I have a ministry with a group of men. I recently had a man ask a profound question posed along the lines of a parable. It went something like this. A man loved his son. His son was rebellious. Yet, the father continued to love the son very much. The son did not listen to the advice of the father. The son was thrown into prison. The father visited his son even in prison, though the son wanted nothing to do with him. Yet, the father continued to say that he loved the son.
Here, the parable took a turn. The man looked at me and asked, “How could a loving God ever send His own child to Hell to be tormented forever? What kind of love is that? This is what I don’t understand.”
I remarked that the question was a sound one. I further suggested that I am not sure that I have a complete answer. My answer is incomplete because the mind of God is so far above my mind. I reasoned that the answer is found in the unrelenting revelation of the glory of God and that I have a limited understanding of the underpinning of such glory.
The following is a nutshell of the conversation that ensued in the 15 minutes we spent together. I wish my explanation was better but, as mentioned, I am limited to my human understanding. First, the premise of the question seems backward to me. After all, that son in prison wanted nothing to do with the father. In fact, the son preferred prison over a relationship with the father. Yet, the focus of the question is the perceived negative reaction of the father to the son rather than the choice the son has made to sever his relationship with the father.
Certainly, the father was within his right to completely terminate the relationship that only he was pursuing. The son had proved over and over again that he hated the father and wanted nothing to do with the father. The father could have walked away and allowed the son to enjoy his prison cell forever. That is, the son was choosing his own Hell over a relationship with his father.
Yet, God did not choose to ordain a permanent prison sentence. He continued to pursue the relationship even in the midst of undeserved rejection. This severed relationship could be restored only through a restoration of the righteousness of the one in prison. Why is this? It is because it is impossible for unrighteousness (that is, sin) to dwell with righteousness (that is, God). Therefore, sin must be made righteous or the sinner is forever imprisoned. The prison sentence is a permanently severed relationship.
How is it possible for the rebellious convict to be made righteous and to be set free? It is impossible for the man in prison for he cannot free himself. The walls around his cell are real indeed. Yet the father, though innocent of the crime, saw an opportunity to take the punishment of the crime on behalf of the son. That is the father, instead of terminating the relationship, sought opportunity to pursue and conditionally restore the relationship.
Do you see what happened? God Himself became the prisoner. He was executed for the crime. The criminal (sinner) is set free because the punishment for the crime was paid by Him who is innocent. An innocent creative God of the universe was tormented so that the guilty created of the universe could be set free. This freedom allows the one formerly imprisoned to once again enjoy His God forever. Is this not a perfect example of a loving father?
Further, does this not reshape the original question into the following? “How could God ever send His own Son to Hell on earth to save the likes of us? What kind of love is that? This is what I don’t understand.”
Yet, the original question must be addressed for complete fairness. That son in prison knows that his father is willing to take the punishment of the crime that the son committed, thus enabling the son to be set free. The son, however, scoffs at the father and resolutely determines that he prefers his prison.
So, here is my incomplete answer to the question posed. The love of the father remains pure and unimaginable in the midst of the son’s rebellion. The son’s rebellion is unimaginable, and yet somehow sublimely common, in the midst of the unrelenting love of the father. It is the very hatred wrapped in the rebellion of the son that opens the door to Hell. The son, in effect, smugly sits in Hell because he eschewed the permanent love of the father in exchange for the temporary self-pursuit of the son.
Romans 5:8 – But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.