Podcast listener Conner Hodges writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, it seems odd to me that the command of Christ looks like this: ‘Pursue joy in me or face eternal punishment.’ If that was ever the case on this world, it would seem outrageous. For example, if a husband says to his wife, ‘You better love me above all else, or I will cast you out,’ then it wouldn’t really be true love from the wife if she knew her only other option is to be cast out. I know this is wrong thinking, but I’m having a hard time wrestling with this type of analogy.” What would you say to Connor?
I would point out that there are three different, though not separated, issues in what he just said:
- Does the Bible teach that the failure to delight in God results in eternal punishment?
- If it does, does the analogy of a human husband setting up the same dynamic with his wife illumine or cloud that reality?
- The way you express the connection between our failure to delight in God and our eternal losses makes a huge difference in whether the truth can sound acceptable or not.
So those are three huge issues, and they got all jumbled together in that question. So I am going to take them one at a time, because the first one is key.
Duty-Bound to Delight
First, does the Bible teach that a failure to delight in God results in eternal punishment? So let’s start with 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone has no love the Lord, let him be accursed.” Now here is the most explicit biblical connection between the failure to love Christ and the punishment of a divine curse. How easy it would have been for Paul to write instead: “If anyone does not trust the Lord, let him be accursed.” In other words, we all know that salvation is by faith. And so that would not have been so jarring. But that is not what he said.
I am not saying that loving Jesus only means delighting in him. But I am saying delighting in him, treasuring him, preferring him over others, being glad to be with him, these are essential to what it means to love him. When Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he did not mean that keeping the commandments was to love. He meant that love empowers, enables the keeping of the commandments. So love is prior to, it is an internal heart issue of cleaving to Jesus as your greatest treasure. So my conclusion from 1 Corinthians 16:22 is: yes, the Bible does teach that failure to love God, delight in God, treasure God, cleave to God, enjoy God, be satisfied in God, embrace God as your supreme delight, results in eternal punishment.
You can add Deuteronomy 28:47, where it makes the connection between joylessness and punishment explicit. “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, . . . therefore you will serve your enemies.” So here is the connection between the absence of joy in God as you serve him and the threat of suffering explicitly. Here is one more text on this main question: In 2 Thessalonians 2:10, Paul describes who will perish in the end times when the lawless one does his false and lying signs and wonders. He comes “with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” So Paul shows us that, in his mind, a saving embrace of the truth includes cherishing the truth, loving the truth, treasuring the truth, delighting in the truth. And when it is not there, he says, we perish. And so, yes, the Bible teaches that the failure to delight in God, or Christ, or the truth of the gospel, results in eternal punishment. That is the basic question and I think the Bible says yes.
Only God Can
If that is true, does the analogy of a human husband setting up the same dynamic with his wife illumine or cloud that reality? Is it true that a human husband can set up the terms: “If you don’t delight in me, I will cast you out”? Is that a good analogy? Does it shed light on the truth we just found? No, it doesn’t. The analogy is not helpful for two reasons.
The first reason is because of the crucial difference between God and any husband. God is the source and sum of all that is good and true and beautiful in the universe, and God is infinitely beautiful, infinitely valuable, and the measure of all that is desired. No husband can talk like that. No husband can say that to his wife, or to anybody. It is just off the charts. God is so superior in every way to any husband, that it doesn’t click; it doesn’t work to make him the analogy.
And here is the second reason: God has made other commands about marriage — namely, that divorce is not permitted, especially on such grounds as that. “She doesn’t delight in me anymore. I am leaving. I am done with her.” The Bible says you can’t say that, husband. That is not an option for a wife who has stopped delighting in you. Therefore, no husband can make that threat in a way that is analogous to God. It doesn’t help to set up a husband and wife as an illustration of God’s demand that the world love him above all things because the husband is great above all things. Husbands can’t talk like that.
Receive and Rejoice
So here is my last question. The way you express the connection here between our failure to delight in God and our eternal lostness makes a huge difference as to whether it sounds acceptable. Words are wonderful things. They are emotionally laden and express and create emotional realities — they create emotional realities, not only express them as they are spoken. Sometimes those emotions are all out of proportion with reality.
For example, what if we create the caricature of God saying with a sneer like a pirate ship captain, “OK, all you miserable sinners whom I loathe in my justice, if you don’t, this instant, feel happy about me, then I’ll stop taking any pleasure in you at all and throw ye overboard.” Well, you could set it up like that, right? You can use language like that — I mean, people do this all the time in theological debates and political debates. Positions are restated almost all the time in ways that the person being represented would never accept. And yet they are used to then make the position look absolutely ludicrous. But let’s just try to turn it around the other way and use a different set of language. What if God said this from a throne of highest brightness and beauty surrounded by two hundred million angels in a voice of deepest seriousness and manifest patience, because we are not at this moment consumed by the fire of his holiness?
You are my creature. I made you to share in and display my glory. I created you so that your greatest joy and my greatest glory would be as one. And you would never have to choose between honoring me and being eternally happy. I sent my only Son to die in the place of sinners like you, so that if you would turn to me and repent of your idolatrous love of other things, I will forgive you. I command you, therefore, as your Creator and as the Redeemer over all the world, turn and see me for who I really am, and put me in your supreme place of affection. Receive me, in Jesus Christ, as your Savior and Lord and the supreme delight of your heart. If you do, you will have everlasting joy and if you don’t you will have everlasting pain.
Now I just submit: that is not ludicrous; that is the gospel.