The Ebola Example: Could a loving God really send people to Hell?

One of the questions I had when considering the gospel had to do with hell. Probably like you I had heard preachers talk about it as if it was quite real – admittedly a rather frightening prospect. But then I also heard that God was ‘loving’ and that ‘God is love’. Taken together these principles were a paradox for me: How could a loving God send people to Hell?  At first glance it seemed that these two doctrines were at odds with each other. After all, if God ‘loved me’, surely he would not send me to Hell. Or, if God did send me to Hell then He certainly could not be loving, or at least not love me. One or the other may hold but the two together seemed contradictory. And then, since I usually heard about hell through some animated preacher, it made me wonder if they were just using fear tactics to exert control over me.

Ehrman and Hell

I am not alone. In fact, gospel arch-critic and renowned New Testament professor Bart Ehrman had this to say in one of his widely read books:

“… There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for thirty years. What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be? … We therefore have nothing to fear in death.”

Bart Ehrman. 2010. Jesus Interrupted: revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). p. 276

Many of us may identify with Ehrman. And given that hell is such an ominous subject it is easy to dismiss it from serious thinking – in fact we explicitly avoid thinking about it – reasoning somewhat as Ehrman does, and feeling rather safe in the belief that the majority of modern and progressive people think similarly. We avoid thinking further about it and hope it will therefore go away.

What spurred me to think this through was to recognize that it is the truth or falseness of a belief that should be considered, not whether it is ominous or not, nor whether it is doubted by most. After all, before Copernicus, most people thought that the sun revolved around the earth – the majority were wrong. Furthermore, coming to grips with unpleasant outcomes are required for safe & healthy living. Campaigns about AIDS, drunk driving, and smoking are effective precisely because they force us to think about nasty consequences. We do not consider these campaigns manipulative or scare tactics. In fact, we are thankful that they raised an issue we perhaps did not want to think about, and in so doing, increased our safety and well-being.

Jesus and Hell

So, though the question of hell may not be in vogue, it is worth considering. For starters, it may be surprising to learn that it is Jesus Christ himself – the person who stands out in history as the teacher par excellence on topics such as mercy, forgiveness and the love of God (In fact the reason we associate love with God is largely through the influence of this man.) who also taught about hell. Notwithstanding his emphasis on the love of God, he also taught more about hell than all the other Biblical teachers combined. Consider the following quotes from Jesus:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven… Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers”   Matthew 7: 21-23

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited … but they refused to come. Then he sent more servants and … invited [them] … But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business… Then the King said to his servants, ‘Go to the street corners and invite any you find’ … Then the king told the attendants ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” Matthew 22: 1- 13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … he will sit on the throne in heavenly glory .. He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats … Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, … take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world …. Then he will say to those on his left [the goats], ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil …” Matthew 25:31-41

“It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell” Mark 9:47

“Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” Luke 12:5

“Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside … But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you came from. Away from me all you evildoers” Luke 13:25-27

So warnings about the reality of hell, do not begin with obscure Biblical passages or wild-eyed preachers – they are centered in the teachings of Jesus himself.

Ebola and Hell

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Suited up for Ebola

Suited up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

But then how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing teachings? If ‘God is love’, how can hell be in the picture too? Perhaps the world-wide panic over the Ebola outbreak can serve as a vivid example of one portrait that Jesus used when he taught about Hell.

We see in the news how Ebola has spread through West Africa and has raised concerns around the world with the recent spread of infections to other regions. We have all seen the images of completely suited, masked and gloved nurses and doctors caring for those infected with Ebola and for those handling the bodies of the Ebola dead. The World Health Organization, infectious disease experts, and medical professionals are telling us that success or failure containing Ebola hangs on one overarching strategy – quarantine.   Ebola spreads by person- to-person fluid contact so the only way to control it is to quarantine and completely seal off those infected.   Even small tears in the protective suits and minor lapses in isolation protocol cannot be tolerated.

These thorough and sometimes frantic procedures to isolate and quarantine the Ebola virus are examples of a similarly systematic procedure to isolate a spiritual virus – and that quarantine is called Hell.

How is this so?

