Do God’s flames of judgment seek to heal us or torture us?
Like the fig leaves, Adam and Eve wore to hide their nakedness from God, men wear sin-masks to keep their “real” naked selves covered and hidden from God. The ugly truth is that there is something fractured in our soul at a subconscious level that wants to ignore and avoid God.
Satan helps us here by providing demonically empowered masks to blind and deform our hearts and minds. Like the disturbed teenager who self-mutilates by knife cuts into the flesh, we self-mutilate our soul created in the image of God by disfiguring it. We do this by donning demonic masks lined on the inside with razorblades of fear, doubt, and lust. God wants these sin-masks removed once and for all.
So, what becomes of our sin-masks, either in this life or the next? How are these masks dealt with, both in the short term and long term? Is there a way that in this lifetime we can rip all our masks off? Sure, this is what the Scriptures call sanctification.
Through the renewing of our minds by the Holy Spirit, we are able to progressively shed all our false selves, prideful pretenses, and forged identities. Those who persist in achieving this authenticity in the Lord receive rewards in this life and the next.
But, what about those masks we never successfully cast away during this lifetime? What happens to our blindspots, the masks we never recognize and remove? What about the areas of hypocrisy that we never allow to be fully evicted? What happens in the hereafter to our masks? Are we, along with our masks, cast into the Lake of Fire to die the second death?
Or is there another solution? Can God in future ages somehow perform critical and extensive spiritual surgery on our souls? Can He burn off, cut out and cast away all our sin-masks which, all too often, have rendered us lying letches, fearful followers, and doubting disciples?
When we are judged after we die, is it all or nothing? If in any area of our lives, we have never dealt with a particular mask, does that doom our entire spirit, soul and body to eternal fire? What if we sanctified our souls to be “mask-less” at home, but still wore masks at work, or church, or with certain friends, or on certain occasions? Is this the way an all-powerful God deals with His children? Or is there a better way? A more divine way? A more loving way?
Do any Scriptures point to these sin-masks being removed by God’s judgment WITHOUT the necessity of casting the entire person into the eternal flames as well? Oh yes! 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is quite clear:
“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; EVERY MAN’S WORK shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be REVEALED BY FIRE; and THE FIRE SHALL TRY EVERY MAN’S WORK, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. IF ANY MAN’S WORK SHALL BE BURNED, HE SHALL SUFFER LOSS, BUT HE HIMSELF SHALL BE SAVED; YET SO AS BY FIRE.”
This passage above refers to the judgment of “Every man’s work” (verse 13). The Revelation passage about the Lake of Fire in chapters 20-21 ALSO refers to the judgment of every man’s works: “the dead were judged… according to their works” (Revelation 20:12). So, Paul and John were both describing the same event, the judgment of every man’s works, but from their slightly different perspectives. Now, note what Paul says ultimately happens on the other side of every man’s work being judged: “If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. IF ANY MAN’S WORK SHALL BE BURNED, HE SHALL SUFFER LOSS: BUT HE HIMSELF SHALL BE SAVED; YET SO AS BY FIRE.”
So, what exactly do we know about the Lake of Fire? I have heard theologians of all ilks agree to never build a firm dogma on just one passage in Scripture, particularly if that passage is in the smack dab middle of Jewish apocalyptic section of the Bible like the book of Revelation. The reason is that this form of literature, unlike the epistles and the Gospel, are full of heavily symbolic language and feverish activity. They are more poetic and visionary than they are doctrinal. There is only extended passage that ever even talks about the Lake of Fire, and that is in Revelation 19-21.
All we know about it is:
—-the devil is cast into it along with the beast and the false prophet (19:20)
—-those that worship the image of the beast are cast into it (19:20)
—-that the devil (a false identity of Lucifer?) is tormented forever in it (20:10)
—-death and Hell are emptied and then cast into it (20:14)
—-and whosever’s name is not found written in the book of life is cast into it(20:15)
—-and the fearful, unbelieving, etc. shall all have their PART in it(20:8).
Curiously, no particular individual is named as being cast into it. Symbolic figures are cast into it, beasts and false prophets and the devil. Nobody by proper name is mentioned. Not Herod, not Pharaoh, not Hitler, not Nero. Some “part” of our sinful being is cast into it, but does other Scripture help us better understand what that is exactly? I say yes. Scripture helps interpret Scripture.
The reasons I believe 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and Revelation 20:12-15 are referring to the same event is because of several factors.
