Are Hell and the Cross Overkill for Sin?
Interview with John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
Was the cross overkill for sin? It’s a question from a person named Lisa. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for your diligence and taking the time to help people all over the world work through difficult questions! I have one. Why do we need a Savior in the first place? I consider myself to be a good person and when I look around at most people, I would say the same about them. I know I am not perfect, and I cannot hold God’s law perfectly, but I don’t consider my thoughts and actions to be so terrible that they need to be punished by death. Should I really need to die because I disobeyed my parents as a child or told a lie? I have a difficult time seeing myself and those close to me as being wicked and utterly depraved.
“There is certainly great evil in the world, such as war, rape, murder, racism, oppression, etc. But the majority of the world doesn’t need God to see these things as evil or to make a positive change. I certainly don’t see how someone innocent, dying a horrible death, somehow makes my wrongs right in the sight of God. Can you help me make sense of this seemingly twisted justice and come to understand why I need Jesus?”
I think Lisa speaks for millions of people who quietly don’t feel comfortable — to put it mildly — with hell or with the cross of Christ. And I would state the problem like this: Where God is small and man is big, hell will be abhorrent — indeed absurd — and the cross will be foolishness.
The most telling thing about Lisa’s question is that her conception of evil can never be big enough to make sense of hell or the cross of Christ, because she defines evil only in relation to what harms man, not what demeans God. She says, for example, “I have a difficult time seeing myself as being wicked and utterly depraved.”
And then she defines evil like this: “There is great evil in the world, such as war, rape, murder, racism, oppression, etc. But the majority of the world doesn’t need God to see these things as evil or make a change.” So what are the great evils in the world, according to Lisa? And the answer is war, rape, murder, racism, oppression.
Now, all of these are ways that man harms man. You don’t even need God in the picture in order to call those evil. Lisa doesn’t seem to have a category for evil understood as the dishonoring, demeaning, disparaging, insulting of God as infinitely worthy of honor. That doesn’t come into her picture.
Punishment Fits the Crime
So let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose there is no God, and Lisa is a super-successful Adolf Hitler. I’m not saying she leans that way at all. This is just an experiment. She’s a super-successful Adolf Hitler. She is able not only to kill all the Jews in the world, but all the other non-Aryans. Everybody in Africa, she kills. Everybody in China, she kills. Everybody in India, she kills. Everybody in South America, she kills. So she succeeds in orchestrating the murder of about seven billion people.
And the question is, Would she deserve eternal punishment in hell? And my answer is, No, she wouldn’t, for two reasons. First, if there’s no God, and we are simply complex chemical and material animals, then there’s no such thing as right and wrong anyway. There is no such thing as deserts or merit or blameworthiness. They’re just different chemical reactions.
But second and more importantly for my point, she wouldn’t deserve an infinitely long punishment because seven billion murders are still finite. And a finite number of finite crimes doesn’t deserve an infinite punishment. In other words, when God is left out, there’s no way to have an infinite crime deserving of an infinite punishment like hell or the cross. They would simply be unjust.
“When God is left out, there’s no way to have an infinite crime deserving of an infinite punishment.”
But this is why God has spoken to us in the Bible. We will never understand the depth of our sinfulness without God telling us what the problem is, which he has very clearly. Lisa and I would never come up with this truth on our own. We must learn it from the Bible. And what God has said is this: The essence of evil — what makes evil evil — is not harm done to man, but indignities done to God. Harm to man is horrible. But it is meant to be a vivid parable of the outrage of failing to honor God, failing to glorify God, failing to thank God as God.
What Do You Owe God?
So ask this question: If God is of infinite value, infinite beauty, infinite greatness, with all of his perfections uniting in an infinitely satisfying panorama of personal beauty and glory, then of what is he worthy from the human soul? That’s the key question.
And Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). And Paul answers, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” — every minute of your life (1 Corinthians 10:31). In another place he says that he aims that Christ be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:20).
Over and over again in the Bible, it’s made plain that God created the world so that his infinitely valuable glory would be manifest in creation by the worshipful enjoyment of his creation. The essence of virtue, therefore, is to love, and desire, and prefer, and treasure, and enjoy — and thus honor — God above all things in this world.
The essence of evil is loving and preferring and desiring and treasuring and enjoying anything above God. It’s treason. And since God is of infinite worth and beauty and greatness and honor — infinite — the failure to love and treasure and enjoy him above all things is an infinite outrage, worthy of infinite punishment. This will make no sense where God is small and man is big. It will only make sense where people see God as great, as he really is, and see man, see ourselves, and see our outrageous God-belittling self-centeredness for what they are.
Paul says, “Both Jews and Greeks are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Romans 3:9–10) And then he explains what this failure is, this sin. He says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And you see how he moves immediately from the concept of sin to failing to embrace the glory of God as our supreme treasure. And the reason I put it like that — “failure to embrace the glory of God as our supreme treasure” — is because just earlier, back in Romans 1:22–23, Paul describes the human race as “claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” There’s the essence of evil.
The outrage of the human race is not humans killing humans. That’s not the outrage of the human race. The true outrage is humans exchanging the glory of the immortal God for anything less. That’s who we are. We are outrageous, treasonous, God-belittling, self-exalting rebels against God. And we are this way even in our so-called moral efforts to do good to other people while giving almost zero attention, zero affection, zero admiration to God and taking no delight in his glory.
God gave a glimpse of his rage toward such evil in these words from Jeremiah 2:12–13. This is God talking:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.
The great shock, the great appalling reality in the world, is that humans have turned from God as the all-satisfying fountain of life and joy, and tried to find it not in God, but in what he made. It is high treason and worthy of eternal punishment. That, Lisa, is why we need a Savior.
I tremble with thankfulness that God, in mercy, sent his infinitely worthy Son to do what no mere man could ever do. Only a God-man can bear an infinite punishment for all who embrace him for the glorious one that he really is.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.