Paul told us that we were by nature objects of wrath. That sounds pretty hopeless. If that were all we knew we might be inclined to believe that Gods wrath is the default position of God towards man and that Jesus through His sacrifice calmed God down a bit and for awhile and gave himself some time to get us in shape before the wrath heats up again.
But if you add one crucial fact, this entire solution is changed from acidic to sweet. The crucial fact is man was by creation an object of Gods love before he was ever by nature an object of wrath. Creation came first, fallen nature came later. When we see this we understand that God is not loving us in spite of our nature, but He is loving us in light of our origin. Our origin is wholly in and from Him.
This follows perfectly the pattern set forth by Jesus in the Parable of the Lost Son. We do not see a stranger showing up at the door from some enemy tribe. We see a son who originated from the Father and who has been longed for and desired not despised and disowned.
Some might say this a parable about backsliding Christians only. Are backslidden Christians who have wandered from the faith “lost and dead” until they come back? Are these the words used elsewhere to describe the backslidden? Or are these the words used to describe all of us before we left our own pigpens and returned to the Father? Paul said that we were dead in our trespasses and sins before we accepted Christ.
And we should keep in mind that the Parable of the Lost Son is the third of three successive parables which capture the determination of God to retrieve that which was lost. First was the lost coin, then was the lost sheep, then was the lost son.
We see from these parables content a progressive revelation.
In each case the object being searched for becomes of greater value. A lost coin is an object of intrinsic value. It has done nothing wrong other than it has been misplaced by the one who lost it. The woman is not satisfied to have all the other coins she did not lose, she is obsessed with finding the one that she did lose. She will turn the house upside down until she has it back.
A lost sheep is of greater value because it is no mere commodity but is also a life that the shepherd likely saw come in to the world and who though is merely 1/100th of the flock, the shepherd will leave the 99 to go find it. And why is the sheep lost? It is the nature of sheep to lose their way out of ignorance and curiosity and distraction. Yet the shepherd does not make the lost sheep his enemy. The shepherd does not despise the lost sheep for the inconvenience and risk incurred by it’s ignorance. He does not go bellering out threats and demanding the sheep return or face the roasting spit. He goes forth listening for the lost sheep’s cry. He listens for the sound of the sheep realizing it is lost and crying out to the shepherd. Jesus seems to indicate the sheep will be found. He leaves no uncertainty about that eventuality.
Then comes the third level of this revelation of Gods search for man. The lost son is no mere coin, no mere bit of livestock.
The son is that which came forth from the creation of the Fathers own love. The Fathers love brought forth a son. The son was loved of the father before he was ever lost and dead. At no point did the father seem to make the lost and dead son an enemy. We gather this by his emotional response upon the sons return.
Yet why was the son lost? He made a choice. He chose to reject the fathers love and family and house and chose greed and pleasure and freedom over the fathers covering. He was a fool and acted foolishly. He suffered for his foolishness. He had to find his own way back home. The Father did not go searching for the son as the woman searched for her coin and the shepherd searched for the sheep. That is a stark difference from the other two parables. The father waited for the son to return. There is a personal responsibility and personal volition involved in returning to God. He wants us to want it. A coin does not know anything. A sheep does not know much. But a man comes to a place when he knows what he needs to do. The father waited patiently for that time to come. Upon return the son was treated not as an object of wrath but as an object of love.
Yet each one of these parables says something about mans condition. In some ways we are a lost coin to God. Something of intrinsic value by virtue of who made it, what it’s made of, and whose image is minted on its face. Yet the lost coin is powerless and ignorant and a victim of its lost condition through no choice of its own. The coin did not lose itself. It was lost by a woman. Thats not sexist at all. It’s just that the choice of a woman in the parable points us back to Eve’s role in our lost condition. We were a coin lost by a particular woman, and thats not our fault.
Jesus tips his crown to the philosophers who wrestle with mans helplessness in being born into this condition. He says through the parable of the lost coin, “You’re onto something.”
To relegate the parable of the lost son to the narrow category of the backslider alone, as opposed to the whole of lost mankind is tempting in that the Son began the story in the Fathers house. And in this way it can in fact be applied to a backslider. But if we apply it to the whole of mankind, the first son of humanity also began in the Fathers house. Adam was in the garden and then fell through covetousness. He took all of us with him and generation upon generation some among us awake and arise and return to whence we were created.
But what of those who do not? Is the pig pen only in this life?
There are clues in the parable that allow the pigpen to be applied to judgement in the afterlife as well.
To me one of the clues is the fathers declaration that His son had been dead and is now alive. If you or I had a son that went away and lived wild on our inheritance we would only hope they were not dead. My own grandmother had a son who, suffering from Schizophrenia, wandered America from one job to the next ever sabotaging his own prospects due to his mental impairment. I remember my grandmother saying how much she feared she would get that phone call someday that he was found lying dead in a ditch somewhere. But then he would show up after a couple of years and everyone would be relieved to see him alive and well. That man was my own father.
