You don’t have to be a theologian to realize that while heaven and salvation are still popular, hell and Divine judgment are taking a beating these days. Whether it’s Gallup polls that reveal that many more Christian Americans believe in heaven than hell or books by self-described evangelicals that dismiss the idea of eternal punishment and teach that eventually everyone will eventually be saved, it all seems to indicate that Christians have become very uncomfortable with the idea of God’s wrath.
I was reminded of that recently when, as I went through the book of Esther in my daily devotions, I once again discovered that Esther doesn’t end at chapter eight with the death of Haman the Agagite and the decree of Mordecai. I say I discovered it again, because I am prone to forget that fact. This is probably because in most modern evangelical treatments, the events of chapter 9 are conveniently skipped over and we move directly from Mordecai’s decree in chapter 8 to his exaltation in chapter 10. This is the case for instance with the popular movie One Night With the King which essentially turns the book of Esther into an evangelical romance novel.
I believe Esther comes in for this selective treatment because of the previously mentioned modern distaste for themes of judgment and condemnation. So, while most modern evangelicals are fine with themes like the salvation of God’s people from their wicked enemies, or how the instruments of their salvation are a faithful civil servant and a brave young girl who goes on to become the queen of the world’s largest empire, they are less than happy about the theme of terrible judgment falling upon the enemies of God and his people, or how the instruments of that judgment were once again, the faithful civil servant and the brave young girl who became queen. You see in chapter 9 of Esther, it is not merely Haman, but his sons and the rest of the enemies of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire who are destroyed with a great slaughter:
Esther 9:1 Now in the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, the time came for the king’s command and his decree to be executed. On the day that the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, the opposite occurred, in that the Jews themselves overpowered those who hated them. 2 The Jews gathered together in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could withstand them, because fear of them fell upon all people. 3 And all the officials of the provinces, the satraps, the governors, and all those doing the king’s work, helped the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai fell upon them. 4 For Mordecai was great in the king’s palace, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces; for this man Mordecai became increasingly prominent. 5 Thus the Jews defeated all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, with slaughter and destruction, and did what they pleased with those who hated them. 6 And in Shushan the citadel the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. 7 Also Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8 Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, 9 Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, and Vajezatha — 10 the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews — they killed; but they did not lay a hand on the plunder. 11 On that day the number of those who were killed in Shushan the citadel was brought to the king. 12 And the king said to Queen Esther, “The Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the citadel, and the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted to you. Or what is your further request? It shall be done.” 13 Then Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let it be granted to the Jews who are in Shushan to do again tomorrow according to today’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on the gallows.” 14 So the king commanded this to be done; the decree was issued in Shushan, and they hanged Haman’s ten sons. 15 And the Jews who were in Shushan gathered together again on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and killed three hundred men at Shushan; but they did not lay a hand on the plunder. 16 The remainder of the Jews in the king’s provinces gathered together and protected their lives, had rest from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of their enemies; but they did not lay a hand on the plunder. 17 This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar. And on the fourteenth day of the month they rested and made it a day of feasting and gladness.
It’s not hard to see why the makers of One Night with the King decided to cut the part about Esther asking that the dead bodies of all ten of Haman’s sons be hanged on the gallows, or that there be another day added to the original edict so that the rest of the enemies of the Jews in Shushan might be hunted down and destroyed. Modern secular audiences would immediately have gone sour on Esther and Mordecai, and unfortunately modern evangelicals probably would have as well. To the modern mind, being saved from your enemies is fine, but those same enemies being judged and destroyed is not. For many Christians, the idea that it was just and good that75,000 of the enemies of God and His people were put to death, and that this should be followed by feasting and gladness rather than handwringing, regrets, and mourning is simply not acceptable.
