This post will finish the exploration of the destiny of reckoning on the Day of God’s Recompense
In his oracle, Isaiah called on not just the people of God but of all earth to ready themselves.
Regardless of the international and cross-cultural respect given to nations’ deities and philosophies, Almighty God is sovereign over them all. According to the prophet, it is God’s judgment that matters for eternity.
Isaiah gave a preliminary viewing of what that Great and Terrible Day of the Lord would be like. Now Isaiah would display how certain the coming of this Day truly is.
Seek and read from the book of the Lord:Isaiah 34:16 (NRSV)
Not one of these shall be missing;
none shall be without its mate.
For his mouth, it has commanded,
and his spirit, it has gathered them.
It is as though Isaiah were saying Do not think this is negotiable, that you can argue God out of this. The Lord’s mind is not going to change and the Lord is not going to lose nerve. There is no Plan B. God is unchangeable. God is not evolving from an ancient primitive kind of God to a more urbane, sophisticated kind of God.
Purpose and Meaning
What lies beneath many objections to passages such as this one is dismay over what seems like a brutal and bloodthirsty characterization of the same Lord Who later claimed,
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned.Jesus to Nicodemus, John 3:16-18 (NRSV)
Against the backdrop of such a sweeping passage of love, sacrifice, and salvation, what kind of a God
- makes claims of exclusivity so that all other religions, gods, philosophies, and world views are subsumed under God’s sovereign rule?
- could cast even one beloved human being into an everlasting hell?
- seems glutted in violence, prepared to destroy whole nations and massacre whole people groups?
We shudder to relate our understanding of a good God with the repulsiveness of Isaiah’s vision.
What about this sweeping dispossession of all other gods and paths to eternal peace? For answers, we begin with the Person of Christ.
Jesus equated Himself with YHWH of the Hebrew scriptures, giving seven powerful “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel. It was a claim that ultimately drove the Sanhedrin to deliver Jesus over to the cross.
“The Father and I are one.”
The Jews took up stones again to stone him.
Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?”
The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human, are making yourself God.”John 8:30-33 (NRSV)
All religions and philosophies make exclusive claims.
Each of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) assert certain truth statements that stand in opposition to the other two faiths. Hinduism and Buddhism teach karma and reincarnation as the way the scales of justice are balanced. Animistic religions recognize more than one god. Atheism denies God’s existence. Even religions which claim to embrace all religions still teach nonnegotiable doctrines.
Truth is by its definition exclusive—it excludes what is not considered the truth. Through Jesus, Christianity agrees with Isaiah, God is indeed sovereign over all. Jesus declares “I AM the truth, and the way, and the life.”
Later, Peter and John would together proclaim,
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”Peter and John to the Sanhedrin, Acts 4:12 (NRSV)
What about the eternally burning sulfur and pitch?
Matthew’s Gospel, as well as Mark’s and Luke’s, record Jesus speaking of an eternal punishment of fire which He called the Gehenna of the fire:
γέεννα géenna, gheh’-en-nah; of Hebrew origin (H1516 and H2011); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; ge-henna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem, used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment:—hell. (Strong’s Concordance)
πῦρ pŷr, poor; a primary word; “fire” (literally or figuratively, specially, lightning):—fiery, fire. (Strong’s Concordance)
Later, both James and Peter referred to hell, and the famous Lake of Fire appears in John’s Revelation.
Whole shelves of books as well as podcasts, YouTube lectures, and seminary courses offer deep dives into what these passages might mean. Four Views on Hell is one resource that may help to understand the development of Christianity’s perspectives.
But the bottom line remains: there is something here that Isaiah saw, that Jesus spoke of, that John’s visions reveal. Whatever hell is, it is something you and I cannot dismiss.
But what about the violence? What about this wholesale destruction and loss of life?
We do not want to associate our idea of a loving and tender God with something that seems so psychopathic in its ferocity. It is emotionally offensive at the least, and deeply traumatizing to those who have looked rage in its face and suffered at the hands of an abuser.
The tender God you and I recognize spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, repeatedly saying,
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”Ezekiel 33:11 (NRSV)
It is for this very reason that the Lord continues to stay God’s hand.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.2 Peter 3:9 (NRSV)
So, in order to at least try to understand Isaiah’s oracle, you and I must change our vantage. Rather than gaze in shocked horror at the carnage, we must look at the true source of it.
Remember my story about the rotten oranges? Nothing could be done with them except to fold them into the mulch pile outside, far from the house. They had become fully and completely corrupted. Nothing was left of their “orangeness.”
You and I might turn in disgust from such a stench, and hold the bag as far from ourselves as possible as we gingerly walk it to its final resting place.
But God’s response to utter corruption is one of abject grief.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
And the Lord was sorry … it grieved him to his heart.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.Genesis 6: 5-7, 11-13 (NRSV)
The words translated as sorry and grieved are the Hebrew nacham and atsab.
נָחַם nâcham, naw-kham’; a primitive root; properly, to sigh, i.e. breathe strongly; by implication, to be sorry, i.e. (in a favorable sense) to pity, console or (reflexively) rue; or (unfavorably) to avenge (oneself):—comfort (self), ease (one’s self), repent(-er,-ing, self). (Strong’s Concordance)
עָצַב ʻâtsab, aw-tsab’; a primitive root; properly, to carve, i.e. fabricate or fashion; hence (in a bad sense) to worry, pain or anger:—displease, grieve, hurt, make, be sorry, vex, worship, wrest. (Strong’s Concordance)
James’ brief equation, that the enticement of desire leads to sin and death, does not quite capture the wreckage that comes from rejecting God, God’s words, and God’s ways.
The complete corruption of God’s beautiful earth, of humanity whom the Lord loves so deeply, brings God to a profound grief, an aching bereavement. With settled surety, God knows there is only one remedy—rescue the remnant, remand the rebelling supernatural beings to eternal confinement, and raze the rest of the Lord’s ruined creation, that it might rise again to restoration.