Is hell fair?: Matthew 20

read Matthew 20.  What upsets me most about Rob Bell’s book on hell, LOVE WINS, is not just its inaccurate representations about the Bible, but the fact that if Bell had actually taken the Bible at its word, especially Matthew 20, he would have found a more beautiful and nuanced answer to the problem of hell than the one he invents.

Contrary to what Bell says, Jesus talked about hell a lot. Jesus says God will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the latter; Jesus says that the angels will throw those who do evil “into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”; Jesus says the angels will “come and separate the wicked from the righteous, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace.” (Matt. 13; see also Matt. 3:12; Matt. 22:13; Matt. 25:30; Mark 10:44 and 48; John 15:6; Matt. 7:13. See also Matt. 5:20). Jesus discusses Judgment Day at length. Matthew 24-25; Mark 13:27; Luke 13; Luke 17; Luke 21.  Jesus says that those who didn’t feed the hungry or the prisoners will go away into “eternal punishment.”  Matt. 25:46.  Jesus says that God has the power to throw us “into hell.”  Luke 12:5.  Jesus says that when Judgment Day comes, those “who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment.”  John 5:29.  Again contrary to what Bell says, Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man makes clear that once you’re in hell, there’s no going back.  Luke 16:26.  Hell, whether we like it or not, is real.

Jesus knows hell is real, because he went there.  Jesus knows hell is real because he suffered hell in order that we could go to heaven. By trying to undercut hell, Bell actually undercuts God’s love.  God’s love is this: God died on the cross and experienced the punishment we deserve (i.e. hell), so that we who are evil can live with a perfect God in heaven and NOT go to hell.  By minimizing hell, Bell is minimizing the necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice.  He undercuts the purity of God’s justice: God is perfectly just as well as perfectly merciful.  His justice demands that anyone who sins be barred from heaven; his mercy meant that He himself paid the cost of sin.  So looking at Jesus’ sacrifice, instead of ignoring it, gives more hope than anything Bell came up with on his own.

Bell’s entire book is rendered unnecessary by the parable of the workers in the field that Jesus tells in Matthew 20. There is no more beautiful place to find hope for the lost than this parable.  In this parable, a man hires people to work in his field, but he hires them at different times of the day.  At the end of the day, the owner pays all the workers the same wage.

Those who were hired first are furious.  I love how they exaggerate: we’ve worked all day “in the scorching sun,” they complain.  There’s no indication the sun really was scorching. In fact, the owner hires people milling about the marketplace all day, including at high noon, which suggests it’s not really that hot.  The people who were hired first are not mad about the sun.  They’re mad because it seems unfair that they’re paid the same, even though they’re paid the wage they agreed on.  So why do they exaggerate about the heat?  Perhaps we all exaggerate when we know, deep down, that there is something wrong with what we’re saying.  Somehow we sense our case needs buffering, and that we need to reach for lies to do it, because the truth will undermine us.

The owner replies: “Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” v. 15.

The owner’s question cuts between bone and marrow because sometimes we are jealous of God’s kindness.  Deep down, we may think it’s unfair if someone who is “really bad” becomes a Christian.  How can they have salvation just for the asking, after all they’ve done, we might secretly wonder.  If you don’t agree, ask yourself this: how would you feel if the first person greeting you at the pearly gates were the man who abducted and killed your child?  Or the woman who stole your husband?  I could go on.  But you get the point.  That would be hard to swallow.

It shouldn’t be though, not if we could really understand grace.  Like the workers in the field, however, most of the time we think we’ve worked our way to heaven.  We can slip into the false belief of thinking that we’re better than other people because we have earned our way to heaven.  We can get self-righteous and think we deserve it.

But no one earns heaven.  “None is good,” Jesus tells the rich young ruler.  “Except God.” That’s why God died for us.  Therefore, although Jesus elsewhere talks about “the chosen” (not the frozen chosen, but the unfrozen – those whose hearts have been melted by God and who KNOW they’re no better than anyone else), and about how two people will be working in the field and “one taken and the other left,” Luke 17:35, when it comes to heaven and hell, I choose to place my hope in God’s love.  God is perfect.  I trust God.  I trust him to do the right thing. I know he’s the God of justice as well as mercy, and therefore we have to submit to God as Judge. But my hope is that no one goes to hell.   If God can save me, he can save anyone.  I put my hope not in diminishing the existence of hell, however, but by trusting in the implication of the parable of the workers in the field: it is possible that even if someone rejects God their entire life, they may still, in their dying moment, in the final nanoseconds of their last gasping breath, hear God’s voice call to them, saying: ‘repent and believe in me’, and each person may say: I do!

Why do I hope for this?  Because it’s God’s hope, too.  Jesus said when telling the parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd will leave all of his found sheep “and go out to search for the one that is lost….  In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish.”  Matt. 18:14. And yes, of course, there are people who might point to John 10 and say, “well, only his sheep hear him,” but when Jesus looks at the “crowd” around him, he has compassion on the crowd “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  Matt. 9:36 and Mark 6:34.  We are all his lost sheep.  He is seeking all of us.    Salvation through Christ is available to everyone for the asking: “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16.

Jesus follows the parable of the workers in the field by telling the disciples that Jesus will be betrayed, mocked, flogged, crucified and rise again.  In other words, he follows the parable of the workers in the field with a reminder that he has to die for our sins.

The disciples hear but don’t get it, just as we have trouble getting it.  Immediately after hearing about the crucifixion, James and John send their mother to ask if they can have the seats of honor in heaven.  Jesus knows the sons have put their mother up to this, because Jesus answers the sons directly. He asks if they can drink from “the bitter cup of suffering” he is about to drink.  They cheerfully reply that they are, even though events soon prove that they will scatter when he is pierced.  Jesus tells them that they will drink from his cup, but it seems to me that what he means is:  I will suffer so that you can drink from the cup of salvation.  Jesus ends with explaining that he has come “to give his life as a ransom.”  v. 28.

The two blind men at the end of the chapter illustrate the truest picture of salvation.  They shout for “mercy.”  When the crowd yells at them to be quiet, “they only shouted louder.” Jesus asks the two blind men the same question he asks each of us, the question God asks in the Bible asks over and over, the question that echoes down through the ages until it comes to rest in the heart of each of us:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  v. 32.

The blind men know the answer.  They have a need, an immediate desperate need, and they want Jesus to meet it:  “We want to see.”  Jesus feels sorry for them and heals them, and they follow him.

If you want heaven, all you have to do is ask.  Shout to God for mercy.  Shout louder.  Ask him to save you.  And he will say, “of course.  I want that for you, too.”  For each of us, the answer will be easy, because Christ did the hard part.  Jesus went to hell in order to pay the ransom price for each of us.  He did it out of love.

Heaven is a gift.  Heaven is not “fair,” and thank God it isn’t.

posted by Caroline Coleman in, on November 2, 2011

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1 thought on “Is hell fair?: Matthew 20

  1. Thank you for illustrating the logic of grace so beautifully! Recently, I was outraged at a news item and muttered to myself, “Boy, I hope that guy gets what he deserves!” In a shock of humility and sudden empathy, the following came to me: “Thanks to Jesus… thank God, I won’t get what I deserve.”

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