Guest Post by Josh Butler
We are the ones, not God, who unleash the destructive power of hell in the world.
Many people think of hell as a place God creates to torture sinners. But in the biblical story, we are the authors of hell’s fury. On massive structural levels like sex-trafficking and genocide . . . on intimate, personal levels like pride, lust, rage and greed . . . the wildfire of our sin sets God’s good earth aflame.
Let’s take a quick look at hell as a destructive power.
A Destructive Power
Fire is used as a metaphor in Scripture for the damaging nature of our sin. There are other ways fire is used (I explore these more fully new book), but this is a good place to start. Isaiah says that “wickedness burns like a fire,” unleashing destruction in the community like the burning down of a forest. (Isaiah 9:18)
The community is like a forest; sin is like a fire.
Hosea says the hearts of wicked rulers burn “like an oven whose fire the baker need not stir.” As they plot their wicked plans for the community, “their passion smolders all night; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven.” (Hosea 7:4-7) And the community is reduced to ashes.
Our red-hot sin leaves a trail of devastation in its wake.
In a passage that is particularly illuminating for our purposes here, James makes the same point:
“The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)”
James tells us just as a small spark can burn down a forest, so our little tongue can unleash destruction. And when it does, notice where James says our tongue’s destructive power comes from: it is itself set on fire by hell.
Hell’s destructive power is unleashed through us. So . . .
- When my coworker gossips in the neighboring cubicle, she is more than being annoying, she is breathing hell into the office.
- When pride and rage fuel genocide, war-zones and conflicts around the world, this is more than an unfortunate reality, it is the wildfire of sin tearing heaven and earth apart.
- When lust and greed build systems of sex-trafficking, pornography and forms of entertainment that exploit women and children, this is not only a heartbreaking tragedy, it is the power of hell unleashed in our world.
So what tools has Jesus given us to push back the flames?
Holiness and Justice
Jesus has given us holiness and justice as tools for the task.
Jesus confronts our tendency to ignore justice. When some Christian streams think of the power of hell, we envision Satan and his demons flying around in the air, trying to get us to use a Ouija board, go to a séance, or join a New Age cult. This assumption is disastrous because it strains out a gnat and swallows a camel; it misses the obvious. We assume God only cares about “spiritual” things, and “spiritual” things are assumed to be those that have nothing much to do with everyday, physical life.
This distracts vital time, energy, and resources from the more pressing, concrete, physical arenas of our world where Jesus says the power of hell has been unleashed.
Reclaiming this language has rhetorical power. Samantha Power, one of the world’s leading scholars on genocide, has titled her influential book on the subject A Problem from Hell. I don’t know whether she merely uses the phrase for its rhetorical power or if she truly believes in the spiritual framework the title suggests. But either way, her terminology is correct.
Genocide is a problem from hell.
There is a spiritual side to the most pressing problems of our world today that Jesus calls his followers to recognize.
Jesus also confronts our tendency to ignore holiness. I’ve worked alongside many Christians who labor tirelessly against war, conflict, and genocide in our world on a social level, while being prideful and self-righteous at home. Or who are passionately active in ending sex trafficking on a social level while being womanizers and greedy consumers in their personal lives. Jesus stands against us.
When rightfully battling the wicked tree of injustice in our world, we must not wrongfully ignore the wicked root in our own hearts.
Jesus raises the bar and calls us to a different kind of discipleship, to the pursuit of holiness. The classical language of vice can help us here, identifying things like lust, anger, greed, pride, gluttony, laziness, and envy. Like a “vice grip,” these are the ways that hell gets its tightening hold on our lives.
These are the sparks that start the wildfires. The poisoned wells that pollute the river. The roots that give rise to the noxious weeds.
These are areas where Jesus wants to heal us, to snuff out the wicked sparks that lie inside of us as he reconciles us to himself.
Let Me Heal You
Fortunately, Jesus’ question for us is not, “Are you good enough to get into my kingdom?” It is rather, “Will you let me heal you?” The Great Physician loves to heal, the Lamb desires to forgive, the King offers amnesty to all who will submit to the power of his life-giving reign.
And we need this healing, because we are the agents of destruction, the architects of demolition, who unleash hell’s wildfire flame into God’s good world.
There is good news for our world aflame: God is coming as King to establish his redemptive kingdom. He will kick out and contain the destructive power of hell that has raged like a wildfire for far too long. And there is more good news: God loves us all, rebels that we are, and wants to forgive us. Even though the power of hell has its roots in our wicked hearts, God wants to heal us and get it out.
God wants to shape us as agents of holiness and justice in his world today, prepared through the power of his Spirit for the life of the kingdom to come.
This excerpt used with permission from Thomas Nelson Publishers.