First off, let me begin by saying I have great respect for Tim Challies, and other neo-reformed folk. Not so much because I agree with their every theological approach. But because they typically engage and interact with great humility. All could learn a thing of two from these brothers and sisters.
Nevertheless, there is a problematic trend that I tend to see amongst those of the neo-reformed paradigm when they address topics like judgment, God’s holiness and the ever-growing popular topic of hell. I am very familiar with the particular approach because I would have argued very similarly in past days.
First off, what I want to address is not so much the biblical exegesis. I actually think Andrew Perriman does that well in his interaction with Challies’ posts. At some point in the future, I think Perriman might be dabbed the ‘theologian of hell’, since he is leading the way in helping people better understand the concept from the biblical narrative, which is, I believe, a far cry from what is actually taught in many evangelical settings. You can see his 2 posts here – part 1, part 2 – and I would recommend his shorter e-book on the topic entitled, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective.
And, for starters, let me clarify that I do believe that Bible teaches that God judges and does reserve wrath for individuals and nations, that sin is a major problem before our good and holy God, that there is a final judgment, etc. Yet, as I noted, I believe we have gravely misunderstood certain biblical words and concepts surrounding sheol, hades, gehenna, death and other such related terms.
Having said that, the biggest problem I think that I see in a more neo-reformed, or even broader evangelical, perspective is that of God’s judgment and wrath being primarily directed as retributive justice, to give sinners their just due. Again, yes, I agree that sin must be dealt with. But I think it is approaching things from a wrong angle.
I believe a larger, even better, perspective of the sweeping Scriptural narrative is this – God’s judgment is ultimately and primarily about making things right. Things are out of order, outside the Edenic model given in the beginning. And so God introduced a restorative project as a response. And to bring restoration will also call for dealing with the muck of rebellion. Still, the primary focus is about bringing corrective judgment for restoration. That’s why the story ends, at the conclusion of Revelation, with things looking and sounding very similar to the way they began. Eden is restored, if you will.
Again, when God judges, yes, it means that sin must be dealt with. But it’s dealt with in the midst of God’s greater purpose – to make things right, to make all things new. And for new creation, it means old and dead creation must be dealt with in the midst of his power of renewal and redemption. This is why, at least for God’s people, judgment is a good thing. It’s bringing things back to their original order and intention. For the rule of God to come on earth as it is in heaven means that God is restoring back to what he meant when he originally meant all creation and humanity.
I don’t know if anyone sees the fundamental difference here?
For me, one empowers with grace. The other, I believe, mainly leaves quite distanced and alien from our God, that we can never attain to his good kingdom purposes and that we are merely failures waiting for all things to come to finality.
Tit for tac, you might be able to ‘prove’ the latter from quoting a buffet selection of verses. But I am convinced that a more grace-empowering, even biblical, perspective is that of seeing God’s kingdom rule right all things – for humanity and the whole cosmos-creation.
As in Acts, tell them that God ‘has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed’ (17:31), and such has been confirmed in the raising from the dead this one unique man, God’s king and Son. But draw people in by telling them it’s for making all things new, all things right, all things good and just.
That, my friends, smells like gospel, like good news.