Act Six, Part One: The Vocation Forever Lost

Act Six, Part One: The Vocation Forever Lost

We are quickly coming near the end of our study of the Bible as if it were a Six-Act play. We have followed the story of God and the human vocation throughout all of the Old Testament, and now much of the New Testament. We have seen the noble vocation given to human beings. We have watched how they squandered that vocation through sin. We carefully followed the story of Israel who was called to be a solution to the human problem; we also observed how they failed. Then, just as the tension comes to its highest point in the story of the Bible, we saw God himself enter into human history in the person of Jesus Christ and live the life before us of the true human being. This allowed him to defeat the powers of evil that have kept us separated from God, as well as take the rightful place of all human beings, which is at the right hand of the Father ruling over all creation. Jesus is now sharing that rule with the church, who has begun to resume their calling through redemption, but is now awaiting the final deliverance of evil so that they can participate in it fully. In our next article, we will draw all of this together as we see how the Bible ends with God saving his redeemed people, along with creation itself, thus allowing human beings to resume the vocation always intended for them.

However, before we can put that last piece of the puzzle in place, there is one subject that we must unfortunately take up. While it is true that God will resume the human vocation for those redeemed in Christ, it is also true that for many the human vocation will be forever lost. This is usually represented in the Biblical concept of Hell.

Hell is a topic that has come under a great deal of scrutiny over the last number of years. While the doctrine of hell is taught in the Bible, and has a long historical tradition of teaching in the church behind it, it remains true that the doctrine is terribly unpopular and is often denied by modern people. It is not hard to understand why the doctrine is so unpopular. Who wants to think of an eternity of conscious torment of one sort or another? On the other hand, if there is not some reckoning at the end, some way that God judges and condemns evil, thus setting the world right, there remains an incompleteness to the story of the Bible that can’t be accounted for in any other way.

Traditionally there are three different ways of understanding the teaching of hell in the Bible. The “traditional view” says that at the end of history as we know it, God will resurrect the wicked along with the righteous. But while the righteous will be escorted into everlasting life, the wicked will be banished from God’s presence in everlasting torment. No doubt, much of the reason this doctrine is so unpopular is because of many of the images that have been associated with it. These images are often rooted in metaphors in the Bible, but were expounded upon in the Middle Ages. These include images of people being thrown into a lake of fire where they are literally burned over and over again for all of eternity. In many people’s mind this makes God worse than the most disgusting of dictators.

A second way of understanding the doctrine of hell is called “Universalism.” This is the idea that after some kind of punishment has been dealt out after the resurrection, some opportunity will remain for people to repent and turn from their wickedness, and therefore God will eventually save all people. This view has especially grown popular in Western culture, which is often very sentimental in its beliefs. While there are aspects of this belief that seem appealing, ultimately, if God does not account for wrongs committed and judge the world, it leaves very little motivation for us to not take matters of vengeance into our own hands. However, the option remains persuasive to some.

A third way of understanding the Bible’s teaching on hell is called “Annihilationism.” This concept says that after punishment is rendered by God for a designated period of time, which would be different for each person, the final result will be the ultimate destruction of the person. This destruction would include both body and soul. Essentially, the wicked would cease to exist. This is often thought to be a good medium for those who find the Eternal Conscious Torment too horrendous to believe, and yet cannot accept the sentimentality of the Universalists.

It is not my purpose in this series to strongly advocate for one theory or another. As you can probably tell, I find the Universalist position the least likely of the three. I think the Biblical teaching clearly rules it out. I also don’t find it likely that God will forever torture people in literal fire. I think the fire is a Biblical metaphor for something else. The torment may be no less real, but it may be something more like having to live with the person we are forever becoming. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how we can make our life a living hell. Many people have made their lives just that very thing even in the present life. I think either the Eternal Conscious Torment option or the Annihilationist option both to be legitimate ways of understanding the Biblical material. One has to remain somewhat flexible when talking about future things of which we know very little.

The main emphasis I would like to make in this study continues to follow the story line of God and the human vocation. Whatever the final outcome of the wicked may be, whether in some kind of conscious state, or ceasing to exist, the main point is to see that for some, the vocation God has given to human beings will be forever lost. Having given people the opportunity to repent and turn to God now, if they do not do so, they will forever lose the right (and perhaps the ability) to work in cooperation to bring God’s wise and loving order into all of the earth…indeed, the new heavens and the new earth.

This is a sad prospect, but it remains one we must be very aware of. Life is not a zero sum game. There are serious repercussions to our choices. If we insist on worshiping something else besides God, whether that be our own selves, or something different, God will let us have the desire of our heart. Only by desiring him and what he is doing in creation will we be made eligible to resume our true vocation in the resurrected life. We only have one shot at it. The question is, what decision will you make?

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