“God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.”1
“When we regard God as the author of our moral nature, we conceive of Him as holy; when we regard Him in his dealings with his rational creatures, we conceive of Him as righteous. He is a righteous ruler; all his laws are holy, just, and good. In his moral government He faithfully adheres to those laws. He is impartial and uniform in their execution. As a judge he renders unto every man according to his works. He neither condemns the innocent, nor clears the guilty; neither does He ever punish with undue severity. Hence the justice of God is distinguished as…that which is concerned in the imposition of righteous laws and in their impartial execution; and…that which is manifested in the righteous distribution of rewards and punishment. The Bible constantly represents God as a righteous ruler and a just judge.”2
Deuteronomy 32:4: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
Psalm 11:7: “For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.”
Psalm 89:14: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”
Psalm 98:9b: “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
Romans 3:23-26: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Most of God’s revelation is relatively straight forward and easy to understand, though even the simplest truths can be denied by those hostile to God. At the same time, some things are “hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Other things are easily understood on a cognitive level, but confront us with profound and difficult implications. For instance, the doctrine of eternal hell is clearly taught in Scripture. Christ spoke of it often as the appropriate penalty for sin. Yet, I suspect that most thoughtful Christians have at some point struggled with the sheer terror of the doctrine, or have questioned the severity of the punishment in light of the crime. And while the most zealous atheist can accept hell for Hitler or Stalin, hell appears to most people, including some professing believers, as unduly cruel and unbecoming of a God of love and justice. Yet Scripture clearly teaches it.
How can we respond to unbelieving attacks or personal doubts concerning the doctrine? To begin, all the implications of God’s attributes we have seen thus far apply here. Created by the eternally self-existent and self-sufficient God, we owe God all love, honor, obedience, and thanks. But what is our response to God?
If we consider how various, innumerable, and vast the benefits we receive from God, how infinitely great and wonderful that grace, which is revealed and offered to them who live under the gospel--in that eternal salvation which is procured by God giving his only-begotten Son to die for sinners--and also how unworthy we are all, deserving...eternal perdition under God’s wrath and curse--how great is the gratitude that would become us, who are the subjects of so many and great benefits!...But ho! what poor returns!--How little the gratitude! How low, how cold and inconstant, the affection in the best, compare with the obligation! And what then shall be said of the gratitude of the generality?3
Our appreciation hardly answers our debt to God for His goodness, while we little understand the degree to which our sin, indifference, and ingratitude insult God’s infinite majesty. If we accurately understood the infinite holiness of God and the depth of our contempt for one so deserving of all love, honor, and obedience, we would not question the justice of hell, even as we cringe at its horrors. Indeed, what can we say of someone who despises the God who suffered infinite wrath for the infinitely unworthy that they might have infinite bliss for eternity? God knows the full extent of such evil and will deal with it justly.
Moreover, as we depend upon God for all knowledge and truth, we can only know what God has chosen to reveal to us. And even what we do know is clouded by sin and self-justification. And should we reject revealed truths because we do not understand them or cannot reconcile them with our finite understanding of logic, we make our own understanding the ultimate standard of truth and of what can and cannot be true or possible. In this we assume the place and prerogative of God and imitate the sin of Adam and Eve. If we assume that created, finite, and dependent people possess the authority to reject one doctrine revealed by God because we do not like it or understand it, why not others? And while those who reject the doctrine of eternal hell may not reject every aspect of the Gospel, they have affirmed the principle by which others will do so.
Additionally, God is infinite, incomprehensible, omniscient, holy, good and righteous. He knows all things perfectly and all that He does is perfect, good, and right. He knows the deepest thoughts and motives of the hearts of all people intimately while we judge by superficial appearances. He sees the whole picture clearly while we see a small part dimly. How, then, from our limited and fallen perspective, can we possibly question a truth revealed to us by such a God? We simply cannot.
As with the mysteries of God and the universe, we must admit our human limitations and trust the perfect character of our infinite God. Whatever we may think about eternal hell, we can rest assured that no one will suffer unjustly and that the punishment will justly fit the crimes. “Shall not the judge of the earth deal justly?” We can take comfort that Christ endured infinite suffering that people might not go there, and rejoice that we have been delivered from its punishment. Our hearts should be moved by love and compassion for those who reject Christ as the remedy for their sin. But we dare not sin in assuming the place of God as the ultimate standard of truth.
