The wrath of God as the way sinners naturally experience the love of the Holy God
It was from the writing of Martin Luther that I first gained the insight that there is no conflict between God’s wrath and his love, because wrath is the way the wicked experience the love of the holy God. But this idea is frequently found in the thought of Christian scholars in our own time. One of my favorite Reformed theologians, John Frame, writes: “But God’s wrath is nevertheless an outworking of his love. Once we understand God’s love, we know it as a tough love, one that respects his standards of righteousness and burns in jealousy against those who betray it. God’s wrath serves the purpose of his love, and his love is the richer for it: it bestows on his beloved the ultimate blessing of a sin-free world” (Doctrine of God, 467). Earlier in that immensely valuable book, Frame wrote: “It may also be worth considering that in their very punishment of hell, God is giving a privilege to the lost—the privilege of displaying his justice and his victory in the spiritual war (cf. Rom. 9:17). Those who find no benevolence in this privilege might be advised to consider whether their standards of goodness are sufficiently theocentric . . . . God is good to his creatures in different ways and at different times, depending on their natures and their roles in God’s plan for history. His goodness does not obligate him to give the same blessings to all, or to give the same blessings to any creature throughout his existence. If the lost in hell are now receiving no blessings at all, they cannot complain that God was never good to them. During this life they were surrounded by God’s goodness just like all other creatures.”(Doctrine of God, 413).
Similarly, Tony Lane says: “The claim that God’s wrath is an expression of his love is wider than the claim that it expresses love for its victim. It is also an expression of God’s love for other human beings. There may be situations, such as with God’s wrath against the impenitent in the final judgment, where wrath expresses love for its object” (“The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God,’ in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, edited by K. Vanhoozer, 167; cited by Strange, “Calvinist Response,” in Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate, edited by Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, p. 163). And Donald Bloesch writes: “C.S. Lewis has proposed an idea of hell that is more in keeping with the express teaching of the Word of God—that ‘the Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doing’ (Ps 145:17). According to Lewis, God created hell out of his mercy in order to set a limit on how bad people can get (citing The Pilgrim’s Regress, 180). Those who choose hell prefer the gloominess of hell to the light of heaven” (Bloesch, Last Things, 224). As Bloesch puts it: “But this is precisely what hell is: being exposed to the light that redeems even when darkness is much preferred. Hell is the incapacity to love even in the presence of love” (Bloesch, Last Things, 224–25).
The possibility that even in hell God manifests his grace toward sinners
In depictions of hell, we commonly hear it described as a place where God, though necessarily present by virtue of his omnipresence, is present only in wrath and not at all in love and grace. But not all Christian scholars believe this. Donald Bloesch, for instance, writes: “The catholic faith holds that there is real torment in hell, even though this suffering is alleviated by the grace that is pervasive in all of creation. It is more terrible to reject God and still be close to him than to reject God and be apart from him” (Last Things, 225; emphasis supplied). Bloesch posits that “God’s steadfast love encompasses even those who transgress God’s law” (226).
More surprising, perhaps, is the proposal of John Frame, who writes: “There may be some ways, however, in which God is good even to the lost. Perhaps he is as good to them as he can possibly be given their hatred of him and the demands of his justice. And if there are degrees of punishment in hell . . . . , then even in hell, God may exercise his benevolence by mitigating punishments” (Doctrine of God, 413; emphasis supplied).
I read Frame when I was a traditionalist, and I found his proposal very attractive. Scripture portrays God in such generous terms, as a God of grace. Revealing himself to Moses on Sinai, Yahweh had described himself as “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger” (Ex 34:6). So David sings of God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8), and Moses, as he interceded for rebellious people, reminded God of his own words (Num 14:18). So it did not strike me as incongruous that God would treat even the finally unrepentant with a justice softened by mercy. The concept of everlasting conscious torment is so overwhelming that it is not surprising that traditionalists, who believe that it is a truth revealed in Scripture, might hope for ways in which that truly terrifying prospect might be understood in a less awful way.
Grace within the framework of annihilationism
Since I had responded sympathetically to the suggestion that God might mitigate his awful, though thoroughly justified, expression of wrath against unrepentant sinners, when I was a traditionalist, I held on to that possibility when I considered the prospect that God’s final judgment of the wicked might terminate in their total destruction, body and soul. I recall suggesting to annihilationists, at that time, that God’s total destruction of the wicked was an act of mercy. That was not a suggestion which was well received, but I thought then that it was probably the case, if annihilationism were true.