But it’s not just the story of Esther that gets what might be called the “All Salvation, No Damnation” treatment. Think of the story of Noah and Ark. In the popular depictions of this event, we have pictures of happy Noah and the animals in an impossibly small Ark, the rain has stopped, the sun is shining, and for some reason that rainbow is already overhead. What we NEVER see are the floating bodies of the men and animals who did NOT get into the Ark and fell under God’s judgment. We also don’t see the debris from the destruction of their cities, towns, and villages. Pictures that look more like the aftermath of a Tsunami would be more realistic, but they are far less acceptable to modern evangelical eyes. The same is true of the Exodus account of the parting of the Red Sea. I can’t tell you how frequently I have seen depictions of Moses parting the waters and Israel crossing safely through to the other side, but how infrequently I also read about how their Egyptian pursuers were all drowned when they tried to do the same thing. Even in depictions of Israel’s war against her enemies, the miraculous salvation element is emphasized, while the subsequent judgment is minimized or overlooked. So the walls of Jericho falling down is remembered, but the subsequent slaughter of the entire city is forgotten. We remember that David kills Goliath with his sling stone, but do we remember that he subsequently cut Goliath’s head off with his own sword? What about the smiting of the Philistine army that followed?
New Testament stories are also frequently subjected to the same “All Salvation, No Damnation” whitewash. Sadly, while everyone is familiar with Jesus the Redeemer who died on the cross and rose again, far fewer have ever read that Jesus has promised to return and judge all the unbelieving. The Jesus whose coming is so terrifying to the unbelieving that they cry out to the Mountains and Rocks “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17) is hardly ever mentioned. And certainly most treatments of Christ never mention how at His return He will put to death the beast and his followers and send the wicked away to everlasting punishment in the lake of fire (Rev. 19:11-21, Matthew 25:31-46, etc.) It is always Christ as gentle Savior who is emphasized by Evangelicals and the question, “what did Jesus save us from?” is hardly ever asked. Perhaps this is because the unsettling answer to that question is the wrath and righteous judgment of God (John 3:36, Romans 1:18, Romans 2:5, Romans 3:5-6, Col. 3:6, Revb. 14:10-11)
Most modern evangelicals are fine with salvation, but want no part of damnation. They like heaven, but despise hell, they are fine with mercy, but seem to forget that the offer of mercy always implies that judgment and condemnation are what we actually deserve. This is an extremely dangerous position to be in, because it’s not big step from rejecting chapter 9 of Esther to Rob Bell’s position in “Love Wins.” Once we have embraced the idea of a “VeggieTales” God who saves, but doesn’t judge, we will inevitably come to the conclusion that everyone is saved somehow and that judgment is deserved by no one. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that no actions are really worthy of judgment, except perhaps the action of judging itself. If we reject the God who judges, we will inevitably reject the people who judge as well, and so the entire concept of sin will be reduced to one cardinal sin – the act of judging others. As a result, the only verse from the bible that seems to be remembered these days is Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you be not judged” which is wrenched out of context to imply that all judging of sins by anyone, including God, is forbidden. The fact that most of chapter 7 is taken up with Christ’s warnings against Hell and lawlessness is either forgotten or never known.
Grace in modern evangelicalism is in danger of degenerating from the most costly thing in the universe, won for believers through the atoning death of the Son of God, into something cheap that is automatically given to everyone for nothing. It is rendered worthless, because there was never any wrath in God, or any danger that God would judge anyone for their so-called sins. Dietrich Bonhoffer warned against such cheap grace in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship:
“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. …. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God. … Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Let us hope that evangelicals will search for and recover the ninth chapter of Esther, and that they would recall that the real love story in Esther wasn’t between Esther and King Ahasuerus, but between God and His People. It was because of that great love that He redeemed them and delivered them from the hands of their enemies, and then delivered those enemies into His judgment. When we think about what the King of Kings, Jesus Christ does, let us remember both His Love and His Wrath, His Mercy and His Judgment. In doing so, perhaps it would be helpful to close by recalling what the Westminster Larger Catechism taught us about the way in which Christ’s Kingship is exercised:
Q45: How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A45: Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them; in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins, preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.