by Daniel Harrell
Whenever I’ve officiated a war veteran’s funeral, I’m moved by its solemnity: the ritual posture of respect, the dress uniforms of the honor guard, the twenty-one gun salute, the presentation of the flag—all designed to pay rightful tribute to those who have sacrificed for God and country. In those moments I sometimes wonder about my own courage. How strong is the self-preservation instinct? Would I die for my country? For my family? For my friends? For my faith? At the graveside, I read from Revelation 14 for assurance: “‘Blessed are they who die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their good deeds will follow them.’” None of what they have done is wasted.
For the first readers of Revelation, Christian faith was always a grave proposition. To be Christian meant being outcast, outlawed, an enemy to the Empire. There was no Lord but Caesar; to confess Christ as Lord was high treason. It was God or country back then. For those who stood firm, the graveside words of Revelation 14 steeled them for the deadly outcomes of “following Jesus the Lamb wherever he goes,” understanding this meant to the cross. Borrowing the language of sacrifice, they were called the “redeemed,” the “first fruits” and “blameless.” At the end of all things, the Lamb of God slain stands tall and triumphant atop Mount Zion. And those who endured, who kept faith, each marked with God’s proof of purchase seal, rise to enjoy rest from their labors to the tune of a new and magnificent song, a rightful tribute for their own sacrifice.
On the other hand, the self-preservation instinct being strong as it is, meant that some who’d stepped forward in faith stepped back once government pressure intensified. Threatened with punishment, some souls saved by grace chose instead to save their skin. Visions of resurrection rest atop fluffy white clouds, with what sounded like an eternity of virginity and elevator music, made for a less than appealing hereafter. Heaven can sound so boring it’s hard to imagine anybody dying to get there. Still, even without assuming harps and hilltops represent greater realities, depictions of a fluffy white hereafter beat the red hot alternatives. Revelation 14 contrasts the eternal rest of the redeemed with the doom of the wicked, an alternative eternity of imbibing “the wine of God’s wrath” while being “tormented with fire and sulfur” without “rest day or night.” Compared to that I’ll take harps any day.
Growing up in the South I heard a lot of hellfire and brimstone at sultry summer revival meetings. The sweating preacher would shout, “You think it’s hot here?” Since moving north, I’ve witnessed street preachers shouting from street corners and evangelists wearing sandwich boards ablaze with images of eternal damnation while handing out tracts espousing God’s mercy. Threats of hellfire are supposed to scare you back toward God’s mercy, if that’s what it takes. Hell is supposed to be a good reason to come to Jesus. These days, however, hell is the reason many people ditch God. What kind of sadistic deity gets his jollies from condemning sinners to an eternity of torment? Threats of everlasting misery make a mockery of God’s mercy.
In response, theologians and preachers assume that just as harps and white clouds represent for greater realities, fire and brimstone likely mean less. Culturally-sensitive Christians depict fire and brimstone torment as exaggerations of God’s poetic justice against human self-centeredness. In the end, hell is getting everything you wanted and finding you wanted the wrong thing. It’s like finally getting that Lexus LX SUV wrapped in a bow you always wanted for Christmas, only to be burned by the realization that what you really drive is a brutally meaningless and depreciating mechanical toy that tantalizes with her 7000 pound towing capacity but never satisfies your insatiably self-absorbing conceit. Its impeccably designed features (with your comfort in mind) masks the misery and anxiety that constantly torments every luxury car driver, perpetually trapped as they are by the hellish need to pacify envy and manufacture happiness with a visibly ostentatious capitulation to consumer coercion, complete with a rear seat entertainment system, an overt display of blatant insecurity and paranoia that at 14 mpg ruins the environment too. Then again, it is a Lexus. Talk to most Lexus drivers and their ride is like heaven. They usually have a lot of other cool stuff too. While I appreciate any apologetic that gets God off the hook for being portrayed as a violent and capricious pyromaniac, I’m not sure about hell as an eternity of self-centeredness being so bad. I’ve gotten good at putting myself first everyday. I could easily see myself doing it forever.
Another contemporary analogy might be better. Employing the language of relationship, some speak of hell as “eternal separation from God.” You may be able to brush off being forsaken by an acquaintance, but being rejected by a friend hurts. For a spouse to walk out is excruciatingly hard. To have a parent abandon you devastates beyond compare. A sin-drenched Jesus expressed the horrific epitome of abandonment when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The longer, the deeper, the more intimate the bond, the more torturous the break. It truly hurts like hell.
