christ in faith, and be saved! Hallelujah!
So there is a condition for us to experience the fullness of God’s love, grace, and mercy… just one relatively small but necessary condition… and that is, to believe in Jesus… Because believing in Jesus means believing in who he is and what he accomplished for us through his life, death, and resurrection. This is what the rest of John 3:16 says: “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” And what happens if you don’t believe in Jesus? Two verses later, John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him”—Jesus—“is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Later in that same gospel, Jesus said, “I and the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” So apart from receiving Christ as Savior, you will not come to the Father; and you will be condemned. In the Book of Acts, Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Salvation is in no one else—that would include any other religious figure who promises salvation. Salvation is unavailable apart from the name of Jesus. Paul says, “[I]f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” If you don’t make that confession and you don’t believe, Paul implies, you won’t be saved.
So this is the one condition. Only one… This is God’s “one-conditional” love, not unconditional love. One-conditional love! A small but critically important difference!
Now, I promised in the last episode that this would be Part 2 of my exploration of the authority of scripture. And while I’ve quoted a lot of scripture, I haven’t talked directly about scripture.
But I hope I’ve laid the foundation that we need in order to understand those seemingly difficult, often violent passages of scripture in which God judges and punishes people for their sins. I agree that if God simply loves and accepts us and embraces us with quote-unquote “unconditional love,” then all these depictions of wrath, violence, judgment, hell, punishment, etc., that we see in scripture, would make no sense. But I hope this podcast has helped you to make sense of these passages.
When we read, for example, about people suffering on account of their sin and disobedience to God, this is what we ought to tell ourselves: I, too, am a sinner who deserves exactly what these people have received—and worse… Because of my sins, I deserve God’s judgment, God’s wrath… I deserve hell, punishment, separation from God… I deserve all of these terrible consequences because of my sin! Apart from God’s grace I’m no better, I’m no more righteous, I’m no more deserving of God’s love or mercy than these people I read about in scripture… But thank God… God did not leave me in this helpless condition. Out of love, God intervened through his Son Jesus to make a way for me to be rescued from sin’s terrible consequences—some of which I see depicted here in scripture—as a gracious warning to me and to the world that this is what we sinners deserve. And indeed, apart from Christ, this is what we will receive… and worse.
But someone might object: “Yes, but… Jesus is different! We don’t see all of these terrible consequences of sin in the gospels!” When given an opportunity to participate in or at least endorse the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, for example, Jesus instead says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” When James and John suggest, like Elijah, calling down fire from heaven to wipe out God’s enemies, Jesus rebukes them. Even from the cross, when given an opportunity to condemn the people who put Jesus there—the civil and religious authorities, the Temple Police and the Roman soldiers—Jesus instead prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And what many Christians do—including many of my Methodist clergy colleagues—is pit Jesus against the rest of God’s Word. And they end up demoting the authority of scripture. The Bible, they say, is only the Word of God inasmuch as it bears witness to God’s Son Jesus, who—according to John chapter 1, is the true Word, the perfect Word, the Word made flesh.
So going back to our friend Brian Zahnd, whom I mentioned above in that debate with Michael Brown… He once tweeted the following in a meme: “God couldn’t say all he wanted to say with words in a book, so he said it through a human life—the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus is what God has to say.” To this, theologian and Christianity Today writer Derek Rishmawy replied: “And then he gave us a book so that we could have authoritative access to that Life. Pretty cool how that works together.”
Rishmawy is exactly right: He understands the problem of pitting Jesus the Word of God against the Word of God that is the Bible! Everything we know for sure about this life to which Zahnd refers, we know from this book… the Bible. There’s nothing—literally nothing—we know for sure about Jesus that is not revealed in this book. If we want to know who Jesus is, we’re stuck with this book—if you’ll forgive me for putting it that way. So this book, the Bible, had better be telling the truth. We better believe that the Holy Spirit did something—worked some miracle—to ensure its accuracy! (And that was the subject of my last podcast episode!)
And some Christians may object: “Well, the gospels are completely true and accurate… or at least the red-letters words of Jesus within the gospels.” But the Old Testament… or Paul’s letters, or the rest of the New Testament… not so much!
But not so fast… Is your theory of scripture’s inspiration that the Holy Spirit breathed out the words of the four gospels only—or only the words of Jesus within the quotation marks—but not the rest of the Bible? What kind of sense does that make? You have to admit that if God were going to “breathe out” the words of Jesus in the gospels and not the rest of scripture, that would be a very confusing move on God’s part to say the least.
So I’m inviting you to believe that God breathed out the rest of the Bible while you’re at it. It’s not that big of a leap. And as I argued last time, it’s a relatively small miracle to believe in. Right?
