If you do not believe in a possibility of repentance after death, and if you do not believe in eventual annihilation of the damned, then God has set up a system of unanticipated eternal torture from which there is no escape. If this is true, it says something about God: that He does to His enemies something far worse than the most evil human ever did to another human—eternal torture. But I cannot accept this because God is love.
Only the elect can be saved; and, no one who is elect ever reaches death not having responded to God’s gift of salvation. Thus, there is no meaningful reason for God to have some kind of a “grace window” after death, or in Hell. Hell can only contain those creatures who were satisfied with their sinfulness and never responded to Christ. They are condemned by their own desire to remain slaves of sin—”for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). The fact that they are in Hell forever is, indeed, a part of God’s permissive decree; however, they are justly there, as John 3:18 clearly says: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” God’s holiness, justice, and righteousness cannot be any part of sin; and, God can only be Himself. Thus, a lack of desiring a relationship with Him results in eternal separation from Him. To be with God, we must become like Him by becoming one with Him. He never becomes like us. It is God’s love for Jesus Christ, whose blood covers us in righteousness, which allows us to be eternally united with Him. “And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me” (John 17:22-23).
I appreciated your concluding statement referencing God’s attribute of love. I believe that is precisely where the answer must begin—theology proper. Theology must always flow from right thinking about the Person of God, as He has revealed Himself in His Word. The interpretation of any specific passage must agree with who God says He is.
His attributes—who He is—are clearly seen throughout His Word. He is indeed love; simultaneously, though, He is also holy, omniscient, omnipotent, omnisapient, omnipresent, just, righteous, self-existent, self-sufficient, infinite, immutable , sovereign, transcendent, faithful, good, merciful, gracious, and eternal. He is 100% of each of these; and, 100% of all of them all the time. One attribute is never suspended or subordinated to any other. Thus, God’s love is never in conflict with the fact that He is just, righteous, holy, sovereign, etc. For example, He cannot suspend holiness in order to show love. This is probably the most critical issue to keep in mind as we continue.
God is eternally self-sufficient. This means that all three persons of the Godhead co-exist in perfect companionship, lacking nothing, and have for all eternity past. There is nothing lacking in God which required Him to create. Thus, we must conclude that creation is something God did for the created and that there is a very special plan for it. God is always glorified by His own acts. Creation, in turn, magnifies the glory of God. What is this reason for creation? I believe it was to show the glorious magnitude of His Person by contrasting It with something that did not (indeed, could not) exist within the eternal Godhead—disobedience, sin, death, salvation, triumph, etc. Creation did not enhance God’s attributes; He is glorified in the contrast between the Infinite and the finite.
Creation of angelic and human beings gave them a gift of knowing that the Infinite God exists. This knowledge alone was beyond comprehension. Yet, God also fashioned the human being so that he shared in the image of the Creator. Adam had—at God’s pleasure—relationship based in love, reason, desire, and apparent independence-of-existence.
Before creation, the omnisapient (all wise) God chose exactly those events that would occur in His creation, in the perfect sequence in which they would unfold, so that they would most glorify Him. All other possible events—which passed through the Infinite consciousness of the Godhead and were not chosen—would be less wise; and thus, less glorifying. Having decided (decreed) all of the future (and thereby also making impossible all other events), His omnipotence (supreme power) was able to ensure that they happen exactly as He chose. The fact that He is unchanging, means that nothing else will ever take place differently than He originally decided. Even the crucifixion: Acts 2:22-36—”this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”; Acts 4:27-8—”For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy Holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur.”
The issue of “agency” must now be discussed. We know that God is not the author of sin (Hab. 1:13; 1 John 3:5). His holiness is utterly other than sin. He cannot do evil, for He is Good. There are important distinctions between “permitting,” and “causing.” Everything that will happen has been “permitted” by the sovereign God through His decree. Yet, not everything that happens is “caused” by God’s agency. It certainly can be caused by God—as many illustrations in the Scriptures demonstrate the direct intervention of God in history. Other times, however, He has chosen to use natural processes within His creation. Still other times He has chosen to use created beings as the causal agents of events. The nature of these creature agents is always “morally responsible”.
God originally created a perfect world and “it was very good.” Sin entered into the creation by the express permission of God, but by the direct agency of Satan; and, through His guile, all mankind. Sin could not have happened were it not for the express permission of the all wise, all powerful, sovereign God. However, He did not force His creatures to sin. Sin entered mankind through the willing desire of Adam. Adam’s choice condemned him; and, as a dead, spiritually-separated creature, he justly incurred the penalty. Adam certainly would sin, because God included it in His decree. However, that does mean God is responsible. After all, a just, righteous, good, holy God cannot do anything wrong. The Spirit makes exactly that point clear though Paul in Romans 9:14 and 18-21: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!”; “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?”
As part of His decree, He chose some of the future sinful creatures to be saved (the elect). Once He foreknew who was elect, He added to His decree the certainty that they would choose Christ (called). This is seen in Scriptures such as: Eph. 1:5-6—”just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will”; Eph. 1:11—”also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will”; Rom. 8:29-30—”For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and who He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified, and who He justified, these He also glorified.”
