Fixing the Disconnect Between How We Live and What We Believe: Reflections on the Death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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January 5, 2022

2021 has come and gone, and the good news is we survived! As we remember the year that was, it is good for us to take a moment to celebrate the many blessing the Lord bestowed upon us while also reflecting on the losses that won’t soon be forgotten. The past 12 months have been marked by both grace and grief. These events form a beautiful mosaic that has been woven together in a way that reveals the wisdom of God, who has sustained us through them all.

Like every year, 2021 left us with a long list of culture-makers and influencers whose deaths captured national attention. From the always outspoken radio personality, Rush Limbaugh, to the iconic rapper DMX and the incomparable Golden Girl herself, Betty White, our culture mourned the loss of several legendary figures. But, arguably, no life seemed to embody the social and theological times with which we live like that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Born in 1931, Desmond Tutu was a towering intellectual who obtained an honors degree from Kings College in London and a Masters in Linguistics focusing on Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. His academic prowess was only surpassed by his deep and genuine compassion for people. These virtues allowed him to quickly rise through the ranks of the Anglican Church, ultimately being endowed with the distinguished position of general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. In this role, Archbishop Tutu became internationally famous for his fight to dismantle the unjust and oppressive system of apartheid, which was the governing framework of South Africa at the time. Apartheid was a set of public policies that, similar to Jim Crow in the U.S., discriminated against groups of people entirely based on race and ethnic origin. Bishop Tutu used his voice to speak out boldly against injustice while advocating for equality for all people. He leveraged his popularity and leadership to mobilize the people of South Africa to boycott the country economically until apartheid and government-sanctioned acts of violence were overturned. The culmination of his efforts came in 1984 when he received the prestigious Nobel Peace award.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

You would think that a man so well known for his passion for justice would reflect this commitment in both his social action as well as his theological convictions. However, and sadly, when it comes to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, there was a profound disconnect between his quest for earthly justice and his embrace of God’s divine justice. In his 2010 book, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, he expressed a theological Universalism that denies the reality of Hell. He wrote,

“The reality of heaven cannot tolerate the existence of hell. Even our worst enemies are God’s beloved children. What kind of God could endure the sight of God’s own children screaming in eternal pain?”

His rejection of the notion of Hell is reflective of the sentiment of an entire generation. The desire to erase the doctrine of Hell from Scripture has gained broad acceptance and popularity in books like “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. Bell, like Tutu, also believes that a good God would never condone anything as ghastly as eternal punishment or, for that matter, the death of His own Son on a cross.

What amazes me about brilliant people, like Archbishop Tutu, is their inability to see the connection between their unwavering desire to see justice here on earth and God’s divine commitment to execute cosmic justice upon all those “who love the darkness rather than light” [John 3:19] and “whose thoughts are only evil continually” [Genesis 6:5]. The Bible is clear that God is patient, desiring that none should perish [2 Peter 3:9]. But, Scripture is also clear that God will not strive with men forever, and He will judge the world in righteousness. He will execute judgment over humanity with equity [Proverbs 17:15]. Those of us who take justice seriously would never call a judge just if he merely overlooked crime and refused to punish criminal activity. There would be an outcry that such a judge was unfit and should be removed from his position.

God is not unjust. Therefore, He must condemn evil and punish the unrepentant for their sins. It is impossible for us to grasp the extent of our wickedness in rebelling against an eternally good and loving God. While there are several reasons that will be used to argue against the justification of hell, the most commonly used is that it is unjust for God to judge humanity. But, Christians should not be ashamed of the doctrine of Hell. Instead, we should embrace it as an expression of the just character of our God. However, a complete and proper understanding of Hell never ends with us passively accepting damnation as the inevitable outcome of those of us who are guilty of evil. It is precisely because we know that our God is just that we implore all men to repent and turn from sin to Christ for salvation to avoid the judgment that is to come. Scripture tells us all have a chance to respond, though not all will. But, praise God that His justice is tempered by His mercy and that in Christ, even the most hardened sinner can find forgives for his soul. Our understanding of Hell should provoke us to evangelism driven by love [2 Cor. 5:14–21].

Desmond Tutu was right to oppose the evil of apartheid and fight for just social structures, but by denying the doctrine of Hell, he missed the ultimate hope for justice, both in this life and the life to come. Justice on earth is elusive. Even the best legal systems have loopholes that can be exploited. Only an omniscient and omnipotent God can be trusted to bring about the equity and fairness that our hearts and consciences long for.

I am grateful that ours is a faith that promises ultimate justice that will come through the return of our Messiah and King. Jesus, the only righteous and true judge, offers all men grace and the opportunity to avoid the judgment that is to come by accepting His death on the cross on behalf of sinners like you and me. This is the hope of the Gospel. God is merciful and offers us redemption, no matter the depths of our sin and brokenness. But, He is also holy and promises to execute retribution and to vindicate those who have suffered at the hands of sinful men. By marrying together redemption and retribution at the cross, the Gospel reminds us of the type of people that we are called to be — those who embrace the words of the ancient prophet Micah,

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” [5:8]