Hell, grace, and the secret things of God

hell by bosch

Hell. Right panel of Haywain Triptych / Hieronymous Bosch, ca. 1516

No one likes to talk about hell any more, although some people have an unhealthy confidence that they know who’s going there.

God reserves that judgment for himself. He deliberately hides all aspects of his plans. Some scriptures make it seem like nearly everyone will be saved. Others make it seem like hardly anyone will be saved.

The Bible speaks with crystal clarity on one point, though. People stand or fall before God as individuals. Not as members of a group. Not because of association with anyone else.

Sour grapes?

God objected to an ancient proverb, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2 ESV).

The rest of the chapter makes it clear that God judges each of us on our own merits or demerits. The righteous will live and the wicked will perish, regardless of what kind of people their parents were.

And it’s not how a person begins his life that counts, but who he is at the end:

But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?

But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die. Ezekiel 18:21-24 ESV

Joash, starting well, ending badly

Christ the judge

Christ Judge, detail from Last Judgment, 1585, by Jean Cousin Younger

King Joash of Judah would seem to be a perfect illustration of a righteous man turning away.

His father Ahaziah was the wicked son of the wicked King Jehoram. When Ahaziah was killed, Jehoram’s queen Athaliah attempted to wipe out the entire house of David by killing all her own grandsons.

But one of her daughters grabbed a baby, Joash, and took him to the temple for safe keeping. He was protected and raised by Jehoiada, the high priest.

When Joash was 7, Jehoiada decided it was time to depose Athaliah and install Joash as king. According to 2 Kings 12:2, Joash did what was right in God’s eyes as long as Jehoiada lived. The account in 2 Chronicles 23 lacks the usual assessment of whether a king was good or bad.

Joash appears to have been more follower than leader. When Jehoiada died, counselors came to him who cared nothing about obeying God. The kingdom under the reign of Joash’s evil grandparents must have started to look pretty good. No one had to live righteously back then. Joash listened to them and turned away from God.

God sent numerous prophets to bring him back, but he listened to his counselors and not to the prophets. The last of them was the new high priest, Jehoiada’s son Zechariah. By that time, the king and his counselors had grown tired of the prophetic word. At Joash’s order, Zechariah was stoned to death on the very same spot where Joash had been crowned king as a child.

As punishment, Joash started suffering military defeats. Then he was murdered by sons of foreign women.

It certainly looks like Joash died for his treachery. But is that the end of the story?

A key point the story omits

Separating the Sheep from the Goats

Jesus separating sheep from goats / Anonymous, 6th century

Jesus told three parables of lostness in Luke 15. The good shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the care of others to go look for one lost sheep.

When he finds it, he calls everyone to rejoice with him. Jesus said that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 people who don’t need to repent.

When the prodigal son returned, his older brother refused to rejoice, even though his father urged him to. Commentators have long referred to him as the lost Pharisee. Did he remain bitter and alienated all his life? Or did he finally decide to rejoice? It doesn’t say.

A familiar hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment a pardon from Jesus receives.” And that would be no matter when the offender repents. Some people strongly object to “deathbed confessions.”

Would God truly forgive someone who lives like the devil and then repents at the last minute?


That’s grace in action. God is thorough in judgment and will not leave the guilty unpunished, but he is also not willing that any should perish. He wants everyone to repent.

Where does that leave Joash? Bible readers have been disgusted for two and a half millennia now with how he completely forgot that Jehoiada had saved his live and callously murdered his son. The Bible never says that he repented and returned. It never says that he didn’t, either.

Why it’s none of our business

Harrowing of hell

Harrowing of hell

In such matters, we must take to heart God’s word to Samuel when he started to rashly anoint the wrong son of Jesse as king:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 ESV

God looks on the heart. And when it comes to final judgment, he doesn’t tell any other human what he sees.

Each of us must see to our own relationship with God and not try to assess anyone else’s.


Hell, grace, and the secret things of God — 2 Comments

  1. Excellent! I like when you wrote “And it’s not how a person begins his life that counts, but who he is at the end:” So very, very true. Yes there is grace for those that repent at the last minute but we cannot live life as we wish planning to make a last minute deathbed repentance. No, we should be looking at living a life of faithfulness and growing maturity every day. Truly we will be judged as individuals. We will be weighed in heaven’s balance to see if we have more spirit than anti-spirit (self, flesh). God is just and righteous and He counts ALL of our life in His judgement. I am so thankful for that.

    Thank you for your post.

    Homer Les

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