I was recently talking with a friend of mine about ministry. She was talking about how sad it can be when we meet people that do not know Jesus, and how heartbreaking it can be to know that without Jesus, people are separated from God. She asked me if it ever bothers me that there are very nice people that will end up in Hell, apart from God.
This is indeed one of the most difficult questions put before the Christian today. The idea of Hell is repugnant, as it should be. People should not be excited that they or others will spend eternity apart from God, the source of life and all good things. But just because we recoil from an idea or teaching does not affect whether or not it is true.
I thought that I would share with you my response to her. You see, it is my belief that God is totally just and righteous, no matter what happens to me or anyone else. I had two thoughts, one of which is not my own, and one that is.
My first response is actually an argument set forth by CS Lewis. He states that in recent history we have elevated the virture of kindness or 'niceness' to a level above other virtues which were elevated in other times and places. In our day and age, to be kind is more important than many other virtues, like discipline, or chastity, or generosity. That is why we recoil so strongly at the thought of a 'nice' person going to hell - it is an offense against a virtue we have elevated more highly than other virtues that are equally as important.
In other days and ages, kindness was less important in relation to other virtues than it is now. Other societies valued temperance and discipline more highly, for example. In Victorian England, the thought of a chaste person being in Hell would have offended them in the same way that we are offended by a kind person being in Hell. Nowadays we are more sexually 'liberated', and so this is not such an offense to us because our expectations are different. In reality, all the virtues are important, even if we elevate some above others for a time.
My second response occured to me as I was talking to her. Basically, a person is what we consider 'nice' mostly through circumstances beyond their control. Family background, random encounters with good influences and experiences, and a host of other factors go in to making someone 'nice'. By the same token, a 'mean' or 'evil' person is shaped in a major way by circumstances equally beyond his own control. Can a person control what type of family he is born into? Can a person control a random encounter with a molester at a young age? Can a person control the life or death of parents, or what type of education he will receive, or a host of other circumstances?
My point is that we are who we are largely because of forces beyond our control. We are judged on how we choose to respond to our circumstances, but particularly during childhood, those factors are far from our ability to choose. Who would choose the divorce of their parents? Who would choose to endure serious illness at a young age? Who would choose to be bullied and picked on?
I am not saying that all of our problems are someone else's fault, but simply that it is easier to grow up and be 'nice' or 'good' if the breaks fall our way. My parents stayed together and disciplined me when I needed it. This helps me as a person, but I can't count it to my credit that they did so. They were shaped by their environments in good and bad ways as well, by factors beyond their control, and likewise back through the generations. We are at the mercy of others all through our lives, and don't even know it.
So it is for everyone. So how then is it more just for God to condemn 'mean' or 'bad' people, if they are at the mercy of others, and then save the 'nice' or 'good' people who are equally at the mercy of others for much of their character? I believe the answer is, that it is NOT more just for God to do so.
And this speaks to the Bible, which teaches that all of us are born into sin, and of ourselves are unable to be saved and know God. This is where the work of Christ, the only life ever untouched by sin, saves us. Only the full and true emodiment of 'good' can save us from sin and separation from God. Jesus lived the perfect life not because of any circumstance, but because he came with the full power and person of God to live as a man.
That is truly just and righteous, not that God would judge us, condemning or saving us in relation to other humans that are so much the product of others, but rather that he would come from outside the picture and do the work of righteousness for us. It is our nature to silently condemn others by feeling morally superior to them. As long as someone has a little more apparent sin than we do, we feel justified in our own sin. "Surely I am not as bad as they are!" But that is not the standard by which God measures us; we are judged in relation to HIS holiness and righteousness, not our own or others'.
By identifying ourselves with Jesus, we are finally able to transcend all circumstance and stand before God confident that becasue of Jesus we found adequate for the Kingdom of God. In Jesus, no longer does anyone have to live one-up or one-down in relation to everyone else. Instead, we can finally live in a right relationship with our Creator, as we were meant to live.