Just over two weeks ago, my wife and I jumped into our car and headed down to Florida. We’d been waiting for this day for nearly five years. No, the trip wasn’t a vacation. This was the day our baby daughter was born (if you’ve been following the blog for a bit you may be wondering, “But I thought it was a boy?” Surprise! Apparently, ultrasounds aren’t 100% definitive.). This was the day our family of three was going to become a family of four.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on our adoption journey. Some thoughts are pretty concrete. Others are vague, visceral feelings and questions and wonderings that I’m sure will trickle out in future blog posts as my mind processes the signals from my gut.
My more concrete thinking has centered on God’s adoption of us. It has been natural, as a Reformed pastor, to connect our adoption journey to the astounding truth that we have been adopted in Christ. For me, God’s adoption of us as heirs is one of the most beautiful and stirring theologies. I find my adoption in Christ to be a much more motivating thought than hell. Don’t get me wrong, hell scares me. But the thought of hell doesn’t stir my affections for Jesus. Hell stirs my desire for self-preservation.
Which is, perhaps, why I this tweet from Tim Keller – whom I respect a lot – grated against me like sandpaper:
Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) February 27, 2016
I couldn’t disagree with this statement more. Evil is not necessary to know good. I don’t need to believe in divorce to understand how much my wife loves me. Good can be known, appreciated, and embraced apart from the wicked. Love can be known without hate.
Perhaps this makes me a bad Calvinist. Calvinists believe God is glorified even in the wrathful judgement of the non-elect. According to this line of thinking, appreciating what God has done for you is truly grasped when we understand what God has not done for others. To me, this rings of dualism. It’s the yin and the yang of salvation. Evil complements good. Male completes female. Hot balances cold. Light meets darkness. Judgement illuminates salvation. Incorporating this dualistic model into the gospel as if the contrast between Jesus and hell is necessary to comprehend the love of God is faulty because it hangs the ability to know God’s love on whether or not you have the right doctrine of hell. Knowing the ineffable love of Jesus is not dependent on believing in hell. In fact, hell is only hell because it is the absence of God and his goodness. Seen in this light, the inverse of Keller’s statement is more true: You can only know the horror of hell when you grasp the love of Jesus.
This thinking was solidified for me as we adopted my daughter. Let me explain.
As we walked though the process of adopting our daughter I thought I would be able to relate to my adoption in Christ in new ways. I thought the reality of being brought into a new family would be made more real. I hoped taking on a new identity would make more sense. I believed that this doctrine, which is absolutely practical but largely exists in the realm of the theoretical, would come down out of the clouds and materialize in my life. But it hasn’t, at least not yet.
Surprisingly, what has become more real to me is the cost of adoption. Adoption isn’t free. It has cost our family much to open our home. There has been financial costs, emotional costs, time costs, and the cost of doing an insane amount of inane paperwork. It has cost us as we grieved the slowness of the process. It has cost us as we persevered when it seemed like the adoption wasn’t going to happen. 1,802 days we waited – not all patiently. This process has made me acutely aware of the substantial cost associated with adoption.
And Jesus paid that cost for me.
Not only did Jesus pay the cost, but he did so willingly, lovingly, and obediently when he went to the cross. All so you and I could be adopted into the family of God. In light of that, I don’t need hell to teach me how much God loves me. I can think of no more loving act than laying down your life for another. Am I grateful that God saves me from hell? Absolutely! Do I love God for that? Yes! Is it necessary to my understanding of God’s love? No.
Those who disagree with this will say that my thinking is incomplete. They might say something like, “God’s adoption of us is an adoption out of hell.” And yes, for those who believe in hell, that is true (For the record, I believe in hell because I believe in God’s judgement. Disregarding hell, the vengeance of God, is a nice suburban idea that doesn’t adequately provide justice for those who have suffered at the hands of wicked people.). As adopted sons and daughters we are saved from hell. But more importantly, we are saved into a family. Adoption isn’t about saving us out of something, but saving us into something.
If hell is so essential to understanding the gospel and the deep love of Jesus, then we must conclude that Paul was a horrible preacher of the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes, “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.” He then goes on to recount the gospel, but fails to mention hell. No Hades, no Gehenna, no unquenchable fire, no worms, no gnashing of teeth. In fact, we would have to say the same thing about Peter and Stephen. Both preached sermons recorded in Acts and failed to mention hell.
God’s love does save us from hell. But knowing God’s love is not dependent on believing in hell. Knowing God’s love is not even dependent on knowing the the cost Jesus paid. Knowing God’s love for us as his adopted sons is dependent solely on knowing God, who is love.