The principles applied in approaching the difficult doctrine of hell apply to every difficult question of Scripture, though the nature of the difficulty may differ. With respect to hell, our struggle basically stems from the horror of the doctrine and not a lack of biblical support. Other difficulties stem from a lack of specific Bible texts on a topic, or a lack of understanding of how clearly revealed theological principles apply to a topic. And while a list and treatment of difficult theological questions is beyond the scope of this work, the principles presented here can be applied to any theological difficulty. Whatever the difficulty that confronts our limited understanding, God’s righteousness assures us that no one will be condemned who does not deserve it, and no one will be in heaven without the perfection of the imputed righteousness of Christ. The believer need not have answers to every difficult question, but can rest in the perfect righteousness of God. Indeed, when God’s justice is questioned, we need only look to Christ’s work on the cross. And as we have seen, faith ultimately rests in the character of God in the face of our limited understanding and His infinity. We must content ourselves in our status as created, limited in our understanding, and dependent upon God for all truth. In any event, we clearly know God’s justice by the infinite extent He went to uphold it in the saving work of Christ. In Him we can rest.
Whatever the theological difficulty, the foundation for a proper approach to it begins with the perfections of God and their implications for apologetics. God is the proper starting point for all knowledge.
Created, finite, and dependent sinners are in no place to sit in judgment of God. As noted with respect to God’s holiness, we have no claims upon a holy God. Moreover, God is the ultimate judge of the universe, as He is the ultimate source and standard of all righteousness. He alone is qualified to judge His creation, and He cannot be judged by it. Such would be an irreverent role reversal. Nonetheless, in our sinfulness we often judge God. As Adam and Eve compared God’s will to the will of the serpent, they sat in judgment of God’s command and subordinated God’s revealed will and authority to their own. They assumed the place of ultimate authority and treated God’s will as below that of the lying serpent. And we do the same when we sit in judgment of God’s revealed will and providence. And while we may question God from a position of humble reverence in seeking greater understanding and clarity regarding His revealed will, we are never justified to sit in judgment over God. In the same way, anger against God is never justified. What right do we have to be angry with our Creator and Redeemer, whose will is perfect?
In defending and proclaiming the Gospel, the true Gospel must be defended and proclaimed. The warning of the first chapter of Galatians should sober us all.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).
The foundation of a proper Gospel is a proper understanding of God’s justice. The justice of God is that which stands in the way of the sinner’s reconciliation with God, demands condemnation for sin, and requires satisfaction of its requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life. The nature of God’s justice, therefore, shapes the nature of Christ’s redeeming work in meeting its demands in order that sinners might be saved in a manner consistent with God’s justice. In short, the perfection and penalty for sin required by God’s justice can only be satisfied by the perfection and payment of Christ as our substitute. The requirement of Adam’s perfect obedience as the representative of his posterity went unfulfilled in his disobedience and is only fulfilled by Christ. The penalty for the sin of Adam and his posterity could only be paid by Christ, an infinite payment for an infinite debt. And so it is that Christ is the only way, for no other could satisfy the strict and unchanging requirements of God’s justice.
One of the great marvels of the Gospel is that God remains just in justifying the ungodly, as His justice is satisfied by Christ on behalf of believers, and the law of God is upheld because its strict requirements were never abrogated or diminished. Christ fulfilled them perfectly. And so we read, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). United to Christ through faith, the righteousness of Christ that satisfied God’s just requirements for eternal life is legally imputed or credited to the believer. The requirements of God’s law are satisfied in the salvation of sinners through faith in Christ, upholding the requirements of God’s justice.
The strict and inflexible nature of God’s justice cannot allow for salvation any other way. For God to save a single sinner apart from the satisfaction of His strict and unchanging justice would render God unrighteous. He would not be God in such a case. Moreover, the road to a salvation by the works of sinners is paved by a relaxing of God’s strict justice. But, “if righteousness comes through the Law,” with reference to sinners keeping of the Law, “then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). All distortions and or denials of the Gospel are founded upon error regarding God’s justice, and all religions based on works righteousness compromise God’s perfect justice.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 203.
2 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:416.
3 Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin, ed. By Clyde A. Holbrook, vol. 3 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 155.