—-both are referring to a postmortem experience
—-both refer to themselves as “the judgment of men’s works”
—-both explicitly refer to “every man” man being so judged
—-both use the imagery of “fire”
—-both refer to some sort of dividing which includes “suffering and loss”
Do you see? The man himself shall be saved, yet he shall SUFFER LOSS, YET SO AS BY FIRE. But, WHAT EXACTLY is it that is “BURNED” off and in the process causes the man to “SUFFER” and experience “LOSS?” The answer is clear: THE MASKS ARE BURNED OFF AND AWAY FROM US! In this context, the “wood, hay and stubble” of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 represents the various types of false masks we have co-created with Satan and worn as the primary motivating forces behind our actions and works. Instead of performing “righteous works” that will endure, works of “gold, silver, and precious stones” (v. 12), works done under the Holy Spirit’s leading and anointing (Romans 8:14), we have masked the real motives for our works with that which is from below and not above— motives which are false, demonic, and self-centered.
Each and every wood-mask, hay-mask and stubble-mask a man has wrongly allowed to be grafted onto his soul will have to be burned. The result is that he will experience the “wrenching and painful loss” of having huge parts of who he “thought” he really was over the course of his entire life completely burned away with white-hot fire.
Like the most intense form of chemotherapy we know in the physical, yet multiplied a thousand times in painful intensity in the spiritual, every mask will be irradiated and destroyed with the fire of God. The man suffers a searing “identity crisis” which, though in the long term will bring great positive transformation, is in the short term painful beyond words. The length of time for the burning process may vary. “Wood” takes longer to burn than “hay” or “stubble,” so wood-masks are the most dangerous.
These false identities caused the man during his time on earth to operate outside his authentic self, and instead assume the sin-identity of a lust-mask, or a pride-mask, or a legalism-mask. The man may have grafted on a “religious” mask and thereafter thought he was serving God, and that all his good works were in the service of the Lord, when in truth he was only serving his own self-righteousness (Matthew 7:22-23). Or, the man may have been serving his own fleshly desires while wearing a mask of “carnality.” Finally, the man could just be wearing “the pride of life” mask which prevented him from humbly submitting to the Lordship of the Spirit by operating in self-will.
Regardless, these masks “warp” the core motive of every man and cause them to be someone they are not, someone they were never created or called to be by God. To the extent these masks corrupt the purity of our identities in Christ, they MUST go.
So, how are they removed? In this lifetime, by sanctification, repentance and the self-judgment that comes through prayer and communion. Paul said that if we judge ourselves NOW by removing every inner sin-mask, we will not be judged later. But, IF these sin-masks are still grafted onto our souls at the time of death, which means we never dealt with them fully during our lifetime, then the Lord deals with them at the judgment of every man’s works, “yet so as by fire.”
The Lord uses, what the church Fathers Clement and Origen called God’s “WISE FIRE” to burn off and away all the false masks we have lived out of, the Satanic strongholds which have blinded, twisted and deformed us. The masks are the result of the MISUSE of our freedom combined with the Devil’s temptations and lies.
Seen from this angle, judgment is a good thing, not a fearful thing. The Greek word for “judge” means “to separate or put asunder.” God “separates” our true self from all our false selves. He “tears asunder” the masks from our true identity. And then what becomes of all our masked identities? THEY ARE CAST INTO THE LAKE OF FIRE, NEVER AGAIN TO BE PUT ON BY US OR ANYBODY ELSE!
This is a good thing, not a bad thing. I long for the day all my false selves (Richard the fearful, Richard the doubter, Richard the oppressed, Richard the lustful, Richard the liar) are FOREVER FAR REMOVED from my true self, my best self, my authentic self, my Christ self, my new man created in righteousness and true holiness.
God has a name for each one of us that only HE knows. This name is who we are called to be, who we WILL be for all eternity. These false selves CAN be burned off in THIS lifetime IF I submit myself fully to the Lord’s sanctifying Spirit. But if my heart falls short, God is greater than my heart. He WILL see me delivered in the ages to come.
The great sculptor Michelangelo famously said, “The statue lies within the stone.” He believed that all the sculptor does is chip away the exterior stone to reveal the interior truth. Or, put another way, the artist removes the masked false in order to reveal the naked real. For us, we have the chance to use this life to chip away all our false masks with our Spirit-led chisel of faith. But to the extent we fail in this lifetime, God will use the righteous chisel Himself in the ages to come to perfect and reconcile all things to Himself. As the greatest artist of all, He will chip away the masked false to reveal the naked real.
It seems that God is all about name changes, or what I like to call mask-removal through name-renewal. On the positive side, the ugly mask known as Saul was burned off to reveal a mask-less Paul created in righteousness and true holiness. Likewise, in Genesis 17:5, Abram was de-masked to reveal Abraham, the father of many nations.
