[This is an except from the book The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald]
Hell is usually seen as the full manifestation of God’s wrath. The theological issue concerns the nature of that wrath. God is not like some pagan deity with a bad temper who may “lose it” at any moment. New Testament scholar Chris Marshall writes that wrath
designates God’s fervent reaction to human wickedness. God’s refusal to tolerate, compromise with, or indulge evil … wrath is not a chronic case of ill temper on God’s part but a measured commitment to act against evil and injustice in order to contain it and destroy it … it is not so much a matter of direct, individually tailored punitive intervention as it is a matter of measured withdrawal of his protective influence and control, a refusal to intervene to stem the deleterious effects of human rebellion.
A key biblical foundation for the idea that wrath is primarily God’s withdrawing his protection is found in Romans 1:18-32, where God’s wrath is revealed from heaven when God gives people up to pursue their self-destructive sinful desires. The wrath is God’s letting them slide down the path to destruction. In Joel Green’s words, “wrath is … God … handing people over to experience the consequences of the sin they choose (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28; cf. Wis 11:11-16; 12:23).”
If we think of hell as the state in which God allows the painful reality of sin to hit home, then we can understand both the terrible imagery used in Scripture to portray such a fate and the urgent warning to avoid the wide road that leads in that direction. It also removes the objection that God is being presented as a cosmic torturer hurting people until they agree to follow him. God does not torture anybody – he simply withdraws his protection that allows people to live under the illusion that sin is not necessarily harmful to a truly human life. The natural (though none the less God-ordained) consequences of sin take their course, and it becomes harder and harder to fool oneself into believing the seductive lies of sin anymore. In this way hell is educative and points us towards our need for divine mercy.
Divine wrath is experienced now (Rom 1:18-32) and in the future (Rom 2:5, 8; 1 Thess 1:10; 5-9; Col 3:6). It is John’s Gospel that really brings out the connections between the two. John writes that “whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already …” (John 3:18). The eschatological condemnation that stands over those who are not born from above (John 3:1-15) is not only their future destiny but also their present experience. This means that we should not set God’s present and his future wrath up as if they were totally different kinds of things. God’s wrath in the present is a foretaste of the same phenomena that some will experience in the future. So understanding something of the nature of wrath now will give us some theological orientation for better understanding future wrath.
Well, as far as the church goes, God brings punishment; but it is always to protect them and to rescue the offender. Divine judgments in the present age are usually seen as reformative and educative (Heb 12:5-11; Tit 2:11-12; Rev 3:19; 1 Cor 11:29-32), though they are occasionally destructive (Acts 5:1-11). 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 is an interesting case study. Paul asks the church to hand a consistently sinful church member over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” The punishments serve as a call to repentance. Chris Marshall writes that the purpose of God’s punishments is “ultimately redemptive and restorative. The point is not to torment human beings but to enable them to see their moral frailty and their consequent need for God’s healing assistance.” My suggestion is that we see the punishment of hell as fundamentally the same kind of punishment, albeit in a more intense form.
One text that brings out the perspective on punishment I am commending to readers here is Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness … For men are not cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.
This text of Lamentations reflects on Israel’s exilic sufferings and especially the sufferings of those who have been left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem. Right at the heart of the book lies this word of hope. Yes, the Lord has brought us grief and has cast us off but he derives no pleasure from treating us in this way, and he will not do so forever. Because of the Lord’s faithful, covenant love the final word is Restoration! …
… Once we see that God’s justice is more than mere retribution but is also restorative, and once we see that divine punishments are more than deserved but also corrective, then a way is open to see God’s final punishment as another manifestation of this very same justice and not something qualitatively different. It is retributive but also restorative. It is deserved but also corrective. Divine wrath can be seen as the severe side of divine mercy. It is just as much an act of God’s love as is his kindness. Granted, it is a side of God’s love it would be better not to experience but it is none the less loving for that.