But please… go to my blog and tell me why I’m wrong. My fear is that when my progressive clergy colleagues cast doubt on the rest of the Bible—outside of the gospels—they are also undermining the authority of the Jesus whom God reveals within the Bible.
Besides… besides… and this is my larger point: Are progressives really so confident that Jesus is somehow different from the God of the Old Testament? If so, why?
Andrew Wilson, a British pastor and theologian, doesn’t think Jesus is different from the God revealed in the Old Testament. He agrees—as do I—that we should read the Old Testament with a “Jesus lens”; that we should read it in light of what Jesus reveals to us in the New Testament. By all means! The problem, Wilson says, is that our progressive clergy colleagues go beyond using a “Jesus lens”; they use what he calls a “Jesus tea-strainer.” They not only filter out difficult parts of scripture, which they believe don’t fit—they often filter out Jesus himself.
Now, I wish I could speak the following words the way that Wilson, with his fetching working-class English accent, speaks it; instead I’ll just read the transcript with my boring American accent:
So I’ve used the analogy [of the “Jesus tea-strainer”] quite often when people talk about the “Jesus lens.” By which they say, “We’re reading the Bible through the ‘Jesus lens,’ and it’s coloring what we’re doing.” I say I don’t think it’s so much a lens in some cases—it’s more of a tea-strainer: Instead of looking at things from a particular angle and then coloring your view through Jesus, instead you use a particular version of Jesus you’ve cobbled together from bits of the Gospels. And then you turn that into a fine-mesh tea-strainer, which you then try to push the Old Testament through. And only a few bits make it through and the rest of it gets stuck and left on the saucer. And actually even the Jesus in the Synoptics doesn’t fit through the tea-strainer you’ve formed… You read Luke 17 or something and think, “That is very hard to cohere with a progressive-y red-letter Jesus.”
By Luke 17, Wilson means these red-letter words of judgment and divine retribution. Listen to these red-letter words:
Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17:26-30).
So notice what Jesus is doing here: First, he’s affirming the historicity of the flood and of the destruction of Sodom—which speaks to the reliability of scripture, as I discussed last time. But even more: Jesus himself endorses God’s terrible judgment of sinners, God’s punishment of sinners, God’s wrath poured out on the people alive during the flood and in Sodom when God destroyed the city. And he’s saying that something even worse will happen when Christ returns at the end of history and the nations are judged. Something even worse!
To say the least, if, as progressives say, “the Bible got it wrong” when it portrays God’s violent judgment against sin, why doesn’t Jesus himself think so? Wouldn’t he know better than any of us?
And of course this Luke 17 passage is just one small example of Jesus’ often harsh and judgmental words. Listen to these:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)
“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)
“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48)
“But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:48-51)
There are many more examples. In Luke 13, for example, Jesus discusses two tragedies that were in the news of his day: In one, Pontius Pilate had massacred some Jews who were worshiping in the Temple; in another a tower had fallen on some people and crushed them. He uses both events to draw a broader lesson: “Repent, or you will all likewise perish.” He does not mean that his listeners will necessarily be killed in either a natural or human-made disaster, like his fellow Jews in these two tragic events. He means instead that God will do something worse to them when they face Final Judgment… unless they repent.
Similarly, consider John chapter 5. There Jesus heals a man who had been either a paraplegic or quadriplegic for 38 years! Thirty-eight years of suffering! So Jesus heals him, physically. What does Jesus tell the man? “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” That nothing worse may happen… Are you kidding me? What could be worse, from our perspective, than being paralyzed for 38 years? Wouldn’t we think that this man was now entitled to a future life of comfort and ease—on earth or in heaven? Not Jesus: Even after 38 years of suffering, the man will face something far worse in Final Judgment and hell—unless he repents.
Finally, consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” We imagine that being murdered is the worst thing that can happen to us. Not Jesus: the worst thing is what God himself will do to us—in hell—unless we repent.
I think these examples of Jesus’ harsh, unsentimental words about death, judgment, hell, wrath, and suffering will suffice to prove my point: that Jesus’ own teaching is perfectly consistent with the picture of God revealed in the Old Testament—even as Jesus’ life and ministry fill out the picture, or complete the picture. To see the Bible otherwise is, as Andrew Wilson would say, to risk filtering jesus himself through a “Jesus tea-strainer.”