If you have ever loved, you know how wonderful it can be. Love makes the air breathe easier, colors appear more vivid, food taste better. You smile more and laugh more and experience a heavenly lightness that’s like walking on clouds. I get the biggest kick out of romantic couples in love during premarital counseling: they sit so close and hold hands, giggling and goo-gooing with endless adoration. I may wobble between chuckling and upchucking, but deep down I feel honored to be in love’s presence. Love affirms all that is good and right about being human. Friends teetering on life’s multiple edges the last time we talked, later skip carelessly along those very same edges all because they met somebody special. Love dissipates trouble, evaporates despair and perpetuates hope. Poets praise it. Writers exalt it. Singers revel in it. We all crave it. When push comes to shove, when it gets down to brass tacks, however you slice it with whatever cliché you prefer—the greatest of these is love.
If you have ever loved, you know wonderful it can be. And if you have ever loved, you know how horrible it can become. How horrible to discover the betrayal—the email, the cellphone message, the unfamiliar object hidden in a drawer. The evasion before the admission, run over by the rejection, the unthinkable reality that resounds with the question: How could you do this? If you’ve ever loved and been abandoned by that love, you know the restlessness, the rawness, the hollowness, the heaviness that sucks all the air from your life. You try to make sense but you can’t. You think you’ve gone mad, and then you get mad and want so badly to inflict the same hurt and torment you feel. The fire and brimstone of hatred gets all its energy from love. The opposite of love is indifference. If you have ever had love rejected, you can understand how a loving Lord could get mad as hell. Hell is not the losing your relationship with God as much as ending up in a really bad relationship with God. “Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,” the Proverbs declare, “and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.”
Revelation 14 presents an angel mid-flight, proclaiming an “eternal gospel,” the only time that the word gospel appears in Revelation. The invitation is not to “love the Lord” but to “fear God for the hour of his judgment has come.” This invitation of dread follows with pronouncements of doom on all cheaters and liars as well as on wicked systems and oppressive governments, labeled together as “Babylon the Great,” the sum total of coercive evil that enticed the world into drinking its lies. God’s jealous revenge is gospel good news to people whose cities and villages in war-raved countries have been plundered and burned to the ground by evil. It is gospel for people whose daughters and sisters have been raped, for wives who have been beaten and abused, for brothers and sons and soldiers and policemen who’ve had their heads blown off for no reason. If the opposite of love is indifference, a loving God cannot be indifferent to such evil.
Justice gets done by one riding on clouds, a “son of man” crowned with gold, and wielding a sharp sickle with which to harvest the earth of its ripeness, accompanied by another, grim reaper, effectively “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Blood pours from the great winepress of God’s fury as high as a horse, a gruesome river of gore stretching two hundred miles, fuel for a fire and brimstone pyre sending up a choking plume of infinite ash.
Such are the sweet dreams of the oppressed and abused. But where’s the grace and forgiveness? Is this truly the way of the Lord? Better to write off Revelation’s extremes as some wacky Hollywood depiction of R-rated apocalypse—complete with ominous music and violent special effects not suitable for small children or people with heart conditions. It’s designed to get our attention, nothing more. But unfortunately, writing off Revelation still leaves us to deal with Isaiah and Daniel the prophet, with Joel, John the Baptist and Jesus, all from whom Revelation gets its apocalyptic extremes. Daniel contributes the judicious son of man riding on clouds in final judgment. Isaiah furnishes the winepress of wrath. Joel ramps it up with the sickle and reaper. John the Baptist foretells of one, “coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire; his winnowing fork in hand to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The meek and mild Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man who comes in his glory” with angels to sit on his throne and judge all people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep will inherit eternal life, while the goats—aka the chaff, the sour grapes, the lazy servants, the cheaters, the jilters and liars all suffer eternal punishment, weeping and gnashing their teeth before being bundled and burned.
These images are terribly intense and violent, and quite frankly, offensive. But if yo have ever loved and had love rejected, the feelings are not unfamiliar. You can identify with the intensity of rejection and the extremity of jealousy, you can understand the rage and the fury, the unquenchable passion for justice and righteousness. However I don’t think Revelation’s purpose for detailing God’s fury is not so we can justify God or identify with the Lord. In Revelation and elsewhere, I think the purpose is not to see yourself as the lover abandoned, but as the one who’s done wrong. We’re the ones who walked out.
Toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus stood outside Jerusalem and wept over their pending betrayal and rejection. It would have been understandable, justifiable, for the Lord to have called down fire and brimstone and be done with it. But instead, with an expression of love that goes beyond human love, Jesus chooses the fire and brimstone sin deserves to rain down on himself. His was the supreme sacrifice, dying for a war he opposed, for a friends who forsook him, despite unimaginable cost, for the sake of immeasurable grace. The apostle Paul put it this way: “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” In God’s eyes you may be more wicked than you could ever imagine. But in Christ God loves you more than you could ever hope. Light shines in darkness and cannot be overcome, love empowers us to love and forgive one another and even our enemies. God who loves is not indifferent to evil. His justice is not blind, but sees the darkest recesses of every human motive. Ironically, it is God’s awful and perfect justice that enables us to love and make peace with our enemies while they are still our enemies. We can say “God have mercy” and truly mean it.