Day 176: “There is a special place in hell reserved for…”

James 5:1-6 (AD 48)

“There is a special place in hell reserved for…”

Ever used that phrase? Ever heard it? It’s saying that there are terrible people who deserve hell, but the kind of person who deserves the worst kind of hell is… Some people think there is a special place in hell reserved for people who don’t agree with them politically, sociologically, or about anything they feel strongly about.

Madeline Albright, first female US Secretary of State, said There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. European Council President Donald Tusk said there was a “special place in hell…for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it [out] safely”.

But it’s more commonly said about men who commit crimes against women or children, although when I put the phrase into Google just now, the number one option was, ‘There’s a special place in hell reserved for those who waste good Scotch’!

Does God reserve a special place in hell for certain people? It’s a strange concept given that God isn’t in hell. But in so far as hell – while it is a place – is primarily understood as the absence of God, the special place is possibly best understood as the place furthest from God. The further from him you go, the further you are from home, the further from security, comfort, peace and meaning. And the closer you must be to pure pain.

All who reject God will spend an eternity without him, yet some – it seems – will have it worse than others. For example, Jesus didn’t throw the word ‘woe’ (οὐαί – ouai) around lightly, but he used it in the following situations:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ao in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgement than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgement than for you” (Matthew 11:21-24).

“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!” (Matthew 18:7)

And he pronounced SEVEN woes on the teachers of the law (Matthew 28:13-36), calling them ‘hypocrites’ six times in one passage alone.

Isaiah pronounced “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness…making his own people work for nothing” (22:13), God pronounced woe on Moab for giving up their sons and daughters in order to try and stay free (Numbers 21:29).

Jude wrote, “Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion” (v.11). Cain here “stands for the cynical, materialistic character who defies God and despises man.” [1] Selfishness, and profits over people, are the hallmarks of a rotting society. God’s prophets and apostles have been calling it out for millenia, and God won’t stand for it.

There are many ‘woes’ pronounced in the Bible, but neither the prophets in the Old Testament nor Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament used the word lightly, or broadly. The above examples illustrate the few things that prompt God to respond with such stern condemnation, such as hypocrites, those who preach a false gospel, and those who neglect or abuse the weak or vulnerable. Those were the reasons the prophets gave for the exile of Israel and Judah, and were the causes of God’s particular condemnation in the New Testament. Here in James 5, rich people refused to pay their workers’ wages and unjustly condemned people. They combined behaviours that God hates, to their own eternal destruction.

I am God’s child, so none of these warnings make me worry about my eternal destiny, but they prompt two main thoughts.

First, if this is what God hates, how well do I live up to the opposite? How much does my life in these areas look like what God loves? Do I hoard what I have, or do I share it and use it wisely? Do I pay my bills on time, especially when I am dealing with owner-operator tradespeople, likely living from week to week? Do I look for those who are in need and make sure that I help them in practical ways? Do I deal people with justice and fairness, rather than merely my own interests?

Seeing these terrifying judgements from God also brings me great comfort. God isn’t in heaven rolling his eyes, wishing things were different. He’s not flailing at a screen, impotent to deal with everything’s that’s gone wrong in his creation. No, he is the Lord of the universe who will bring justice onto everyone. To his people, the justice of treating them as if they had lived Christ’s life. And to the oppressors, hypocrites, abusers and the corrupt, he will give all that their sins deserve. They will be as far away from God, forever, as the sins of God’s people, while those who trust in Jesus live with him in peace, comfort and everlasting security.

God doesn’t merely want what’s right, he brings it.

[1] Tyndale Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, by Donald Guthrie

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