Ebola quarantine measures

Ebola quarantine measures

Heaven and Hell

Jesus centered his teaching on the coming of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When we think of ‘heaven’ we often think in terms of its situation or milieu – the ‘streets of gold’ as it were. But the greater hope of the Kingdom that Jesus anticipated is a society that will be comprised of citizens of exclusively honest and selfless character who therefore won’t pilfer the said gold off those streets. Continue down this line of thought and reflect on how much we build into the ‘kingdoms’ here on earth to protect ourselves from each other. We all have locks on our homes, advanced security systems even; we always leave our cars locked; we tell our kids not to speak to strangers. Can you even imagine a city without some ‘law enforcement’ in place? Why do we password protect all our personal electronic data? When you stop and think of all the systems, practices and procedures that we have put in place in our ‘kingdoms’ and realize that they are there simply to protect ourselves from each other then you may get a glimmer of a looming problem. It is like there is something awry with us.  If God were to setup a kingdom in the paradise of ‘heaven’ and then invite all of us to become citizens of it, we would quickly turn it into the hell we have turned this world into. The gold on the streets and the pearls on the gates would vanish in no time.

It would be even worse if there were only a narrow few who would not follow such a standard. Imagine a society where all the citizens were perfectly honest – no lies and no theft. In that society there would be no locks, no need of written contracts (because one’s word would be good enough), no security cameras, no computer passwords – because there would be no need of them in such a society. But if you then introduce just one citizen who is a liar and a thief he would disrupt that society far more than liars and thieves do here. Since there are no built-in precautions this one thief and liar can go about his activities with impunity – causing havoc among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The only way to keep this from happening is to make sure that not even one such person enters this kingdom – because then it would be ruined.

But what then for those who are denied entry? In this world, if you are denied entry to a country you cannot also expect to participate in its resources and benefits. For example, Canadian citizens can benefit from programs of its government. But someone who is denied access to Canada cannot expect to somehow receive its welfare, medical treatment etc. – this is arranged for its citizens.  But all in all, people around the world, even terrorists on the run from all countries, enjoy the same basic amenities of nature, such as breathing the same air, seeing the same light as everyone else.

But who made light? The Bible claims that ‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light’. If that is true then all light is His – and it turns out that we are just borrowing it now. But with the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, His light will be in His Kingdom. So ‘outside’ will be ‘darkness’ – just as Jesus described Hell in one of the passages above.

If it is true that God is the Creator, then most of what we take for granted and assume is ‘ours’ is really His. Starting with such a basic entity as ‘light’ and then considering the world and going on to our natural abilities such as thought and speech – we really did nothing to create these abilities – we simply find ourselves using and borrowing them.   When the Kingdom is finalized the Owner will reclaim them.

When we look at barriers, past and present, erected to keep ‘barbarians’ out of civilization, from the Great Wall of China down to the present-day the fence proposed on the US-Mexcio border to keep illegal immigrants out, you can see that it is natural to erect barriers when a Kingdom must keep certain people out for the very sake of that kingdom. When Ebola breaks out and threatens death and havoc among us all we hear no argument when experts insist on quarantine. So it is no surprise to hear Jesus teach in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that

And besides all this, between us (in Kingdom of God) and you (in Hell) a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. Luke 16:26

The Love of God and Hell

So where does the ‘love of God’ fit in all this? When an epidemic rages, along with quarantine, there is a search for vaccines that can neutralize the deadly virus. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the corresponding inoculation. In trusting him we, in a sense, are injected with a spiritual vaccine that begins to disinfect us, slowly making us fit and able to enter into this Kingdom when it is fully established.

For Ebola victims what is most difficult to accept may not be the necessary quarantine, but rather it is that one has the disease to begin with.  Similarly, more difficult to accept than the reality of hell itself is that you and I are stricken with a deadly spiritual virus.  We fight that diagnosis, which leads many to ignore the cure.

Though it may be presumptuous to question a learned professor like Ehrman, and though my line of thinking cuts against the current of western culture today, Hell is quite consistent with the notion of a loving God – who created and owns all and is setting up a Kingdom where righteousness is the norm – not the exception – and therefore requiring restricted access. At the very least, since it is such a serious subject, and because God’s Love has moved him to make a ‘vaccine’ freely available, it warrants reflection on our personal spiritual diagnosis. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, developed by him to help us more clearly diagnose our fitness for the Kingdom of Heaven, may be a good place to start.