Years ago, in a debate on Justin Brierley’s British radio show Unbelievable? I heard a “new atheist” thinker—I can’t remember who it was now—dismiss the idea that Jesus was some kind of moral genius. Why? Because, this atheist pointed out, Jesus seemed perfectly O.K. with the idea of eternal punishment. To say the least, I disagree that Jesus’ teaching on hell disqualifies him as a moral genius, but I give this man credit for actually reading the gospels—including its many passages about that place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”—and noticing that these words come from the lips of Jesus himself! At least this atheist was being consistent: If he believes the doctrine of hell is morally repugnant, then Jesus can be no moral genius!
Nothing in the Old Testament—no amount of suffering or wrath or punishment depicted there—is worse than hell, of which we learn far more from Jesus than any of the apostles in the New Testament, or any of the writers of the Old Testament.
But let’s speak of the New Testament for a moment: In Acts chapter 5, Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple, lie to the apostles about a financial gift they make to the newly born church in Jerusalem. Each one of them, independently of one another, is literally struck down by God. In Acts chapter 12, Herod Agrippa lets himself be worshiped as a god. Then we’re told in verse 23: “ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” God struck him down! Or consider the members of the Corinthian church. Paul warns them against receiving Holy Communion in an unworthy manner. 1 Corinthians 11:29-30: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why,” Paul writes, “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” And some have died! They’ve died because of God’s judgment against them and punishment of them!
My point is, each of these is an example of God’s inflicting actual suffering on people—of God’s punishing people—for their sin… in the New Testament. There is continuity between the Old and New Testaments. If you think, therefore, that the so-called ‘God of the Old Testament’ is an obstacle to believing in the complete truthfulness of the Old Testament, you’ve hardly “solved the problem” by appealing to the New Testament!
There’s no getting around it: The Bible’s clear teaching is that sin really is humanity’s biggest problem. Apart from the atoning work of Jesus on the cross—whose benefits we receive through faith in Christ—we really do deserve death, Final Judgment, and hell. God is not wrong, therefore, to appoint our deaths, to judge us for our sin after we die, or even to send us to hell for eternity. These are the wages of our sin, about which the Bible is clear.
You may choose to believe it or not, but if you don’t believe it, it can’t be because the Old Testament said one thing, but then Jesus came along, and he said something entirely different. No… I hope I’ve proven from scripture that Jesus and the Old Testament are in harmony with one another—even as Jesus deepens and completes our understanding of the Old Testament.
One more thing: I was at a conference recently, and in a sermon, one of our denominational leaders included a sentence that went something like this: “The Jesus I know would never…” You can fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter what the issue was. My problem is with the way she used that phrase, “The Jesus I know…” She said it with absolute confidence that the Jesus she knows is different from the Jesus that people who disagree with her know.
And I wanted to ask, “Tell me how you know Jesus in the first place? Or, more precisely, do you know a Jesus other than the Jesus who is revealed in our Bibles?” Because I don’t know any other Jesus! Everything we know for sure about Jesus, we know from scripture. And I’m not disparaging anyone’s personal experience with Jesus; by all means, I believe I know Jesus in a personal way. I believe he meets me in the pages of scripture every morning—by the power of his Holy Spirit. I believe he speaks to me through the words of scripture; I believe he helps me apply these words to different situations in my own life.
But I know nothing from my personal experience of Jesus that contradicts the Jesus I meet in the pages of scripture. And neither do you.
If we are Christians, we all have equal access to the one and same Jesus. Because God, in his grace and wisdom, has ensured that the words of Jesus—and all the words that we need to know about Jesus—are written down in black and white (and sometimes red) in the pages of this book—the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. I’m not suggesting therefore that everything we need to know about Jesus is crystal-clear; only that when we appeal to the Jesus of our personal experience, we are—or ought to be—appealing to the Bible. If my Jesus is somehow different from your Jesus, then I need to show you from scripture why that’s true; I need to make a biblical argument.
Maybe you’ve heard something in this episode that has caused you to say, “Hold on, Pastor Brent! I didn’t know that sin—my sin—was the kind of problem that scripture says it is. No one told me about the reality of Final Judgment and hell. Perhaps I’m not even saved! Unless something changes, perhaps I’m bound for hell.”
If this describes you, I want to offer you good news: it’s not too late to repent! As long as we still have breath in our lungs, it’s not too late to turn to Jesus, to throw ourselves on his mercy. Just like it wasn’t too late for the thief on the cross, with whose dying breath confesses Jesus as Savior. And to this sinner Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” And Jesus can and will say the same to you and me and anyone else who turns to him in faith. Just one condition… turn to him in faith!
This is not un-conditional love; it’s one-conditional love; and let me apologize on behalf of United Methodist pastors everywhere if you’ve never heard about it. It’s probably not your fault. Regardless, I pray that you’ll receive God’s one-conditional love through his Son Jesus if you haven’t already. Amen.