I stood and watched my friend as she struggled to pull the brush through the horse's hair. Each prickly bur seemed to be glued in the horse's thick, black mane. Ferley, the mare, expressed her discomfort by stomping her massive hooves and heaving her head up and down. "This," I thought, "is what hell is like."
For about ten minutes I observed Ferley's anguish while being cared for. The mess of burs entangled in her mane and tail had to be removed, but the process was slow and painful. I could hear the sound of hair ripping and snapping at the jerk of the brush. The very thing that tortured this poor creature was also her salvation. Something within me stirred as I witnessed my friend caring for her horse. There was something in her voice as she soothed the giant animal and reassured her: "I know... I know this hurts. But we're going to get you cleaned up." There was compassion in her voice and she lovingly removed the mess from the horse's hair. It was love, not revulsion. It was redemption, not vengeance. "This," I thought, "is what hell is like."
A few days later I found myself reflecting on that moment in the barn and I was reminded of Julian of Norwich's "Parable of the Servant" (found in her Book of Showings, chapter 51). In the parable Julian envisions a servant standing before his lord; his lord looks upon his servant "lovingly and sweetly and mildly." The servant is then sent to do his lord's will:
The servant "dashes off and runs at great speed, longing to do his lord's will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way. And of all this, the greatest hurt I saw him in was lack of consolation, for he could not turn his face to look on his loving lord, who was very close to him, in whom is all consolation..."
But during the servant's fall the "loving lord looks on him most tenderly, and now with a double aspect, one outward, very meekly and mildly, with great compassion and pity, and this belonged to the first part; the other was inward, more to see how greatly he rejoiced over the honorable rest and nobility which by his plentiful grace he wishes for his servant and will bring him to."
Julian wrestled with this vision for nearly twenty years, trying to make sense of the mysterious showing of the lord and his servant. She understood the lord to be God and the servant to be Adam, who is also all of humanity. She therefore understood the vision to reveal how it is that God views fallen humanity: with compassion, not vengeance. She writes:
"And this was the beginning of the teaching which I saw at the same time, whereby I might come to know in what manner he looks on us in our sin. And then I saw that only pain blames and punishes, and our courteous Lord comforts and succors, and always he is kindly disposed to the soul, loving and longing to bring us to his bliss."
This is indeed the kind of vision that stirred within me as I watched my friend care for her horse. The mess of burs that plagued the old mare did not disgust her caretaker. Rather, my friend looked upon her horse with love and restored her. When I read the Bible I am compelled to view God's judgment in the same manner.
The idea that God must or chooses to send his beloved sons and daughters to a place of eternal punishment is not only tragic but also and very possibly unbiblical.
If we are to look at the very center of God's wrath and judgment in the biblical narrative we must look to the cross. It is here that we find Jesus being crucified and saying, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do," (Luke 23:24). Is this the righteous judgment of God? Jesus did, in fact, say, "The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son," (John 5:22). Then what are we to make of God's righteous judgment?
Jan Bonda writes, "God's righteousness is not about what we would call 'righteous judgment,' it is about restoration and shalom." God's judgment throughout the Bible and especially on the cross is redemptive judgment. It is never senseless punishment for the sake of God's holiness (whatever that really means). It is always purposeful. And that purpose is always reconciliation with God.
Contrary to what much of traditional Christian theology has endorsed, there is, in fact, substantial grounds for arguing that God's judgment is itself salvific (Isa. 48:9-11; Jer. 9:25; 30:11-17; 31:10-37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 6:1; 11:-13; Rom. 14:10-12). As K.F. Keil writes, "Judgments of the Old Testament must not be viewed as eternal punishments; they leave the possibility for future salvation."
There is one particularly paradigmatic passage in the New Testament that deserves quoting here. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the fire. (1 Cor. 3: 10-15)
Paul makes clear that not building upon the foundation of Jesus is a grave mistake: those who do not do so will suffer loss (let us be cautious as to what "building upon Jesus" might truly mean). But Paul also makes room for salvation after this suffering. It is not eternal damnation for the sake of 'justice'; it is God's punitive cleansing for our benefit. Let the reader be sharp about what this means: it does not mean that hell is without pain, suffering and, in Paul's words, "loss" (which, in the Greek, denotes injury and damage). Hell is indeed a terrible thought. It brings to mind the tragedy and sadness of the servant in Julian's vision. Such suffering is real. Building one's life on gods other than Jesus Christ brings real suffering and loss.
However, this suffering - this "hell" - does not have the final word in much of the Bible. Judgment in the Old Testament, including God's "eternal fire" (Jer. 17:4), is not the final word but rather a means to reconciliation with God (Jer. 31:38-40). Many of the Old Testament passages that speak of God's wrath/judgment contain nothing of the "unending punishment" that is endorsed by many theologies today. One reason for this is the common anachronistic view of the meaning of "eternal." The Hebrew word, olam, which is often translated "forever" and "everlasting" did not carry the same meaning in the Hebrew worldview. The word possessed connotations of intensity, not time. It was used qualitatively, not quantitatively.
All of this does not, however, mean that the concept of hell in the Bible may be totally disregarded or sugar-coated as a "means to reconciliation." Hell is real. It is as real and as horrendous as the exploitation of children (Mark 9:42-48). It is as real and tragic as the suffering of those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). It is as real as the burs that plagued a helpless horse in Ontario.
But these realities that had a beginning will thus have their End. Among the many portraits of God in the Bible there is the portrait of the One who cannot give up (Hos. 11); the One who will bring injury in order to heal (Hos. 6:1). I wonder if it it might be anything like a horse being rigorously brushed in order to be set free from infectious burs.