How was Jesus’ name prophesied long before his birth?

Sign of the Branch Part 2: The Branch named ‘Jesus’ hundreds of years beforehand

In Part 1 we saw how Isaiah started a theme using the image of The Branch. Someone coming from the fallen dynasty of David, possessing wisdom and power was predicted by Isaiah to come. Jeremiah followed on this theme by stating that this Branch would be known as the LORD (ie as in the Old Testament personal name for God) himself.

Zechariah continues The Branch

zechariah in historical old testament timelineZechariah lived 520 BC, just after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem from their first expulsion into Babylon, but while they were being ruled by the Persians. At that time the Jewish people were working to rebuild their destroyed temple and re-institute the Mosaic religious system. Zechariah’s contemporary was a man named Joshua, who was High Priest at that time, and was working to re-start the whole priestly system. Zechariah the prophet was working in tandem with his colleague Joshua the High Priest to provide leadership for the Jewish people. Here is what the LORD – through Zechariah- in a prophetic riddle, said of this Joshua:

‘”Listen O High Priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch. See the stone I have set in front of Joshua!” …, says the LORD Almighty, “and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day”.’ (Zechariah 3:8-9)

The Branch! Again! Building on the image started by Isaiah about 200 years before, and continued by Jeremiah 60 years earlier, Zechariah picks up this theme of ‘The Branch’. But this time the Branch is also called ‘my servant’.  In some way the High Priest Joshua in Jerusalem at 520BC, colleague of Zechariah, was symbolic of this coming Branch, but in what way? It says that in ‘a single day’ the sins will be removed by the LORD (“I will remove…”). This connects with obtaining ‘righteousness’ noted in the previous post. We will gain ‘righteousness’ by having the LORD remove our sins ‘in a single day’. How will that happen?

The Branch: Uniting Priest with King

We continue on three chapters in Zechariah and learn something astounding. To understand the following prophetic riddle, we need to know that the roles of Priest and King were strictly separated in the Old Testament. None of the Davidic Kings could be priests (some of them got into trouble by trying), and conversely, some of the priests got in trouble by dabbling in kingly intrigue. The job of the priest was to mediate between God and man by offering animal sacrifices to God for forgiveness of sins, and the job of the King was to rule with justice from the throne. Both were crucial; both were distinct. Yet Zechariah wrote that in the future:

‘The word of the LORD came to me: “…Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua. Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says, ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD… and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two’’ (Zechariah 6:9-13)

Once again our Branch is here. But now, against all previous precedence, the high priest in Zechariah’s day (Joshua) is to (symbolically) put on the kingly crown. Remember that in Zechariah 3 (above) Joshua was ‘symbolic of things to come’. Could it be that Joshua, the High Priest, in putting on the crown was ‘symbolic’ of a coming merger of the Kingly and Priestly roles? Into one person? And notice that Joshua, his very name, is the name of the Branch. What did that mean?

The name ‘Joshua’ IS the name ‘Jesus’

To understand this we need to review how the Old Testament was translated through history. I have written how around 250 BC the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation is today still in use and is called the Septuagint (or LXX). We saw that the title ‘Christ’ was first used in this Greek translation, and that ‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’. (If you do not follow this please review here since this is crucial to what will follow).

'Joshua' = 'Jesus'. Both come from the Hebrew name 'Yhowshuwa'

‘Joshua’ = ‘Jesus’. Both come from the Hebrew name ‘Yhowshuwa’

