Having said this, doesn’t the Bible warn us that sinners will experience God’s wrath and be burned forever? How about Revelation 14:10? “Yes, he also shall drink of the wine of God’s wrath . . . and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone . . . for ever and ever” (RSV). At first glance, that sounds like the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar all over again. Fortunately, the preceding sixty-five books of Scripture have prepared us to understand this awesome language. As we saw in the last chapter (based on Rom 1:24-28; Hos 11:7-8), God’s wrath is simply His turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want Him anyway. This turning away leaves them to the inevitable and awful consequence of their own rebellious choice. And as He lets them go, He cries, “How can I give you up? How can I let you go?”
Revelation 14:10, however, uses the word “forever.” How long is forever? Jude 7 may be helpful. “Sodom and Gomorrah . . . serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (RSV). That sounds like “forever fire” to me, but that fire went out millennia ago. So “forever” in biblical terms need not last forever in today’s terms. Also in Exodus 21:6, there is a reference to the servant who would serve his master “forever,” but that “forever” might only last until the next jubilee or, at most, as long as this life shall last. So we need to understand the biblical meaning of forever. It offers no support for the eternally burning fires of hell.
What about the fire itself? Many times in the Bible God’s glory, the brilliance that surrounds His divine person, is described as having the appearance of fire. Look at Exodus 24:17: “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (RSV). It wasn’t devouring fire. It looked like it. There are many other places in Scripture where we find the glory that surrounds God is life-giving glory. Adam and Eve could live in its presence. Lucifer used to, as he walked among the stones of fire (Isa 14:15). It is energizing, life-giving glory. It is only because we are, by our own choice, out of harmony with God that what should be life-giving is destructive. God longs to heal us and doesn’t want to lose a single one.
Someday, every one of us will come face-to-face with God, whether we are saved or lost, at either the second coming or at the third coming. Do you think we will be afraid? What if we should be among the lost? We would look up and see Christ there in His human form. Will He be angry with us? Or will He be crying, “Why will you die? How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” Like a physician, God is there, eager and ready to heal. But He cannot force us to be well. If we do not trust Him, if we are not willing to listen, He cannot heal the damage done. What else can God do if we have come to the place where we have persistently refused to listen or even rejected His offers? If we have refused to trust, we have refused to let Him help us. What else can He do but sadly give us up, the same way that He gave up His Son on the cross, and we will die? Even in the death of the wicked there is no need to be afraid of God. The choice is still ours.
One reason many people are afraid to die is because they are afraid of God. They know that when they die they will come face-to-face with some great Power. It is an awesome thing to meet this Person called God. Is it really possible to die unafraid of God? According to the Bible, yes. Hebrews 2:15 tells us that the mission of Jesus is to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (NIV). I believe that the fear of death is actually the fear of God, the fear of the judgment. Is it possible to know God well enough that one can die unafraid? Look at John 8:32: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (GNB). It is the truth about God that makes it possible to die unafraid. And every dying patient deserves to know that. People who know the truth about God can die unafraid, knowing that in their next moment of consciousness they will be in the presence of the kind of God we so much admire.
Just before Jesus Himself went out to die, He tried to sum up the ideal quality of the relationship God desires to have with His children. He said, “God wishes to deal with you as His friends.” Look at John 15:15.
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (RSV).
Jesus here contrasts servants with friends. The servant does not know what his master is doing. The master gives orders and the servant accepts and follows them without understanding why. But Jesus and His Father want us to know and to understand them as friends. God has had a few such friends through the years. One of the most notable was Moses: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod 33:11, RSV).
God welcomes just the kind of conversations about Him that we are having in this book. In fact, He would welcome us to have the same kind of conversation directly with Him! And in my imagination, I can see Him seated in a chair across from me. We know that He is the Infinite One whose words hung the whole vast universe in space. We know that He is the One who is worshiped with awe by all the brilliant angels. Yet as He sits there across from us, He values nothing higher than our freedom. He invites our inquiries. He does not want us to be afraid. Surely such a God deserves our deepest reverence, awe, wonder, and worship. Surely He deserves to be believed when He says, “There is no need to be afraid.”