The other day I was at my sister's house, taking a swim in her pool. It was a hot day, the kind of day that pools were invented for. So maybe it's the fact that it was hot. But for whatever reason, the conversation I was having with a friend turned to hell.
Yep - typical lazy summer conversation at the pool.
It really wasn't the heat. I had just finished reading a couple of books on the subject, books that were written in response to Rob Bell's book Love Wins. The books were Francis Chan's Erasing Hell and Mark Galli's God Wins. Whatever else you think about Bell's book, you have to give it credit for this: it has gotten Christians to talk about a subject that demands discussion but that we like to avoid. Everywhere, followers of Jesus are having conversations about their beliefs on our eternal destinies.
So here is the specific question we were discussing: How can eternal punishment be proportional to sins committed in a finite lifetime? And even more to the point, how does the cross pay the eternal penalty for us, given that it was suffering and death for a finite period of time?
Deep? Sure. So was the pool.
Anyway, the conversation was so interesting, I thought I would share a couple of points from it here.
First and foremost, we cannot possibly understand how such things work. The mind of God is infinite and ours are so limited. For me to try to understand the mind of God would be like my dog trying to understand mine. Except that the gap is so much greater than that.
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)
But that didn't keep us from trying. so here's a concept we came up with. It's probably soooooo far short of the truth, but it helped me get my arms around it a little:
God is infinite, and created everything, including time. He is above time and not limited to our timeline. For him, all of history is simultaneous because he cannot be bound by something he created. Based on this, I think it is reasonable to think of the cross this way: Jesus entered history and went to the cross for our sin and because of that moment, his eternal nature was, is, and will be enduring our punishment for all time. Because for him, that moment always exists. In other words, he took our eternal punishment on himself because for him, his substitutionary death exists for all eternity. It is always "now" to him.
There are hints of this concept in the Bible. Any time his eternal nature is mentioned, it's implied. But the biggest hint (as my friend pointed out) is in Revelation 13:8, where it refers to the Lamb "who was slain from the creation of the world".
Hard to understand? Yep. Even if it's on the right track, it's only a shadow of the actual truth. But it helps me get my arms around the fact that the cross is big enough to pay for all the world's sin for all eternity. And it also helps me see that the idea of eternal punishment for people is something that God has taken on himself, and therefore any judgment by us that it's somehow unfair is out of place. If so, God was unfair to himself.
I think it's time to move to the shallow end.