On Hating My Neighbor’s Holiness, Hating God, and Hell

hellI was struck by another passage in Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God today that got me thinking about hell and judgment. In his discussion of God’s holiness, he touches on the various ways we can show contempt for it. One of the ways we do so is when we hate the holiness that is in our neighbor:

The purity of God is contemned, in hating and scoffing at the holiness which is in a creature. Whoever looks upon the holiness of a creature as an unlovely thing, can have no good opinion of the amiableness of Divine purity. Whosoever hates those qualities and graces that resemble God in any person, must needs contemn the original pattern, which is more eminent in God, If there be no comeliness in a creature’s holiness, to render it grateful to us, we should say of God himself, were he visible among us, with those in the prophet (Isa, 53:2), “There is no beauty in him, that we should desire him.”

Holiness is beautiful in itself. If God be the most lovely Being, that which is a likeness to him, so far as it doth resemble him, must needs be amiable, because it partakes of God; and, therefore, those that see no beauty in an inferior holiness, but contemn it because it is a purity above them, contemn God much more. He that hates that which is imperfect merely for that excellency which is in it, doth much more hate that which is perfect, without any mixture or stain.

For Charnock, God is the pattern and source of all holiness. God is purely holy and everything else is holy in a lesser and derivative way. It follows, then, if we turn and hate something in our neighbors that reflects the holiness of God, we are hating God’s holiness as well. If you hate the copy, you’ll probably hate the original. As Heidelberg Q & A 4-5 puts it, the law is summed up in loving God and your neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40), but unfortunately, my misery is that, “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.”

Which got me to thinking about the idea of hating the holiness of my neighbor. Initially, that sounds wrong. Why would I hate my neighbor’s goodness? It’s probably good for me, right? Except, then I thought about for about 5 seconds and realized, “Oh no, I probably do this all the time.”

How often have I looked at my neighbor and secretly hated when they’re better than me? Not just talent-wise, but just as a person. That guy in class or at work who always seems to be honest, or helpful, or hard-working in a way that I just can’t manage. Or the one who just is so romantic and treats his wife so well. Or the one who seems oh-so-generous who makes less than I do. And so forth. I know I should appreciate it, but something in me chafes at it, partially because I know I should be that way, but I’m not.

At that point, it’s tempting to try and figure out they’re really not so great, or how that one thing they did to help was really just a way of getting one up on me, and so forth. I look at the honesty, the hard work, or the kind word, or whatever it is and try to unmask it as something else. I think we’ve all been there. It’s really possible for me to look at someone’s holiness–someone who is maybe further down the road of sanctification than I am–and be tempted to hate them for it, precisely because it shows me up for who I am.

And right then, I get how it’s possible to hate God’s holiness. If I hate my neighbor’s human, stained, and imperfect honesty, then how much more does the purity and truth of God gall me in some deep sense? Or if the kindness and understanding nature of my neighbor frustrates me because “nobody is that good”, how much of me secretly burns at God’s grace and merciful love towards the “wrong” sort of people?

That’s a scary thought. What’s even scarier is the thought that this just is the seed of hell.

Just go with me for a minute: think back to someone whose goodness you’ve been chafed at or been tempted to hate. Imagine giving in and just cultivating it. This is really miserable, right? Letting that sort of hate burn and stew in your chest till it gets hot and weighty and flares up whenever you see them–like getting acid reflux just by looking at food.

Now, imagine being stuck in a cubicle with that person every day of the week 8 hours a day; having to walk in every day and see them, talk to them, work with them. There’s something awful, tormenting about the thought of being stuck with someone whose existence galls you just by being there, and being better than you all the time. That hot, heavy, galling hate that you really have no opportunity to give vent to because deep down, buried within, some part of you knows it’s wrong.

Or, even worse, imagine the hate that comes when you’ve given vent to it and now you have to double-down on it to justify yourself because admitting you’re wrong is too painful. It’s like a chain-reaction that turns into a self-sustaining, cold-fusion-style hate generator that just keeps burning in your soul.

I think this is at the heart of the torment or suffering of the judgment of hell. Mark Jones points out in his recent book God Is (review here), there’s something not quite right about the notion of hell as “separation from God” (55). Instead, in hell, you’re in the presence of a “holy, righteous, and powerful God”, but you don’t actually want to be in his presence. Your soul has come to the point where there is “no desire for union with God” for there is no love for God without Christ. You are spiritually, ethically, and relationally “separated”, hating God, and yet there God is, shining with the holy beauty of a million Suns for all eternity. And you hate him.

And this is not unjust, is it? The good of heaven is chiefly the presence of God himself and only secondarily his gifts. But for those who don’t love God (and therefore don’t deserve or receive God’s created gifts), this presence would be hellish, for there would none of God’s gifts in creation to distract them. Judgment is letting them keep the hate in their heart, while subjecting them to its great object–God himself. It is justly handing them over, judicially ratifying the torment of self-chosen, soul-shriveling hate.

More poetically, Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov puts the principle negatively when he states that hell “is the suffering of being unable to love.” In many ways, this isn’t much of a different thought than you see in C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright, or Tim Keller, where hell is (in some sense) the end-point of the soul’s trajectory in this life, apart from Christ, into eternity. Or even Jonathan Edwards when talks about the “hellish principles” in our hearts that would set the world aflame if not restrained by God’s grace. Looking at the problem from the perspective of the hatred of holiness highlights a positive activity that is more than a painful absence, though.

This is obviously not a full-blown theology of hell, heaven, or the final judgment. Nonetheless, it seems something like this is a core component of the reality that much of the biblical imagery points to. When the Bible speaks of these eschatological realities, it’s not speculating about something far off and distant, but something nearby, close, and even dwelling within our hearts.

Of course, the point isn’t to dwell on this reality, but turn from it. And this is at the heart of the glory of Christ in the Gospel. In the cross of Jesus Christ, God makes known his love for us despite our hate (Rom. 5:8). And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, he sheds his love abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), so that love might burn away all of our hate, and fill us to overflowing with the love of God whose consummation is the greatest glory of heaven.

Soli Deo Gloria

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