Scratching Where it NEVER Itches


My daughter is a nursing student at a hospital here in the Philippines. She was looking through some of the reading materials that were left lying around. One caught her attention enough to take a picture of every page. It was a “gospel tract.” Fairly long one. I will put a few quotes here.

In response to the possible objection that spending an eternity in hell is unreasonable (or I would probably reword it as unjust), the writer states:

“It is obvious to everyone but ourselves that eternity in hell is the correct sentence for lawbreakers. A preacher once said, ‘The moment when you take your first step through the gates of hell, the only thing you will hear is all of creation standing to its feet and applauding and praising God because God has rid the earth of you. That’s how not good you are.’

… Not only does God see sin as exceedingly sinful, He is the One against whom each and every offense is primarily committed. If anyone should be angry about sin, it is God Himself. And He is. And that anger will last for an eternity.”

In a different section titled The Inevitable Verdict, the writer says,

“If God finds you guilty, and He will, you will be instantly whisked off to God’s eternal prison, hell. This is your final resting place, but there will be no rest. God’s righteous, holy, indignant wrath will rest on you for all of eternity.

Your first day of activities involves weeping, gnashing your teeth, and torment. Your ten-thousandth day is no different from your first; your suffering will never decrease in intensity. You would give anything for a drop of water or a ray of sunshine, but it never comes. Ever.

You will find no comfort in being surrounded with friends. Hell will not be an eternal party; it will be eternal punishment. And the One inflicting the punishment will be the One against whom you have committed all of your crimes: God Himself.

God, the just judge of the entire world, is going to judge you, and He is willing and able to pour out His anger and wrath on you forever and ever and ever. His holiness, righteousness, and love demand it.

You will receive only ongoing, unrelenting, and intense misery— eternal, conscious torment with no reprieve. You will forever receive the just reward for the unrighteous life you have willingly and knowingly lived.

Is there any hope for sinners like you and me? Is there any way we can escape the horrors of hell?”

I think that is enough. Here are some random thoughts to the presentation. Some are theological, while others are practical. However, my biggest complaint is the first one.

  1.  It scratches where it doesn’t itch. A survey a few years ago found that only about 3% of Americans are afraid of hell. I suspect the writer knows this because he spends 20 pages trying to convince readers that one SHOULD be afraid of hell. He seems more interested in convincing people that Hell is horrible, than that God is loving. But why do that at all? If a person’s itch is on their arm why scratch their shoulder? If a smoker is worried about money, why focus on cosmetic blemishes caused by smoking? Why not focus on how expensive smoking is short-term as well as long-term? Why not scratch where it itches? Salvation brings blessings, meaning and purpose, a place in God’s family, ability to endure struggles, give victory, and more. Why focus on the most negative (and least valued) motivations in this century to reach people?
  2. It focuses on the least interesting (or at least most ambiguous) metaphor. There are many metaphors used in the Bible for salvation. There is the shepherd seeking a person as a lost sheep. There is the adult choosing to adopt an orphan. There is the father seeking a wayward son. There is a person who liberates another from bondage. There is God as a sheltering refuge. There is God as a vinedresser grafting in new branches to an old vine. Instead the writer uses, and reifies, the metaphor of the courtroom. There is value in this metaphor— that is why Paul uses it. But it also places God in the most ambiguous position. God is the judge seeking to pass sentence… while Jesus, as God’s Son, is seen as the one acting as a mediator and payer of debt. This seems to place God the Father as wrathful while God the Son as loving.  It looks like God is schizophrenic (Mark 10:45 has a metaphor with a similar problem). Of course, this problem comes when one takes a metaphor and stretches it too far. God the Father is FAR MORE than a just God seeking to express his “just” anger against EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, into hell for ever and ever and ever, The Father is, after all, the one who sent the Son to rescue mankind as an act of unjustified mercy. This brings the next point.
  3. The writer spends too much time defending God. Over and over again the writer says that God is just. But why would he being doing this? I think it is because he really wants us to condemn ourselves. If we can buy into the idea that God is just, and that we have violated God’s law, then we can embrace the idea that hell is where we belong. But does God really need defending? And more to the point, are we really supposed to be intellectually comfortable with the idea that our Creator truly hates us and wants us to exist forever in torment? I feel that one reason the writer spends so much time defending God is that there is a bit of an unraveling in the logic because of the next point.
  4. God is not all that just. Now before you get all bothered by this point, hear me out. The Old Testament describes two coexising qualities of God throughout… God’s justice and God’s mercy. Mercy, is, in part at least, the quality of suspending justice due to compassion. Thus, God is just… but His justice is limited by His compassion. In the New Testament, John notes that the quality that best defines God is Love, not Justice. I don’t think that it is correct to say that God is fully loving and fully just. There is an imbalance, and that imbalance is in our favor.
  5. God, as described in the gospel tract, is not all that just even in human terms, not just Biblical terms. The writer suggests that God is just for punishing even though we have no option but be guilty, that we have no formal knowledge of standards we must live by, and that everlasting torture is appropriate. This is expressed even though by every standard of justice that we have… including in the Bible (“eye for an eye” is meant to show that punishment must not exceed the act) … would make the activity seem unjust. The most comon emotion recorded of Jesus, the most complete revelation of God, is His compassion and showed great ability to spend time with, and even enjoy the company of, sinners. Also, Paul, who popularized the metaphor of salvation in terms of the courtroom, told unbelievers (in the book of Acts) that God has chosen to overlook their sins because they did not know better. It is hardly surprising that the metaphor of the courtroom is passed over to other metaphors as the role of grace is emphasized in Paul’s writings. (I am not trying to minimize the issue of sin, but to note that the Bible expresses it in a more nuanced way than is commonly expressed in morality plays.)
  6. Some of the hermeneutics in the tract is pretty awful. The writer says that if one is angry than one is guilty of murder, violating one of God’s 10 commandments. Likewise if one has sexual fantasies than one is violating the commandment about adultery. If that was so, than certainly anyone must jump in and say that God is truly unjust since these actions do not violate the letter of the law. A just judge must follow the law. Of course, the writer is drawing from the sermon on the mount, but Jesus did NOT say that anger is the same as murder, or that fantasies are the same as adultery. They are different things. That interpretation violates any sound interpretation of the respective passages. (And it is so unnecessary. The Bible says these things are sinful. That is really enough.) Additionally, the Bible does not actually say that Hell is a place of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Now I know this is a hot button topic for some. I will simply say that I don’t know what hell is like… but just note that describing it in Revivalistic terms rather than what the Bible actually says tends to undermine the strength of the argument. Clearly it is a bad place, but going beyond what the Bible says should make one question the writer. Bad hermeneutics tends to lead to distrust in the reader.
  7. The tract is WAY too long. It takes 20 pages just to place the reader in hell. It takes reading that God is unjust and angry for 20 pages before one finally gets to the area where God is presented as (unjustly) being merciful through Christ.
  8. The expressed goal of the writer is to scare the reader. Is that really a good path to loving God?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

To note, I am an Evangelical (although its ties to politics and to nationalism in many circles has made me want to distance myself from the term of late). As such, I generally agree with the basic massage. We need to seek God’s love and mercy to be saved by Him. And this comes through Christ. But as Jackson Wu humorously demonstrated in his book “One Gospel for All Nations,” one can take a lot of true, or at least theologically justifiable, statements and create a hideous monster of a gospel presentation. While there are some weak or doubtful statements in the presentation, the biggest problem is that it creates a hugely unappealing presentation of the gospel. True is never good enough. One must scratch where it itches.

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