The Hope of the Coming Hell

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” (Romans 10:1)

The quest for salvation has certainly cooled. For those who are not saved it does not seem to be much of a concern. For those who are saved the “un-saved-ness” of the other population seems to be something unfortunate, but not much else. For Paul the condition of those who had not entered God’s salvation was something that anguished his heart. There are not many things in life that actually cause the immaterial soul to feel pain, but this trauma he felt. Nowadays it is as if no one really cares who is saved and who is not.

Salvation refers to rescue. Rescue from what? It could be a number of things ranging from physical illness to military attack. In the mind of Paul salvation primarily and almost exclusively refers to rescue from the wrath of God. Yet most interesting at this point, when one dissects the mind of Paul, is that it is not so much that the “un-saved” would enter into the wrath of God that plagued his soul. What anguished Paul was what they were missing if they did not enter into salvation.

The wrath of God was a well developed image in Jewish Apocalyptic literature. In the coming eschaton God would crush evil and put the world back to right. Israel was portrayed as the righteous of God awaiting vindication while the pagan nations were represented in manifold dark and evil images that would soon be annihilated by the power of the Almighty. God would rescue. As such apocalyptic literature, though its imagery would be considered scary to most, at is core it was very hopeful. Paul was well acquainted with this hope.

In our modern interpretations of the Apocalypse there is grim concentration on the blood and fire of the coming judgment. In our modern church theatres the portrayal of the end is horrific and far less than hopeful. The aim is to scare people into Heaven. That is not the point of the Apocalypse. The literature produced that portrayed the apocalypse was done to sustain hope rather than to literally “scare the Hell” out of people. It was most often written in time of desperate turmoil, in oppression, slavery, and exile. It conveyed a central message to Israel. “God will rescue us.” In Jewish Apocalyptic literature the end was horrific because hope mattered that much and it was simply that beautiful.

What is interesting about Paul is that in his writings he does not concentrate as much on the fate of the wicked, the fire, the Hell, the final battles of blood; Paul concentrates not on life lost but rather on life missed. I am not saying that Paul does not believe in Hell or such, all I am saying is that with Jesus Hell and the end are well developed realities. With John’s Revelation, Hell and the end are super developed realities. At some point future I would like to argue that Revelation is a far more beautiful and hopeful book than it is usually preached. That does not mean it lacks the awful, but rather that the awful is not the full picture. In the end there is God’s victory; that is the message of apocalyptic literature.

In the scope of all Paul writes about, he says very little about these apocalyptic realties. If anything could be considered Paul’s apocalyptic contribution it would be a few verses in 1 Corinthians and perhaps 2 Thessalonians[1], but as you see in comparison these are but blips in the scope of the entire Pauline corpus. The anguish of Paul is not only in the life lost by judgment but in the life missed by not entering into the salvation of Jesus Christ. “He is more concerned to warn of the danger of missing life in Christ than to explore the precise form which this loss might take.”[2]

“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).” The proclamation that Jesus is Lord stands in stark contrast to the surrounding pagan world that celebrates its own stained messiahs. For Rome it was Caesar. When a gospel was proclaimed in Rome it meant that a new king had been born who would restore the glory of the empire. Paul proclaims unequivocally “Jesus is Lord.” The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead is the definitive Messianic miracle. For the Jews Paul was saying this Jesus is the Messiah of God who will set the world back to right. “Jesus is Lord.” Salvation is about escaping the impending wrath of God and all of its horror but that is not the end. Salvation is about entering into the life of the risen Christ Jesus. It is the realization of all of Israel’s hopes and Paul is brokenhearted that they are missing their hope.

There is a Hell. The apocalypse will be full of blood. Yet if this is all we proclaim we reap what we sow and that is some sort of fire insurance version of salvation. People will confess Jesus as Lord just so they won’t have to go to Hell, while at the same time they have a total disregard for His life. Romans 10:9-10 Paul assured that fire insurance salvation would not become the representative version of saving faith. He connected the heart with the mouth. Because the heart is connected to the mouth salvation cannot remain simply a private matter but rather a proclamation of life. Because the mouth is connected to the heart hypocrisy will not be tolerated.

In the end the wrath of God is horrible, but the coming hell of it all is ultimately hopeful. The apocalypse is fire and blood that ends in the redemption of the world, setting creation back to right. It is the end of the curse of sin. It is that aspect of salvation, the hope, that Paul is so anguished that his countrymen would miss. Salvation is not merely escape but the rescue of ultimate hope.

[1] I know there are others, but you get my point. Compared to all of his work they are relatively few. If you study Paul's eschatology you will see that it is always linked to life in Christ, either receiving it or missing it. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 are great examples. All judgment is in reference to what is ultimately missed in Christ.
[2] Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers’ Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993) 517.


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