Dick Dowsett’s book, God, That’s Not Fair, had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a number of years and in the wake of the storm in the Christian blogosphere over what Rob Bell wrote in his new book, Love Wins, it seemed like a good point to start reading it. Originally published in 1982, the copy I have is a new edition from 2006 with a new preface by Dowsett. The book makes a case for the necessity of hell argued from scripture and from what we know about the character of God. He also deals with mission, other faiths, suffering etc – anything that we might be tempted to say “God, that’s not fair”. It is a pretty good and accessible read about why the gospel is as it is, and why it is good news.
Regarding hell, he makes the point that although it may not seem nice to us, it is fair by God’s true and just standards. God is sovereign, sin is worse than we think, but Jesus is better that we think. He frames the book as an imaginary correspondence, question and answer style, between a young Christian away at university, and his home pastor. Dowsett doesn’t attempt to discuss the nature of hell, but makes the point that although we may not like the idea of it, hell is real and Biblical and is consistent with God’s character. What it is like for those there, he doesn’t attempt to discuss. In fact his new preface leaves open the possibility of annihilationism:
When I wrote the first edition, I read passages about lostness, perishing, and the destruction of the ungodly through a grid which assumed all people were immortal. I have had to think again. Is the punishment of Hell unending torment? Or is the punishment relative in length and intensity to the wickedness of the sinner? For the moment I would say that neither position fits comfortably with every scripture.
But that isn’t his point. Dowsett comes from the biblical conviction and that those who do not respond to Jesus in this life are lost and separate from God and which leads, for him, to a missionary zeal for those lost. There is no post-death second chance that we’re told about in scripture. Talking of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in which Jesus mentions the great chasm between them:
Such a comment from Jesus would be pointless unless he had wanted his listeners quite clearly to understand that there was no second chance after death. There is no concept of serving time in Hell before going to Heaven… Those who die in their sins are terribly, irreversibly, lost.
But God is a merciful and compassionate God as well as being a just God. He gives many opportunities to those who are lost to turn to him. In fact “God wants people to be saved”. He passionately wants people to come to him.
So far there have been over 20 centuries in which the Lord has patiently waited in order to give folk the opportunities to become Christians.
Now, we have all heard preachers try to scare the living daylights out of their hearers by giving in-depth descriptions of the terrible tortures that await those who will get there. Time magazine have recently published a photo essay of pictorial depictions of hell throughout history. None of them are nice. To those who object with the doctrine because of the type of evangelism it might promote, he says:
You may object to the very idea of frightening people into the Kingdom the Kingdom, and it is true that fear may not be the best of motives for coming to Christ. But then, whoever has come to Christ with anything but sinful and mixed up motives? Fear is a perfectly valid incentive to respond to Christ. People are in danger. People are lost. They are Hell-bound.
So his response is although it is not ideal to use fear (certainly not the way I want to preach), his response is: if it works, use it. This is not too far away from what Paul was saying about motives for preaching Christ:
Phil 1:18 The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Dowsett’s emphasis is not how the gospel is preached, it is that the gospel is preached. Dowsett comes at the topic making clear the Sovereignty, love and Justice of God and the seriousness of sin. Our reaction to this, Dowsett argues, is to pray and to share the gospel. Since hell is a very real separation from God as a result of sin, there should be an urgency amongst all Christians to help others respond to God’s love and mercy through Jesus. Have we missed opportunities to pray for and chat (naturally) about Jesus to our friends? Then we should repent of the missed chances and pray to be more open to God leading us into those conversations.
Dowsett’s theology is a traditional, reformed and, I would argue, correct interpretation of God’s character and work through Jesus. There is one earthly life for each of us on this broken world which has been damaged and corrupted by the ravages of sin and which often results in injustice pain and suffering for many. However, there is also one enormously loving God who wants us to understand the extent of Christ’s love for us and realise the extent of who he has made us to be. He invites Christians into sharing this urgent message good news with those around us, before it is too late. Love does indeed win. And everyone has the opportunity to accept or reject it.
I would recommend this book for new (or old) Christians who are struggling with the whole concept of how a just and loving God might not save everybody.