One of the great questions that faces the church today concerns the existence and the nature of hell. Hell is under attack from outside the visible church and from inside. The question each one of us must answer is this: Does hell exist? Is it, as Christians have long claimed, a place of eternal, conscious punishment, a real place where real people will go for real time and face the real wrath of a real God?
Such a question may be a little bit misleading. To ask whether hell exists is not really a question about a place, like when you ask, “Does the city of Philadelphia actually exist?” or “Was there really a city called Jericho?” It is not a question of world geography, but of Divine character. The question of hell is first and foremost a question about the character of God. Here’s the thing: If there is a hell, we know that it cannot exist outside of the knowledge and the will of God. If God is who he says he is, if he really is all-knowing and all-powerful, then people cannot be there outside of his decree. And so any question about the existence of hell is really a question about God himself.
In a brief series of articles, I want to explore the relationship of God’s holiness to human sin and ask this question: What happens when human sin collides with God’s holiness? I will need to presuppose that you have some understanding of God’s holiness and that you know that God’s holiness is one of his most fundamental attributes. God’s holiness is his quality of being set apart, of being completely unlike anything or anyone else. His holiness pervades all he is and all he does. There is a sense in which his holiness modifies his other attributes, so that his love is a holy love and his justice is a holy justice.
In some way all sin is a violation of the holiness of God. God tells us, “Be holy as I am holy.” We are created in the image of the holy God; we are created as holy beings. Yet with every sin we choose unholiness in place of holiness, we choose our way instead of God’s way. With every sin we make light of God’s holiness, we make light of the fact that we are made in God’s image and are told to be like him. Every sin is a statement to God that says, “I choose not to be holy; I choose not to act in your image; I choose my way instead of your way!”
So what is the holy way for the holy God to act in the face of such sin? The Bible shows us that God may respond in two ways—he responds in patient mercy or he responds in just wrath.
In this series I want to go to the Bible to show that we worship a God of mercy and of wrath—a God who is praiseworthy for his mercy and his wrath. In fact, the only God who is worthy of our worship is the God who holds out not only the hope of heaven but also the horror of hell.
Here is how I will divide this up. First we will see that at times the holy God reacts to our sin with just wrath. Then we will see that at times the holy God reacts to our sin with patient mercy. Then, to wrap things up, we will look to the place where wrath and mercy meet. What we will see as we take a deep look at the character of God as it comes into contact with sin is that there is an inexorable connection between God’s holiness and the existence of hell. We will see that hell exists because God is holy—that hell must exist because God must be holy.
That will do by way of introduction. Stay tuned for part two of this series tomorrow.