No one ever thought of him as having been dead. He was just missing, AWOL, self separated from his family. The father in the parable of the lost son was given lines to speak by Jesus that were deliberately designed to point to a layer of meaning that extended beyond the condition in this life. To be given the lines “He was dead and is now alive” begs for an after life application.
And what of this pig pen? The suffering of utter debasement and poverty shattered the illusion that the world was his play pen. The world was in fact his pig pen. But aren’t there those who unlike the lost son, never run out of money to play and thus never awaken from the spell and allure of the world?
The rich man who found himself in hell across from Abraham and Lazarus was no longer under the spell of the world. He saw everything in right order and it was clear to him that his wealth and pleasure had bought him only pain and judgement. This was mainly because he didn’t care about anyone but himself. He walked each day by poor Lazarus, the festering, dog licked, beggar at the gate. He had compartmentalized the human suffering around him in some tidy package of rationalization that prevented any inconvenience to his own opulence. Now he felt the burn of suffering as Lazarus was comforted of his ills. Yet what do we see in the rich man? Has the fire cauterized the last vestige of humanity and finalized his ultimate fate as an unfeeling uncaring devil?
To our surprise we see some kind of progress in his character. He does not rail against God. He does not despise his suffering nor plead his own case. Rather he intercedes with great concern for those left behind who might suffer his own fate. “Please, send Lazarus to go warn my brothers.”
This is not the profile of the soul transformed by hell into the ultimate rebel blasphemer as those who defend eternal torment have so vividly interpolated. Rather we see a man whose soul has awakened in a way similar to the lost son.
He thinks about his family. He thinks about what put him there and why. He knows his brothers are destined to his own fate if they are not warned. Doesn’t this indicate that the fire, like the pigpen is serving a more virtuous purpose than simply retribution? “My Son was dead and is now alive.” Two manifestations of death- the pigpen and the pit.
And who was this spoken to? The angry, bitter brother who lived right and honored the father could not abide the acceptance of the returning repentant son transformed and purified by his suffering. This is the other clue that there is hope even after death. The brother, if we were to apply the parable of the lost son to post mortem repentance would need to be those in heaven who bypassed hell through faith would they not? I think not. No one in heaven will despise post mortem salvation from hell. There will be no one like the bitter brother in the kingdom of God. Where we see these bitter brothers is in the here and now. They are the ones feeling utterly offended and cheated by the notion that they would spend their lives deprived of worldly pleasure and subjecting themselves to service to the father, only to have their devotion and piety seemingly mocked by the acceptance into heaven of those who had done their age in hell.
How could a son be so unlike his father in rejecting his brother and wishing him back to the dead? Jesus mental stage play searches deep into our hearts. Thats what it is meant to do.
I was challenged by a sister in Christ who had heard I was defending the redemption of the dead. She approached me having given much thought and preparation to dismantling my view. She squared off and made some remark with strength and defiance and resolve in her voice. It was along the lines of, “I don’t believe people can ever get out of hell.”
I looked at her and this answer was quickened to my mind.
I said, “ So once you are in heaven, if you were to find out God did have a way to deliver people out of hell…would that make you want to praise Him more…or less?”
She stared at me stunned and speechless. All her well crafted rebuttals came crumbling apart and she said, “I’m going to have to think about that and get back to you.”
She never got back to me.
Why was she so stymied? Because to say she would praise him more would mean admitting that there is virtue in rescuing people from hell, which she at this point refused to do. To say that she would praise him less would conflict with her deeply held theology that God is good and right in all he does and that to object to Gods actions is to sit in judgement on God.
However some would say that to object to Gods judgement of eternal hell is sitting in judgement of God. But it is not if we do not believe eternal hell is Gods judgement. Instead we sit in judgement of the theology and morality of men who desire to see others burn forever. We think this is quite different.
To object to Gods sovereign ability to have mercy upon whom he will have mercy is the closest match to the offended brother in the parable of the lost son. All belief in endless punishment hinges not on vivid narratives but on specific adjectives. The words eternal, unending and forever are translational and linguistic jump balls that seem like very tiny and unstable cornerstones upon which to build something as serious as Gods wrath. The narratives of the bible seem to say an age and a span as opposed to unending. These are large broad foundations upon which to build an understanding of God as one who never loses love for his lost sons and daughters. For though a golden coin may be marred and damaged and worn until its minted image is unrecognizable, its material substance is such that it can always be melted down and re-minted afresh and anew.
We were objects of Gods love before we were objects of His wrath. And what is his wrath? The parable tell us that it is a suffering that returns us to God and restores our place in the Fathers house.