Heidelberg Catechism 10 (4) Hell on Earth?

HGtower10. Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?

By no means,1 but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as our actual sins, and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as He has declared: “Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them.”2

1 Hebrews 9:27. 2 Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10; * Romans 1:18. * Matthew 25:41.

Eternal punishment is one thing, but what about “temporal” punishment? Does God punish sin and sinners in this life? Yes and no. One of the great laments of the psalms is “Why do the wicked prosper?” Ps 73 says that the “arrogant” and the “wicked…have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (Ps 73:3b7ndash;5; ESV). If the law says “do and live” and “sin and die” then it would seem that justice requires that those who are wicked in this life should suffer proportionately and that those who are righteous in the life should prosper accordingly. Experience, history, and Scripture all testify to the contrary, however. There is not a strict 1:1 ratio. Indeed, as the psalmist (Asaph) observes, sometimes the corollary seems to be turned on its head. Sometimes they are inordinately prosperous! “Their eyes swell out through fatness….” (v.7). The dissonance between what is and what should can be so great, in this world, as to make people say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” (v. 11).

Asaph wrestled with this question almost to despair. He testifies: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” (v.17a). He was almost to despair, but not quite. It was a “wearisome task” until he “went into vthe sanctuary of God” where he “discerned their end” (v.17b).

The unbelieving (both inside and outside the covenant community) think that all is well. Indeed, sometimes God does prosper them materially. The mistake we make is how we evaluate blessing and curse. That’s what Asaph discovered in the sanctuary. He discovered the true nature of blessing and curse, after the fall and relative to God. What seems to the unregenerate, and sometimes to us in our unreflective moments, “blessing” isn’t really that at all. All that prosperity is really a sort of judgment. Asaph says that God has actually “set them in slippery places….” (v.18).

Everything that we reckon as a sign of divine blessing can be “destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” Ask Job. Ask those who were taken away in the captivity. Ask those who were in Palestine when Antiochus invaded (168/67 BC) or when Titus arrived (70 AD).

The problem is not that God is unjust but that we are “brutish and ignorant” (v. 22). Unbelievers and hypocrites (in and out of the congregation) may have much in this life but God guides his people in this life with his counsel and in the next he receives them “to glory” (v. 24). When we put the question of God’s justice in its eschatological perspective we can say with Asaph, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”

Under the typological (old) covenant, under Moses and David, there was a general sort of correlation of earthly prosperity in the land and national, outward, obedience. When they were disobedient, eventually, the national, typological church was taken into captivity. All of that was nothing more than a giant sermon illustration pointing to the coming of the truly and completely obedient Son (Heb 3:5–6), the true Israel of God (Matt 2:15). God graciously granted to Asaph (and to others, we trust) insight into the true nature of things, beyond the typological national covenant.

The reality is that those who are not completely righteous are in jeopardy of eternal punishment (not annihilation) but they also suffer temporal punishment. Zacharias Ursinus, the major author of the catechism and the one authorized by Frederick III to give the authoritative exposition of the catechism addresses this very issue in his lecture on this question (Commentary, p.68). The catechism says that all sins are punished, but it seems that the wicked prosper, therefore how can we say that all sins are punished? He replies:

“They will at length be punished: yea they are even in this life punished, 1. In the conscience, by whose stings the wicked are tortured. 2. Also, in those things which they use with the greatest eagerness and delight; and the less they know, and acknowledge themselves to be punished, so much the heavier it is. 3. They are also often afflicted with other grievous punishments. And yet their punishment will be still more dreadful in the life to come, where it will be everlasting death.”

The temporal (this life) punishments that the wicked suffer are only the beginning of what is to come. Even though it “consists of several parts” These are two stages of what Ursinus called “one punishment.” “Present punishment is but the beginning of everlasting punishment.” (As an aside, he makes this point in response to the argument that it would be unjust for God to punish sin twice. His answer is that God doesn’t punish sin twice! This is interesting because this is one of the traditional objections to the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience).

What about the sufferings of the righteous, i.e. of those to whom Christ’s righteousness has been imputed? If their sins have been punished in Christ’s active suffering on their behalf, why does God continue to punish them? Ursinus helps us here again. The “afflictions” which believers suffer in this life are not to be regarded as punishments for sin, quid pro quo, but as “the chastisement of a father, sent for the purpose of humbling them. Hence it becomes necessary for us….” (p. 69). Of course, this is exactly what Heb 12:4–7 says.

Crefalo Dollar and Joel Osteen and the rest of the “best life now” crowd, in whatever form they may be found are false prophets. God’s people do suffer in this life. Ask Asaph! The wicked don’t always suffer as greatly, but if they remain outside of Christ those hidden punishments will come to fruition. We don’t live in the typological old covenant nor do we live in the consummate age. We live in the penultimate age when we must put up with the “health and wealth” liars and apparent inequity in this life because we trust that all will be made right in due time.

In the meantime, because we are not national Israel, because we are not charged with the literal destruction of God’s enemies, we ought not to long for it. We ought to pray that God would show the same mercy to them that he has shown to us who believe, who also, by virtue of the fall and of our sin, deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.

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