Links to the previous three essays can be found at the end of this article.
Part 4: Jesus Is Offensive In His Judgments
Injustice or Jealousy?
One of the hardest parables Jesus gave for me to preach is the one from Matthew 20 where Jesus talks about workers getting hired at different times of the day and all getting paid the same wage at the end of the day.
I think I get it in its interpretation. That’s not the problem. The reason I say it is hard to preach is that no matter how you interpret it, it just sounds unfair. It is bookended by the phrase “The first will be last,” which sounds intriguing. But everything that happens in between sounds like a fast-talking businessman who gets you with the semantics of the contract he had you sign even though there is something clearly wrong with how it played out in real life.
Welcome to the world of not being able to put Jesus in any boxes. For the record, I do not think Jesus is a fast-talking businessman. I think God, and by nature Jesus, are completely fair in their judgments. But what is fair to God may not sound fair to me. And hence, it can be offensive. And crazy enough, this example isn’t even close to how offensive Jesus as Judge over men’s souls can be.
Even Tolerance Is Exclusive
It gets even more offensive, at least if secular American culture is any indication when you talk about how Jesus himself and his early followers claimed he was the sole path to get to God. In one sermon Jesus attested, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” This sounds like arrogance unless you consider that Jesus believed himself to be God himself and proved it by rising from the dead. Taking that into consideration I think he has the authority to claim which way is correct. Besides, you cannot escape claims of exclusivity by any view on this topic and the major world religions do not even try. Jesus also claimed the vast majority of people would not accept the one path, adding to the arrogant exclusivity effect.
The One Subject We All Want To Avoid
Yet it gets even more offensive. It is not enough that the vast majority of the world will not get to God because they choose manmade religion or human ego instead of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that those that do not end up in Hell. Whether we interpret the biblical imagery of Hell as literal or figurative, I find it quite difficult to get around the harshness of it being a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual reality. Maybe there isn’t really fire but there is real suffering1.
This may be the king of all the offensive Bible teachings2. When you hear atheists talk about it, often their ire will come in the form of them saying something along the lines of: “Say I live a good, moral life. I love people. I give to the poor. I live that way until I die. According to the Bible, God is going to send me to eternal fiery torment just because I didn’t believe in his Son?” George Carlin, the comedian who used humor to make serious points, said it this way:
“Religion has convinced people there is an invisible man — living in the sky — who watches everything you do…And this invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time…But He loves you!”3
These types of statements are a clever bit of searing verbal gymnastics but are abysmal biblical hermeneutics.
The problem with it at its core is defining what a good moral life is. Take this statement from the late atheist Christopher Hitchens: “My challenge—Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever.”4
The answer to that is simple and it is the basis for all of Christian morality. A nonbeliever could not give glory to God in covenant relationship. It is foolish to use the Old Testament Law to try to castigate the Christian’s basis for morality since we are no longer under it (Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:18). Our basis of morality is in a relationship with God, similar to children to a Father and a bride to a husband, worshipping him with our lives. And those who have and do that will spend eternity with Him. Those who do not, will not. Make no mistake, if I live a moral life by the world’s definition but do not humble before God by confessing I am not moral by his standard5, I am worthy of eternal punishment according to the Bible. If I never relationally enter into his kingdom to give Him all honor and glory for all that is good, I am worthy eternal punishment according to the Bible.
Here is what I mean: If there is a God who created you and gave you life and strongly desires a relationship with you in spite of you being sinful by his standards and you say, “Nope, I’m good. I got it on my own,” then that is about as terrible an insult as you can throw at him. Reading Ezekiel 16 gives a graphic allegory of why God sees it that way. As a result, human pride–defined in the Bible as living life without giving God the glory in covenant relationship—is listed over and over as something that God hates. And it is at times listed right beside things like the murder of innocents (Proverbs 6:16-19).
I expect the secular world to bristle at that and find it deeply offensive or just ludicrously stupid. But to me, it makes sense if there is a God. God’s standard of perfection cannot be attained and he offers committed relationship anyway, as the lone sovereign Creator of the universe. And to spit at that is the worst we can do. In Ezekiel 8 God tells his people he wants to show them the most abhorrent, vile, repugnant thing he can. And does he show them rape? Bestiality? Torture? No. He shows them God’s people worshipping other gods. For many the false gods are their own appetite and earthly things (Phil 3:19). Or to say it another way, it is themselves.
Hell in that sense makes rational sense to me. There will be people who end up in Hell who never killed a person or committed adultery. But there isn’t a single person in Hell who didn’t fail to give God the glory in covenant relationship. And if that is as evil as murder or rape or child abuse–and biblically I believe it is—then Hell makes sense. You can argue that even child abusers do not deserve Hell if they die without repenting, but putting it in that context definitely causes you to not take George Carlin or many atheist proclamations about biblical morality and Hell quite so seriously.
I hasten to add that I am adamant about saying Hell makes rational sense to me. It does not make emotional sense and I’m not sure it ever will. It causes me to be nauseous often when I think about it. It wages war on my emotions any time I preach it and no topic in the world makes me more uncomfortable. But if it is what the Bible teaches, I have to man up and deal with it.
Only Christ Can Judge You, And He Certainly Will
Jesus clearly laid claim to deity by claiming to be the Judge of all humanity. He said in John 5, “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son…And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” And he also claimed his judgments were fair and true (John 5:30, 8:16). I think we can also add one heavy adjective to his judgments as well: offensive.
It has not been my fundamental intention to bring a downer to the Christmas season this year. It’s simply to rediscover who Jesus is, at a time of year when people are talking about him and taking advantage of an innocent baby to make him someone he wasn’t. I guarantee understanding the real Jesus of Scripture will only help us to worship him more biblically this time of year.
And that is what REO is all about.
- I learned a lot about this from Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle in Erasing Hell, 76-80. ↩
- Tim Keller says it is in his experience in the multi-contributor book Is There A Hell Or Does Everyone Go To Heaven When They Die? ↩
- Cited by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, 317. ↩
- Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 289 ↩
- Remember, Jesus said put lust in the same category with adultery, and once disintegrated a rich young ruler’s morality, utterly humiliating him, after the man claimed he was righteous by God’s law ↩