God: Fearful Executioner or Giver of Overwhelming Care?
For my devotional time this week, I decided to read Matthew 10:28–31. To be honest, I already knew this verse did not assert eternal punishment in hell. You can call me a heretic if you’d like, but I do not believe in an immortal, disembodied soul or eternal suffering in hell. This verse is often used to teach about the continuance of the soul after the death of the body, an idea found in much Christian theology, but it more clearly conveys the idea of annihilation and destruction of life. Once Jesus’s words are read in this context, the idea of eternal torment falls into the dust, as it should. I decided to read these words again to see if I could learn more from the context.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.Matthew 10:28–31
I had previously assumed that we are only to fear God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell. However, after meditating on Jesus’s words and considering how Satan motivates people to inflict terrible suffering and death on others, how could I believe this scare tactic: that God should be most feared for His ability to inflict much greater punishment? To believe this, one must imagine that God shares Satan’s hellish attributes—and in much greater amounts. Should I truly fear God more than any other because He has the power to burn me alive with hellfire?
As I reread the words, I noticed that Jesus did not conclude with a reference to fearing the Father but rather a beautiful statement about how much God loves us. Envisioning God’s disposition towards us as angry and instilling fear is a misinterpretation of Jesus’s words. In fact, Jesus told us not to fear. “Fear not,” He said (Matthew 10:31). I admit that I had not previously connected these other verses to Matthew 10:28–3, but the connection could not be any clearer. Instead of instilling the fear that God will burn us alive, Jesus provided comfort by telling us that God cares for us more than all the birds of the air.
I almost missed the beautiful point Jesus made when He affirmed our value and unsurpassable worth. We don’t have to fear that God will harm us with a terrible death. Surely, the God who stresses that He notices the little sparrows will not torture us. We need not fear God because we are more valuable than many sparrows; God loves us and is intimately concerned with every strand of hair on our heads. Jesus clearly asserted God’s overwhelming care, not punishment in hell.
So who has the power to destroy us? Most think it’s God. Others think it’s Satan, who holds the power of death. It could be that we destroy ourselves by our own choices. The text presents some ambiguity here, but while God may possess the power to destroy us, we need not fear Him because He is not out to destroy us. Jesus demonstrated that He cares for us through statements that convey how much God truly values us.
The place Jesus used to denote “hell” was the Valley of Hinnom (or Gehenna), a valley located outside Jerusalem that is consistently translated as “hell” in the New Testament. It was a real place with a real history (Jeremiah 7:31–32). Known for heinous acts that caused great pain and destruction, the valley is used as a metaphor for the judgment one reaps by choosing to live beyond the love of God. Jesus warned of the Gehenna-like self-destructive consequences of being anti-love. Not one person will be annihilated by God’s arbitrary decision; everyone who is destroyed will have destroyed themselves. Such destruction is not inflicted by God; He is the one who saves us from it. Gehenna was manmade garbage that symbolized the chaos and destruction we reap when we cut ourselves off from God—the source of life—and choose to live outside the shalom of His kingdom.
Jesus told us not to fear those able to inflict temporal death, for after all, He can resurrect us. We should rather fear the one capable of corroding the very essence of life, the one able to destroy us like an ulcerous sin. This is different from normal death. Gehenna is considered a horrible state in which one loses their identity, reduces to nothingness, and is completely annihilated. It’s the worst thing that can happen. God does not consume life like that; individuals do so themselves. Every act of hatred, selfishness, and pride erodes our lives and disfigures our humanity, moving us toward becoming hideously loathsome until we are utterly destroyed (in both body and soul).
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky asks, “What is hell?” and answers, “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love” (1922, p. 343). Hell is being a person whose life has wasted away, leaving them unable to love. The worst thing that can happen to us is failing to fulfill God’s purposes for our lives. By separating ourselves from the source of life and the high-quality lives we are meant to live, we end in utter ruin. We—not God—are ultimately responsible for such an end.
Jesus spoke the truth when He said that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God noticing. He is tenderly watching over us. Our heavenly Father cares more for us than He does many sparrows. We are eternally loved. We need not fear the God who loves us so intimately that He counts every strand of hair on our heads. We should only fear betrayal of the truth that we are so passionately loved and cared for by God. When we realize the truth of God’s love and concern for us, it changes us. His love and grace bring transformation to our lives. Therefore, don’t fear for your life; learn to love like Jesus does. Fall in love with the God who loves and cares for us. Such love casts out fear (1John 1:4-8).
Craig Ashton Jr.
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