Revelation 2:17 tells us that God has given to each man who overcomes all worldly and demonic masks a white stone with a name on it only the Lord knows. This name is our mask-less self which ONLY the Lord can reveal to us. On the flip-side, the angel Lucifer became the masked Satan. Satan as a “mask,” certainly the deadliest and densest mask of all, will definitely be cast forever into the Lake of Fire. But, whether God will, at the end of all the ages, restore Lucifer back to his original God-created identity by wrenching away his devil mask is an open and intriguing question. Toward Satan, I have nothing but righteous hate and violent opposition on every level. But, towards the angel Lucifer who fell so very far, I must confess a stirring of pity.
Being a father of seven, I have often thought that if I were an all-powerful Father, I don’t think I would ever give my children enough freedom to destroy themselves, not forever and ever and eeeeevvvvvvveeeeerrrrrr.
I would certainly give them enough freedom to learn real gain and loss, the nature of love and cost of evil, and the nature of faith and doubt. But, I would never give them the keys to a car which could destroy them eternally.
I would give them a lot of elbow room to learn and grow, but I would not create an environment where they could destroy themselves for all time. And I don’t think God does either. He might allow these masks of rebellion to deform us for a season, but it is hard to conceive He would allow the masks to stay attached to us for an eternity in the Lake of Fire. On the contrary, I see Him using the Lake of Fire as the place where He separates from us all the enemies of our soul, and then destroys forever all the things that have harmed and deformed us.
Under this view, the Lake of Fire is not a torture chamber where anybody’s essential self, spirit or body are cast into flames for eternity. Rather, the Lake of Fire is God’s final deliverance of those souls who “neglected their so great a salvation” by not taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. These souls have allowed “enemy grafting” to occur in their heartland. And now they are in the crisis of Hell because of it.
But God will not pull them by up their roots and destroy them totally. GOD WILL INSTEAD PRUNE BACK WHATEVER BRANCHES ARE NOT OF HIM. He will then hurl these branches into the Lake of Fire. What will be left is a transformed man, a born-again man, a man with no mask. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 clearly envisions such a separation.
For Christians who win the crown of an overcomer, there is little if any wood, hay and stubble to separate and burn by flame. However, for the lost, the burning will be intense and they will lose much, but they themselves will be saved. The lost will have their part in the lake which burneth with fire, but their part will be their wood, hay and stubble and not their “essential selves.” Rev. 21:8.
And always remember this champion truth.
God’s nature overcomes evil only one way– with GOODNESS! Romans 12:21; Matt. 5:43-48. It simply could not be in His nature to eternally torture any of His children, no matter how prodigal they have become. Gods goodness will ultimately, irresistibly and totally overcome and reconcile all forms of evil.
As George MacDonald wrote, “Nothing is inexorable but love. . . .Love is one, and love is changeless. For love loves into purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. . . There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine. Therefore, all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.” George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller, by Michael Phillips, p. 201 (1987).
What then is Hell, where did it come from and how are we delivered from it? William Law’s answer is simply this:
“There is no Hell but where the heart of the creature is turned from God, nor any heaven but where the heart of the creature worketh with God…Purification, therefore, is the one thing necessary, and nothing will do instead of it. But man is not purified till every earthly, wrathful, sensual, selfish, partial, self-willing temper is taken from him. He is not dying to himself til he is dying to these tempers, and he is not alive in God til he is dead to them.” Selected Writings of William Law, by William Law.
Hell, then, is the heart turned from God and Heaven the heart turned toward God. The crisis of Hell is God’s “emergency rescue” of lost souls from their self-made and Satan-generated Hell which has hardened their hearts toward God.
But, they may run but they can’t hide in Hell. God will go after and save them from themselves. It will be painful and agonizing, but it will ultimately lead to repentance, redemption and life.
As the Theologia Germanica states, “Nothing burneth in Hell but self-will.” This echoes William Law’s statement, “Nothing separates us from God but our own self-will. Rather, our own self-will IS separation from God.” George MacDonald famously said, “The one principle of Hell is, I am my own.”
C. S. Lewis said, “Hell’s gate is locked from the inside.” But, praise God, Jesus has the keys to both death and Hell. He is truly the stronger one who enters Hell, binds Satan, and saves us from our own destructions (Matt. 12:28-29).
This is the HEROIC view of God which is most consistent with His revealed nature in Jesus Christ. John A.T. Robinson summed it up best when he observed that the idea of God’s deliverance from Hell for all men “comes from insight rather than foresight.”
In other words, an insight INTO God’s love makes the permanency of Hell impossible. It is not based on the foresight of what exactly Hell WILL be, but rather is based on an insight into what God’s character IS as revealed in Jesus Christ. The early Church fathers had this insight and so can we. So MUST we!