In this post, I want to draw from Stanley Grenz’s book Theology for the Community of God. Grenz offers great insight into the New Testament’s view of hell by giving us three metaphors that encompass the totality of the the experience. He in the end, shows us that love wins!
The New Testament writers often spoke of the fate of the unrighteous as exclusion – eternal separation from community with God. For example, Jesus warned at the judgment, the Son of Man will declare to many “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:23). To those who have not cared for the needy, he will say “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared fro the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). Exclusion from the community received expression through images drawn from horrible experiences of earthy life: torture or torment (Rev. 20:10), outer darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), weeping and gnashing of teeth, eternal fire, and second death.
The biblical image also suggest hell is a failure. Some will die having refused to live in accordance with God’s intention. The despair represented by the biblical pictures of hell depicts the lost as those who realize that they missed the purpose for which God created them. The fire of hell – better understood as metaphorical and not literal – is the “anguish generated by the awareness that a person has invested his or her entire life in what is perishable and temporal rather than imperishable and eternal (Matt 6:19-20; Like 12:16-21). Because earthly life has ended and eternity has dawned, no opportunity to change directions remains. The failure of one’s life is now eternally fixed and unalterable.” (643)
As the experience of failure, hell is also isolation. God’s purpose for humanity is community – community with Him and with others celebrating God’s love. Rather than living in fellowship with God through obedience to his will, the unrighteous fail to realize this destiny. It results in an exclusion from the eternal community into the realm of isolation. This isolation is marked by estrangement and loneliness.
The failure and isolation of hell means that the unrighteous experience God’s love in a terrifying manner. As the eternal lover, God never removes his love from humanity, not even from those who spurn him. Beyond the first death, the unrighteous remain the recipients of God’s love. Yet in their alienation from the lover, they experience it in the form of wrath, because they have destroyed the covenantal love relationship God desires to share with all his creatures. Therefore, those who reject God’s reconciling love in this life must know that love as wrath in eternity. This is hell.
In the end, God’s love wins. A person’s rejection of the relationship with God through obedience allows him or her to experience the love of God as wrath. Yet that does not mean God’s love does not win.