Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (36) Who Deserves What? Hell and final judgement

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This is the final post within Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

A reminder where the last post finished – we are moving to Rutledge’s fourth goal of this chapter, how the descent to the dead links to the scope of what the cross achieves.

In other words, the disturbing and challenging idea that the cross is for all, including the perpetrators of evil.

This is a difficult discussion but important. It raises pastoral and theological questions like:

What ultimately happens to those who are unrepentant and face divine judgement?

How does God’s just judgement bring solace and hope to victims?

What does hell say about the character and love of God? Are the two compatible?

Does the victory of God at the cross have implications for those are have already died unreconciled to God? If we are ALL alike “undeserving”, then does this mean all will be ultimately reconciled to God by God’s own saving actions?

Who Deserves What?

Rutledge tells the story of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the US Govt secret network of detention centres where suspects were detained without charge and tortured. Dick Cheney is quoted as saying of the plan

‘We think it guarantees that we’ll have [available and ready] the kind of treatment that we believe they deserve.’ (451, my emphasis)

A more chilling statement is hard to imagine. It also draws back a veil on the myth of American [and the West’s] moral superiority to the rest of the world, but I’d better not get side-tracked!

This is where Christians need to be, and should be, realistic rather than naively trusting of their government or nation. A terrific and important comment by Rutledge,

There is nothing more characteristic humanity than the universal tendency of one portion of that humanity to justify itself as deserving and some other portion as undeserving. Nothing is more foundation in Christian faith than the recognition that we can never be justified in that way. (451, my emphasis)

There is no division into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people in Christianity – all alike are undeserving.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)

A robust theology of human sinfulness, and a passing acquaintance with history, knows that all of us are potential perpetrators of horrors. We have little reason to be naïve or to trust ourselves.

Returning to post 9/11 American behaviour, Rutledge talks of one CIA operative who tortured, with official sanction, victims. Prolonged sessions ate into his soul, he had nightmares, he lost something of his humanity.

[Harry Potter again: J K Rowling depicted this brilliantly with how Voldemort lost a piece of his soul every time he killed someone, eventually becoming virtually a non-being, snake-like not human].

Rutledge tells several stories of how brutality elicits more brutality; hatred multiplies hatred; dehumanising the Other leads to genocide and war crimes. Few were worse than the Allied forces dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So how can the gospel be good news “be good news not only for victims but also for perpetrators?” (453).

And how can this question be held alongside a sense of justice so that perpetrators and victims are NOT to be conflated as if both are victims?

My Comments: This is a favourite ploy of perpetrators of evil – “we are all victims” they say.

In Ireland we have had plenty of such conflations or ‘whataboutery’. When confronted with an indefensible act of violence that caused great suffering, the actor in that violence justifies the evil by replying ‘But what about action x of the ‘other side’?’. No repentance, no taking of responsibility and no apology means no ownership of evil and no reconciliation with the Other.

The Descent of the Righteous for the Unrighteous

This is difficult exegetical and theological terrain. Rutledge focuses on 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:3-6

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago …. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:3-6)

To simplify, her argument is that ‘the righteous for the unrighteous’ suggests some form of exchange. These are hard texts to understand but ‘this much seems clear’ …

Christ is the righteous one who “brings us to God” by dying “for sins once for all” on behalf of and in place of the unrighteous. (455, emphasis original)

The power of God is over the dominions of Sin and death – Christ descends for those who were disobedient.

In 1 Peter 4, she sees the disobedient dead being given resurrection by the life-giving Word. They are imprisoned and helpless, but the coming of Christ ‘makes them live “in the spirit like God”’ (456)

Thus, God brings light and life where there was darkness and death.

These are not the faithful, these are unregenerate who failed to repent “in the days of Noah” (457 emphasis original)

God can therefore create resurrection life from death even for the perpetrators of evil after their deaths.

My comments: many will have difficulty with how Rutledge seems to be arguing for a form of universalism here. It seems as if ‘hell’ will be emptied due the saving power of God? She does not discuss this, but gives the impression that this will happen regardless of the attitudes or actions of the perpetrators?

However, having said this, she later comments that “we cannot say” whether the Hitlers and the Pol Pots will be either redeemed or annihilated. The coherence of this discussion in uncharacteristically difficult to follow.

So what about hell?

This is the final question of this chapter. In brief, Rutledge has argued all along that we must take judgement and hell seriously.

Without a concept of hell, Christian faith is sentimental and evasive, unable to stand up to reality in this world. Without an unflinching grasp of the radical nature of evil, Christian faith would be little more than wishful thinking. (458)

Linked to the point above about the ‘harrowing of hell’ (emptying of hell by the saving action of God) I read Rutledge here as saying hell is a temporary dominion of death for its occupants.

She is ambivalent about calling hell a ‘place’ – she argues that

It is necessary to posit the existence of a metaphorical hell in order to acknowledge the reality and power of radical evil” (458)

So hell is not a ‘place’, it is a ‘concept’ or a ‘metaphor’. If so, it is difficult to see how this does not rather empty the force of her passionate rhetoric about justice, consequences for actions, and leaving judgement to God in this life? Is hell a ‘real’ experience for real people or not?

She asks

“What then is the final destiny of this realm?” (459)

Rutledge sees annihilation of evil as the final consequence of God’s complete victory over evil. Evil cannot continue to co-exist alongside the kingdom of God

It must be finally and completely obliterated and pass out of memory. (459)

This is close to what John Stott provisionally and hesitatingly suggested many years ago. In that day there will be only one Ruler, one King, One God – all that opposes him will be no more. Those opposed to God – the Powers, the Devil, and all in hell will cease to be in the final climatic victory of God.

In a footnote, like Stott, she discusses the imagery of Revelation concluding that 19:3 about the “smoke [from Babylon] goes up for ever and ever” could picture its annihilation not continuing existence. She acknowledges that Rev. 20:20 about the torment of the beast and false prophet going on “for ever and ever” is difficult, but could be rhetorical, making the point that evil will meet an appropriate fate “commensurate with all the horrors of human history.” (460, n. 188)

The ultimate victory of God, she concludes, will look like this,

“Death will have no more dominion” (cf Rom. 6:9). If evil is the absence of good, then the victory of our Lord and of his Christ will be the absence of evil, “for ever and ever.” (460)

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