Chapter 5 of Healing Hereafter
So our observations tell us that God made humans different than the rest of his earthly creations. But why create humans in the first place, and why with free will? These are two of the most important questions ever asked, and we are given an answer to both in Acts 17:26-28. “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” God’s purpose in creating humans was for them to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” and this desire for community is maintained by God throughout the Bible (Leviticus 26:11-12, Jeremiah 31:33-34, Revelation 21:3). One of Jesus’ names, Immanuel, even means “God with us” (Matthew 1:21-23)! But this purpose cannot be accomplished without free will and therefore is only perhaps accomplished because of free will. Read the last sentence again. Read it again. Read it ag…OK, that’s good. But understanding it is absolutely crucial to make Hell understandable and Heaven unmistakable. We cannot seek God, reach out for God, and find God without free will. We would be mere humanoid extensions of God’s will, as if we were puppets and God was moving the strings. He would be seeking, reaching out for, and finding himself. God understands that the only way to know that his purpose has been realized, to know that we are truly seeking, reaching out for, and finding him, is if we can freely choose to do so. To be redundantly clear, God had to create us in his image, he had to give us free will, in order to accomplish his purpose for creating us in the first place.21
But this necessity also makes it possible for us not to seek him, reach out for him, or find him, doesn’t it? And for every one of us, this possibility has become a reality, starting with Adam and Eve, who the Bible portrays as the first two individuals on earth God made in his image. The first two fully human beings, possessing a spirit with consciousness and free will. They had it made. Surrounded by a perfect garden and enjoying God’s perfect provision, they had everything they could ever need. Including a choice. They were commanded not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8-17). They already knew good; indeed, they understood good far more fully than any of us do. Their choice then was whether to only know good or to know evil as well, wasn’t it? To be satisfied with God and his perfect perspective and provision or to seek, reach out for, and find what is not God, what is not good. They chose the latter; they sinned. Some claim that “we will never solve this mystery of sin,” that “evil should never make sense,” and that “part of what makes evil so bad is its inexplicable mystery.” “If we could comprehend the presence of evil—its origin, purpose, and how and why God allowed it to enter his perfect world—then it wouldn’t be quite so evil.”22 Aside from that not making sense to me, we have seen that free will solves the “mystery” of all these things quite sensibly and explicably. Free will made it possible for God to accomplish his purpose in creating Adam and Eve, but it also made it possible for them to sin, and the most devastating consequence of choosing to do so was that they had to die.
But why? How does their choice separate them from God, necessarily leading to death? Many of us have heard that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), but is this just some arbitrary punishment that we’ve memorized? No, God didn’t spin some big ole heavenly wrath wheel that happened to stop on death; his consequence for sin makes much more sense than that. Sin results in death for two reasons. First, Adam and Eve used their free will to tell God that they wanted to know evil, what is apart from God and good. Every time we use our free will to do the same—every time we sin—we tell God that we want to know what is apart from him and good as well. We want to know evil, and we haven’t stopped expressing that desire to God, have we (Hosea 8:2-3)? Being ashamed of one’s body, fearing to encounter God, blaming others, experiencing pain in what should be wonderful things like childbirth, unhealthy marriage dynamics, and failure at work were all specific consequences immediately resulting from Adam and Eve wanting to know and experience evil (Genesis 3:6-19). And they are still very tangible ways humans know and experience evil today as well. What might have seemed to you before to be random consequences or punishments for Adam and Eve’s sin—and our sin—make a lot of sense now, don’t they? Knowing evil immerses us in everything that is not good and that is not God; sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2). And of all the many things that teach us about evil, that allow us to know it and understand it, which is the most informative, the most representative, the most ultimate? Our own death, the very thing that separates us from God the most. Even after injustice, even after torture, even after the death of others, we can still find hope, we can still find good, and we can still endure. But not after our own death, so long as there is no escape from it. To comprehensively know evil, we must experience death. This is why “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” without God even needing to do any punishing (James 1:14-15)! Adam and Eve were told that upon eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “you will surely die” because death is the ultimate result of knowing evil, not simply because God had randomly settled on death as a punishment for sin (Genesis 2:16-17).
