For Three Crimes, Even Four
The book of Amos was a warning to the Northern Kingdom of Israel that God’s judgment was coming soon through the Assyrian army. Consequently, the second chapter of Amos contains a list of Israel’s big sins. This list is given as the cause of the judgment.
“The Lord says: I will not relent from punishing Israel for three crimes, even four, because they sell a righteous person for silver and a needy person for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the poor on the dust of the ground and obstruct the path of the needy. A man and his father have sexual relations with the same girl, profaning my holy name. They stretch out beside every altar on garments taken as collateral, and in the house of their God they drink wine obtained through fines.” (Amos 2:6-8)
“For three crimes, even four…”. This phrase shows God’s restraint. Three sins is a complete failure. God restrained his judgment until there were four. But notice that there are actually seven sins listed here: selling the righteous, selling the needy, trampling the poor, obstructing the path of the poor, incest, illicit sex in holy places, and misuse of political power for personal pleasure.
Simply put, Northern Israel was a lawless place.
There are two kinds of Bible readers: those who have read that list and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t read this list might wonder if God was being too harsh when he sent a rabid army like the Assyrians to destroy Israel’s cities and oppress God’s chosen people.
But those who have read this list might be gently nodding their heads as they consider how Israel’s sin required serious punishment.
Amos 2 leaves us with this principle: the more we understand human depravity, the more we understand God’s punishment.
We can apply this principle to Jesus’ teaching on hell.
Jesus taught that hell is a place of torment that is eternal (see Matt. 24:46) and conscious (see Matt 13:49-50). That is a horrific reality to consider. But it shouldn’t leave us wondering about whether God is good, kind, or loving.
In the same way that God promises a harsh temporal punishment in Amos 2, Jesus promises an even more harsh eternal penalty in the gospels. In both cases, the problem isn’t God or his penalty. He is the perfect Judge. In fact, we would do well to remember that God is more patient, gracious, loving, and compassionate than any of us will ever be.
The real problem is that we haven’t fully grasped how holy God is and how terrible sin is.
If we fully understood that, I doubt we’d wonder why hell is so awful.
The problem isn’t God; it’s us.
Every terrifying word Jesus uttered about hell has a twofold purpose: (1) to sensitize us to our need to deal with our sin by going to Christ for forgiveness and sanctification and (2) to be prayerful and intentional to share the gospel with others who haven’t heard it yet. And he gave us this teaching as a warning so that we would repent. He did that because he loves us. If we genuinely love our neighbors, we need to offer salvation to them in the same way.