Since I have reached the conclusion that annihilationism is indeed what Scripture teaches, I have needed to reconsider more seriously my earlier hypothesis. It is now clear to me why it was not deemed valid by others who had become annihilationists before me. Scripture is too constant in its assertion that death is the punishment for sin. It was God’s first warning to Adam and Eve, that disobedience will bring death upon them. And at the end of the final revelation from God to fallen human beings, given to John on Patmos, God declared that those who did not participate in the first resurrection, that is, those who do not “belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15:23), must face the “second death” (Rev 20:6; 21:8). They will not be able to eat of the tree of life (Rev 22:1-2, 14, 19) and drink the water of life (Rev 22:17), which are God’s gracious gift to those redeemed by Christ through faith. In between Genesis and Revelation, life and death are continuously the options God lays before people. One of the texts most memorized by Christians is Jesus’ stark statement of the alternative fates of eternal life or perishing, depending on whether or not one believes (Jn 3:16), and a core text in evangelical presentations of the good news is Rom. 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I assume that, when God decided to create human beings and to allow some of them to spurn his grace and persist in wilful rebellion, he might have decided that an appropriate punishment for that wickedness was something other than death, something more extreme, like eternal conscious torment, or perhaps something less drastic and final. But God decided to make death the punishment for sin, and only redemption by Christ the means of deliverance from that death. So death is the ultimate end of God’s punishing of the wicked, not a merciful deliverance from an appropriate time of conscious suffering. Whatever conscious suffering ensues from God’s final judgment of each individual is the process by which God finally destroys the wicked. Recognizing this, I now find no room in the biblical teaching concerning the end of the wicked to posit that grace or mitigating mercy is at work there. The sentence of God upon the wicked is always described as appropriate and proportionate to their sinful deeds, and no mention is ever made of the possibility that God might, as he so often did in the life of every sinner during their earthly life, graciously soften the judgment they deserve.
Response to the traditionalist contention that death or utter destruction can not be God’s punishment of the wicked because it is a fate they desire, to deliver them from God’s wrath
Occasionally, when traditionalists argue with annihilationists, they refer to Rev 6:15-16, where people hid themselves in caves and among the rocks of the mountains and called to the mountains and rocks: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand.” Notice, they say, how people sought death as a means of deliverance from the active judgment of God against them, reminiscent of the people whom Jesus had said would prefer death to the horrors that were going to come upon Jerusalem (Lk 23:30).
Traditionalists argue that death is what sinners would prefer, rather than face the endless punishment of hell, but God will not accede to those desires, because his justice must be served, and that entails endless conscious torment. Some may go on to refer to the threat of unquenchable fire, which was part of John the Baptist’s warning to sinners in his day. The one for whom John prepared the way will have “his winnowing fork in his hand,” gathering “his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:12). So Jesus warns that “it is better 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” (Mk 9:47-48). But, as annihilationists frequently point out, Scripture’s point in regard to the worm and the fire is that no creature can kill the worm or put out the fire, since the “unquenchable fire” does go out, elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Jer 17:27; 52:13; 2 Chron 36:19-21; Isa 34:10; 66:24; Ezek 20:47-48). The fire and the worm will continue their destructive work until it is complete, because they are God’s instrument in that destruction.
When we read texts that tell us that sinners under God’s judgment will long to die rather than to continue to experience God’s wrath, what we need to realize is that it will not be the prerogative of the wicked to deliver themselves from their suffering of God’s wrath. It is God who will determine how long the fire must burn before the chaff is consumed. Even though death may appear to be a form of relief from the destructive wrath of God, when the full meaning of that death is made clear, no one could possibly think that the second death is a relief. The death of which Scripture warns sinners is far worse than what awaits us all, believer and unbeliever alike, unless Christ returns before we die. Paul tells us that what follows death, for believers, is actually better than our condition here, because, although we will be “away from the body,” we will be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). But the second death is something categorically different. It is the antithesis of the life with God that awaits believers, in the new heaven and earth. It is the absolute end of life, the destruction of soul as well as body (Mt 10:28). And, what makes it truly terrible is what has been lost, the incomparable joy of endless life in a world where God makes his dwelling place among human beings. Where everyone there is one of God’s people, and their will be no tears, no death, no mourning, no crying, and no pain, because those come from life in a world where sin reigns, and there will be no sin in the new earth (Rev 21:3,4).
I believe that in the time approaching their destruction, the wicked will become aware of the immensity of the loss that they have brought upon themselves through their deliberate disobedience and unrepentance and unbelief. The death that looms before them will not look like relief. It will inspire unspeakable grief, weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 8:12; 13:42), both sorrow and anger. The fear of death in this life, a fear which is characteristic of unbelievers who have no hope beyond death, pales in insignificance by comparison with the terror of absolutely ceasing to be, particularly when one could have lived forever in the only true utopia.
The choice before us is stark, life and good, or death and evil (cf. Deut 30:15-20). Thanks be to God, life can be ours through Christ – eternal life, life with God, life without any of the evil effects of sin, either within us or in our environment. Now is the time for us to experience the mercy and kindness of God, but if we spurn all God’s gracious overtures toward us, the prospect is horrific to imagine. We must either accept God’s grace while it is being offered to us, or face the just judgment of God upon us for every disobedience to our own conscience, which is our discernment of God’s moral command according to which he will hold us accountable. When we fail to be continually obedient to that inner sentinel, as we all do, there is no remedy other than Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for us. Only his death can give us life, endless life, glorious life.