Second, if it is God’s purpose for humans to seek him in a perfect relationship and existence, this can never happen if imperfection, whether human or circumstantial, is present. Sinful humans cannot fulfill their purpose, God cannot forever tolerate being in the presence of their disobedience and evil, and he will not allow them to immortally mar creation, others, and themselves, so he punishes sin with death (Habakkuk 1:13, Genesis 6:3). Adam and Eve are banished from eternal life in the garden into an imperfect existence where they will continue to learn to know evil and eventually die (Genesis 3:22-24). So “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), both because it is the ultimate consequence of choosing to know evil and because it is God’s necessary punishment to prevent people, who can’t fulfill their purpose anyway, from perpetually increasing evil and ruination. We sin to get a life apart from him and his purpose; we are punished with a life apart from him and his purpose. A just punishment that fits the crime perfectly, doesn’t it? God makes sense.
Many people wonder why God has to be just, and they view this as a negative thing. But not so deep down they know that injustice is wrong, and many of them strive to alleviate the inequalities around them, even as they raise their eyebrows at God’s justice. Justice is a part of God’s nature, a virtue he will always value (Deuteronomy 32:4, Nahum 1:3, Revelation 19:1-2, Micah 6:8). This is a good and rational optimal behavior, and it’s not hard to see why we should be more than glad that we have a just God. If God wasn’t just, there would be no specific punishment for sin, so we wouldn’t have to die. Sounds OK so far, but let’s keep going. We all would just keep living here on earth being sinful and knowing more and more evil and suffering as a result. If God wasn’t just, there would be no reason for him to create us to value justice either. We would never fairly punish wrong, and almost immediately our world would be in anarchy. Keep in mind that we’re immortal through all this. We would live forever in complete chaos. Here’s the worst part: God wouldn’t care. An unjust God would see no need to stop or punish wrongdoing; in fact, he might choose to punish doing right, just because! You would be at the disposal of an unjust God and unjust humans forever. No good!*
(* Incidentally, similar chaos would also result from a society embracing moral relativism, as described here.23)
Justice is good (Psalm 37:28, Luke 18:7, 8). And when we see how wisely and mercifully God employs it, making the penalty for our offense simply the consequence of knowing evil anyway, “Why should the living complain when punished for their sins” (Lamentations 3:39)? It’s a punishment we continuously choose, fully deserve, and have no reason to gripe about. Moreover, God does not go beyond justice, throwing an angry temper tantrum at us, uncontrollably hurling thunderbolts in Zeusian fashion. God assures us, “I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished” (Jeremiah 30:11). Sounds fair, literally, right?
God gives us justice, which means that sin gives us death. But if we each have a spirit that remains when our body goes six feet under, and if it cannot enter the perfect good that God resides in and desires for us, which we call Heaven, then where is the only place it can end up? Where imperfection is everywhere, where good is gone, where God does not reside, where God does not desire us to go, but where free will opens the door to. Hell. God voluntarily keeps himself absent from Hell, so that humans can freely choose what they want (1 Chronicles 28:9, Jeremiah 23:39-40, Matthew 25:41, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10). God and the angels can observe Hell, but it is outside of God’s kingdom of Heaven, and he is clearly not present within it (Matthew 8:11-12, Revelation 14:9-11, 21:6-8, 22-27). Instead, there is fire, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and darkness—not surprisingly the same consequences we’ve repeatedly witnessed on earth when godless humans freely choose what is not God, whether by hypocritically misrepresenting God or simply out of selfishness (Matthew 25:41-46, 24:45-51, Jude 1:12-13). We’ll focus on how long Hell lasts in Parts 6-8, and when we do, the explanation will be thorough. But there are a lot of things we need to discuss before that question can be appropriately answered, and all you need to understand now is why Hell must exist in the first place and why it is not merely a punishment, but primarily a choice (Acts 13:45-46). If you made it through the Stanford essay I referenced toward the beginning of this book, you will recall how many problems arose when Hell solely existed for the purpose of punishment. We don’t encounter those problems here. Because God will always accomplish his purposes (Isaiah 46:10), because his purpose in creating humans was to seek him and perhaps find him, and because a perfect God will not perpetually exist amongst evil and wrongdoing (Habakkuk 1:13), he had to give us free will to make Heaven what it was meant to be—for him and for humans—and Hell is an unavoidable byproduct. If you take away Hell, you take away free will. If you take away free will, you take away any meaningful existence for humans in Heaven and negate God’s purpose in creating humans at all. God sure makes a lot of sense, doesn’t he? Heaven is no arbitrary reward, sin is no arbitrary offense, death is no arbitrary punishment, and Hell is no arbitrary destination. Everything is there for good reasons. But sin is humanity’s offense, death is humanity’s punishment, and without escape from death, Hell is humanity’s destination. A big problem. One that needs a big solution. Read on.