In exactly the same way we can follow the derivations of the name ‘Joshua’. As you can see in the figure above Joshua is an English transliteration of the original Hebrew name ‘Yhowshuwa’ which was a common Hebrew name that meant ‘Jehovah saves’.  This (shown in Quadrant #1) is how Zechariah wrote his name in 520 BC.  This word was transliterated to ‘Joshua’ when the Old Testament was rendered into English (bottom half labelled #3). The translators of the LXX in 250 BC also transliterated that name when they translated the Old Testament into Greek. Their Greek transliteration was Iesous (Quadrant #2). Thus ‘Yhowshuwa’ of the Old Testament was called Iesous in the LXX. Jesus would have been called Yhowshuwa by his contemporaries but when the New Testament writers wrote his name in the Greek New Testament, they used the familiar ‘Iesous’ of the LXX. When the New Testament was rendered from the Greek to English ‘Iesous’ was transliterated (again) to our well-known ‘Jesus’ (bottom half labelled #3). Thus the name ‘Jesus’ = ‘Joshua’. Both Jesus of the New Testament, and Joshua the High Priest of 520BC were called ‘Yhowshuwa’ in their native Hebrew. In Greek, both names were ‘Iesous’. A Greek reader of the Old Testament LXX would recognize the name of Iesous (Jesus) as a familiar name in the Old Testament. We lose that ready connection since the name ‘Jesus’ appears out of the blue as it were.  But the name Jesus does have an Old Testament equivalent – Joshua.

Jesus of Nazareth is the Branch of Isaiah, Jeremiah & Zechariah

But now that we know this context, the prophecy of Zechariah should hit us like a bolt of lightning. Here we see a prediction, made in 520 BC, that the name of the coming Branch will be ‘Jesus’! When I saw this, I just had to sit up and take notice. This was just too ‘coincidental’ for me. Here was (and still is) a prophecy which named the coming Branch, and the name points directly to Jesus of Nazareth.

And this coming Jesus, according to Zechariah, would merge the roles of King and Priest. What was it again that the priests did? On behalf of the people they offered animal sacrifices to God for their forgiveness of sins. Just like Abraham did with his sacrifice on Mount Moriah, and Moses with the Passover lamb sacrifice, the priest covered the sins of the people through animal sacrifice. The coming ‘Jesus’ was going to perform a similar role so that the LORD could ‘remove the sin of this land in a single day’ – the day that this coming Priest Jesus would offer himself as a sacrifice, already pictured in the place of Mount Moriah and the time of year at the Passover. Sometime after fulfilling that role as Priest, this Branch Jesus would take up his throne (as per Psalm 2) and would thus be ‘a Priest on his throne’ – as stated exactly, precisely and verifiably by Zechariah about 500 years before Jesus walked this earth.

This interconnected degree of prophetic foretelling is nothing short of fantastic. Can you think of anyone else in all of history whose life was even as remotely foretold as Jesus of Nazareth’s was by the diverse Old Testament prophets? Zechariah’s naming of the Branch to be Jesus evades all the conspiracy theories of critics like Spong and Ehrman (who argue that the gospel writers made things up to fit the Old Testament) since the name of ‘Jesus’ of Nazareth is recorded outside the gospels. The Jewish Talmud, Josephus and all other writers about Jesus, both friend and foe, have always referred to him as ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’. I think that the only option open to us, if we do not accept this as a bona fida prophetic sign, is to ignore it and hope others do too. I have read plenty of critics like Spong and Ehrman who try to rationalize away the Old Testament prophecies in one way or another. They all just ignore this set of Branch prophecies.

Now I suppose they could rationalize that ‘Jesus’ was a reasonably common Jewish name, there certainly were other Jesus’s in Jewish history, so the name coincidence could possibly be due to chance. But let us think through the career of this Jesus of Nazareth. He certainly, as we saw, claimed to be a king; The King in fact. But everything that he accomplished while on earth was in fact priestly. The job of the priest was to take a lamb on behalf of the worshiping Jewish person, offer it to God, kill it, and the death and blood of that lamb would atone for the sin and guilt of that Jewish person. Even a superficial knowledge of the significance of the death of Jesus was that, it also, was an offering to God, on our behalf. His death atones for the sin and guilt for any willing person. The sins of the land were literally removed ‘in a single day’ – the day Jesus died. In his life he alluded to his coming role as King while fulfilling all the requirements as Priest. He has brought harmony and unity to the two roles. The Branch, the one that David long ago called the ‘Messiah’, is in fact the Priest-King.

So exploring the theme of the Branch through the Old Testament should fill us with wonder. But it does not end there. Another Old Testament writer, sandwiched between Jeremiah and Zechariah in history predicted the time of his coming. We will look at that next time.