By Timothy Bootsveld
Israel Folau is not well known in Canada, but as one of Australia’s greatest professional rugby players he’s a household name from Hobart to Sydney to Perth, to Darwin, having established the all-time record for most tries scored, and he did it before his 30th birthday. Folau is also now an ex-player, fired by the league this past May for stating—twice in one year—that homosexuals and other sinners will go to hell if they do not repent and believe in Jesus. You can read more about his situation here.
I know it will come as cold comfort to homosexuals, but Folau’s condemnation should have been taken as a high compliment. Why? Because, as will be explained, from a Christian point of view telling someone that they deserve Hell should be considered a acknowledgment of that person’s worth and dignity.
Now before you go out and try to affirm people by telling them that they deserve to go to Hell, you should know that most people will not hear your affirmation as anything positive. In the popular imagination, the very idea of Hell is an attack on human dignity, and people who are told they deserve Hell will think themselves insulted. Furthermore, if what happened to Folau is any indication, they may insist on recantations or punishments.
In the popular imagination to say someone deserves Hell is seen as an attack on human dignity because most people simply cannot imagine that they, or anyone else, might genuinely deserve to go there. People may not know much about the Bible, but they know enough to perceive that Hell is a curse, and the final, eternal curse at that. And they are right (Matt. 25:41). Hell is the completion of God`s promise to bring an end to evil in his creation (I Cor. 15:25-28; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 21:3-5). In Hell, God delivers eternal death as a final judgment on those who refuse to end their rebellion against His righteous rule (Rev. 20:11-15).
Which raises a question. With all that awful judgment in mind, how can Christians think that Hell affirms human dignity? We find its affirmation of human dignity in this: that, out of all things that exist in this world, it is only humans that can deserve Hell. Rocks and trees cannot do anything to deserve Hell. Nor stars and planets. Nor cats and dogs, nor even chimpanzees and orangutans. Only humans (and fallen angels) can deserve Hell. This is a dignity not afforded any other living being in this world.
This is the dignity of bearing the image of God, the dignity that makes possible eternal fellowship with God, but that also earns eternal separation from God for those who spurn His offers of forgiveness and restoration.
Yes, of all earth’s creatures, we alone can deserve Hell because we alone have been created in the image of God. When God created humans, he irrevocably tied us to Himself. And though the image that we bear now is sadly marred by sin we bear it still (we are ruined by our own behaviour). To be human is to be a God imager, either as God really is, or else as a horrible caricature.
Moreover, being the image of God presses upon us the duties of an image. God expects to see Himself in us, just as we expect to see a reflection of ourselves in a mirror. As God does, so we ought to do. As God is, so we ought to be. This dignity imposed upon us means that what we do matters, because who we are matters—deeply. Our every act shouts something real about the One we are imaging. This is something the devil has never understood, even when God allowed the Wicked One to almost destroy Job (Job 2:6). The devil simply does not believe that either God, or man made in God’s image, can be good for goodness’ sake. But it turns out Job could do it, and so can all the other Jobs and Jobettes who are born-again believers in Christ. God allows believers to suffer in this world because part of the meaning of the image of God was revealed in Christ’s willingness to suffer on the cross for the souls of the many who hated Him. For the image of God to be restored in His followers we must all become living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), willing to suffer for His glory. This is the deepest God-imaging of all.
And this is the reason why humans who refuse to image God deserve Hell. As human beings we are so closely associated with the source of all Goodness that it only serves to condemn us when we commit even the smallest disobedience, a thing so small we likely won’t even notice, but which God calls evil. We deserve Hell because we are intended to be proxies for Goodness, and we have instead purposefully acted against goodness. Every day we attempt to deface the image of God in others and ourselves, as though His image were something worthless or contemptable! Any earthly ambassador who acted toward his country the way we act towards God (whom we similarly represent) would be charged with high treason! What dignity we are granted to be able to deserve such punishment!
And so, people need to be reminded that they deserve Hell, not because they are garbage, not because they are inconsequential, and certainly not because they are more wicked than somebody else, but rather because they have a significant and exalted role to play—one from which each of us has turned away (Isaiah 53:6).
But we must not leave the discussion there! Everyone deserves Hell, yes, but God has made a way so that He need not deliver to us the punishment we deserve. His mercy is not free, but it is paid for by someone else. Through Christ’s atoning death God opened the way for us to be restored at His expense. That’s what “He gave His Only Son” means (John 3:16). Jesus paid our sin debt for us by His suffering and death on the cross, and by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). In other words, God has done everything necessary for us to return to imaging His being. We can be what we once were—again! We can be made new and uncorrupted! And what better ambassador to communicate the goodness of his Regent than an ambassador who is a trophy, a fulsome display, of the Regent’s goodness.