The world is thus inhabited by two groups of mankind—the elect and the non-elect. Both are obviously part of God’s decree. Since God is Omnipotent and sovereign, the elect cannot possible “choose” to not be saved; neither can the Non-elect choose to be saved. It would contradict who God is. The critical issue to keep in mind is that God is not the agent keeping the non-elect from desiring to believe. They do not desire to believe. They are fully comfortable with their state of being slaves to sin. They are the direct agent of their own non-belief; and, as a depraved non-believer they justly deserve their eternal punishment. Conversely, God is the direct agent in the salvation of the elect. We see this work of the Spirit through regeneration in the famous Ephesians 2 passage: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (cf. verses 4-5).
Salvation is a gift, by grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8). The process of salvation is: Foreknowledge (decree), predestination (election), called, subjected to the Word, made alive (regeneration), repent, believe, saved, justified, made righteous, preserved. (Rom. 8:27-30—”For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified”; II Tim. 2:25-26—”if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will;” II Thess. 2:13-14—”God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”; Heb. 9:15—”...that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance”; John 3:27—”a man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven”; Rom. 10:8-9—”But what does it say? ‘The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved”; Rom. 5:21—”that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”; John 10:28—”And I gave them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.”)
There are several passages that seem, on the surface, to suggest that Jesus descended to Hell. If He did, then it is surmised that He preached to souls there hoping to save some. However, contextual hermeneutics yields a different interpretation of these passages: either as “grave” (Acts 2:27); or, “inaccessibly low [ocean depth, as opposed to height of heaven]” (Rom. 10:6-7); or, “lower, earthly regions [during incarnation]” (Eph. 4:8-9); or, “Jesus, in Spirit, prophetically preached through Noah, to those who saw the Ark but were disobedient and are now in prison below” (1 Pet. 3:19-20); or, “the gospel was preached beforehand to those who are now dead” (2 Pet. 4:6). Nowhere is it taught in Scripture that God went to Hell to give a second chance to souls.
Alternatively, God has given His creation a “grace window.” It is in life though; not after death. Peter explains in his Second Epistle that “the Lord is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). This passage is often quoted to prove that God wants “all men saved.” However, this is a misinterpretation of the passage in its clear context. Peter is dealing with the error of “mockers” haughtily demanding: “Where is God? Asleep? I thought He was coming back?!” Scripture shoots back at the mocking, saying that God is not responsive to mans’ time-table. A thousand years is as a day, and a day as a thousand years. God created time and is above it. In fact, the real reason that God does not just prove to the mockers that He is powerful is because He is restrained by His love to allow more time for those elect, whom He has chosen but who have not yet responded, to fulfill His plan. “None of His sheep will perish.”
Remember, that God has already decreed. Those who were not called will never respond. An interpretation of “God desires every single created human to come to salvation, and He hopes they will” is impossible.
Since salvation involves being born again, being made alive, becoming a new man, being raised with Christ, it follows that salvation cannot be effected on a dead person. (Heb. 9:27)—”Inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment”; 2 Pet. 2:4-10—”then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (vs. 9); Luke 16:24-26 “And beside all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us” (vs. 26).
The concept of Hell is the most difficult to accept, even where Scripture is clear. We want to believe that a loving God could not possibly condemn unbelievers to Hell, but it is based in emotion. It seems natural justice to us not to condemn an “innocent” man. I want a second chance because it is the only “fair” thing to do. Since I know that there are people who die still in a sinful state, I want a theology that allows for them to “see the error of their way and respond later.” Love is my motive, but at the expense of holiness. In this theology, man becomes the most important focus and has the final power over his destiny. The root of sin in Genesis 3 begins with a questioning of the meaning of God’s actual revealed Words (“Indeed, has God said?”), and a resulting response to assume the authority to reinterpret them as the creature sees best (“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”). It is logical, then, for mankind to conclude, out of love, that it would be better for non-believers to never have been created, than to suffer in Hell for eternity. It can seem that eternal oblivion would be superior to the eternal knowledge that God exists. This same argument is used by some eugenicists and abortionists. Supposedly, it is compassion that motivates the belief that a person would be better served in death, rather than a life of deformity or unhappiness. It is difficult for us to adjust our emotion and compassion to conform to Scripture and the revealed nature of God.
The above indicates that only the elect can be saved; and, no one who is elect ever reaches death not having responded to God’s gift of salvation. Thus, there is no meaningful reason for God to have some kind of a “grace window” after death, or in Hell. Hell can only contain those creatures who were satisfied with their sinfulness and never responded to Christ. They are condemned by their own desire to remain slaves of sin—”for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). The fact that they are in Hell forever is, indeed, a part of God’s permissive decree; however, they are justly there, as John 3:18 clearly says: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” God’s holiness, justice, and righteousness cannot be any part of sin; and, God can only be Himself. Thus, a lack of desiring a relationship with Him results in eternal separation from Him. To be with God, we must become like Him by becoming one with Him. He never becomes like us. It is God’s love for Jesus Christ, who’s blood covers us in righteousness, which allows us to be eternally united with Him. “And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me” (John 17:22-23).
We do not pretend to understand why God would ever extend His grace to US; but, I am forever grateful that He did. Since only “the Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19), we continue to labor in the harvest to all men—”for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!’” (Rom. 10:11-15)