The problem of Hell is one of the most frequently asked questions about God, and one of the hardest to answer.
As with most questions about God, there is a lot behind this question. How do we reconcile the Biblical descriptions of Hell with a God who does not just show love, but as the Bible says is love? How could Jesus show so much compassion for people, and yet talk so explicitly about eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth?
What is behind this question differs from person to person. Some people would word their question better by asking, “Why would God send a person who sinned for a few years to hell for all eternity?” Some would ask, “Why would God not just forgive everyone so no one would have to be punished?”
Whatever emphasis resonates, the basic question remains the same. Why would a loving God send good people to Hell?”
Here’s the thing…
When we take our time to clarify what we mean in what we are asking, the answer reveals itself.
When we clarify certain things about God, we see that God’s love and judgment are complementary, not contradictory. When we clarify certain things about ourselves, we see that God’s justice is exactly that, justice. When we clarify certain things about Hell, we see that the solution for it is not the eradication of it; it is salvation from it.
“A Loving God”
I teach a class to high school freshmen on Bible doctrines. Every year, on the first day of school, I have them write five things that they already know about God. Invariably, something about God’s love makes the top three answers for most of the students.
This is not surprising. After all, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, is about God’s love. The Bible does not just say God is loving; it says that he is love. (1 John 4)
What do we mean when we call God loving? How does Hell fit into the picture? There are at least two things to note.
God’s judgment on sin does not conflict with his love for us.
One of the most meaningful descriptions of God throughout the Bible is that of a father. While many people grow up without the love of a father, we all know what a loving father is supposed to be. A loving father is one who seeks to provide the highest good for his children. He will do anything and everything to bring about the best possible outcome for them.
A loving father works toward that end, even when the children do not.
A loving father does not simply allow his children to wander off into whatever path they choose, especially when he sees that the end of that path is certain pain and probable death. No, a loving father corrects. A loving father chastises. A loving father judges.
When God judges the sin of humanity, he does so out of his love for humanity.
As the father of two adorable and often diabolical children, I have seen firsthand the conflict this brings. Daily, I stop my children from doing what they want, because so often what they want would bring a tremendous amount of harm to them. If I am to be a loving father, I must intervene. How can I say that I love my children if I allow them to live in a way that will eventually destroy their lives?
As a loving father, God’s judgment on sin is in perfect harmony with God’s love for us.
God apparently does not want Hell for anyone.
Three strong passages in the Bible reveal God’s desires concerning people’s eternal destiny.
Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
But, if God does not want anyone to go to Hell, then why do they? It is of utmost importance for us to notice that in each passage the only alternative to dying and going to Hell is repentance. This leads us to the next point to consider.
“Is Anne Frank burning in Hell right now? What about Mahatma Gandhi?” These are the first two of the “78 Questions for Christians” that blogger Hemant Mehta poses.
Of course, who would be bold enough to say that someone who has seen so much suffering deserves to suffer more? How audacious do you have to be to imply that someone who has done so much good in the world is not good enough?
The problem is, when we look at such people, we judge them by our goodness. By comparison to most people, Anne Frank is a wonderful person. Between most of us and Gandhi, Gandhi wins every time.
However, we are not the standard of good. God is. Furthermore, God is not just good. He is holy. That is, he defines what it means to be good.
So, where does that leave us? All of us?
God is more holy than we are able to know.
Holy is the word the Bible uses most often to describe God’s perfection. This means more than just that God is the best at being good and powerful and wise. It means that there is no such thing as being better, stronger, or wiser than God. So much so that God is the standard of perfection. I like to say it this way—God is perfectly perfect.
Who can even relate to that?
As a teacher, I have graded “perfect” papers. Yet, while the student may have written every correct answer, their penmanship was, shall we say, lacking. I mean, it is high school. While I have seen perfect scores, there is no such thing as a perfect student. That is obvious. People might be able to do a few things perfectly, but no one is perfectly perfect.
Only God is.
We are more sinful that we are willing to admit.
But, that is the problem. God created us to live in communion with him, to be his creation, bearing his image. Yet, we are sinners from the beginning. I am not talking here about the Garden of Eden, as much as that might have to do with it. I am talking about each of us being born sinners by nature, corrupting the image of God.
It is that sin nature that corrupts even the good things we do. The Bible says that in comparison to God’s holiness, “we are all as an unclean thing, and our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
Our sin makes us something that God could not tolerate without ruining his own holiness. In other words, God does not send good people to Hell because from his vantage point no such person exists. (Romans 3:10)
Look at it this way: The best meals can be ruined if we were to discover that they were prepared by filthy hands. Likewise, the best deeds are ruined by the sinful hands which do them. Gandhi and countless others like him have done many wonderful things in this world. Compared to most of us, they are good people. But, compared to God, they like all of us “have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23).
No one has a problem with admitting that no one is perfect. It is something we all have in common. For us, sin is much like leprosy in a leper colony. No one is really worried about it more than the next. However, for someone who does not have leprosy, having anything to do with the colony presents a host of serious problems.
We are separated from God by our sinfulness in this life. But, why do we have to pay for that sinfulness in the next life? This leads us to the last part of our question.
“Sent to Hell”
Another prominent description of God used throughout the Bible is that of a judge. We expect human judges to act a certain way, judging objectively, fairly, and effectively. When it comes to our sinfulness, why would we expect any less from God?
God sends people to Hell because of his righteous justice.
One alternative is that our sin goes unpunished. One of the most popular ideas about life after death is that our eternal destiny will be determined by comparing our good deeds with our bad deeds. If we did more good than bad, we go to heaven. If we did more bad than good, we get what is coming to us. This idea is so attractive in fact, the religions of the world provide a system by which you can accumulate those good deeds.
Yet, this is not justice.
What if a human judge were to judge that way? If they allowed the good that a criminal has done to excuse their crime, they would have failed to do their job. Furthermore, they would become complicit in the crime.
Another alternative is that our sin is punished less. Despite everything, we only have a few decades of sin on our record. Why must our punishment be eternal?
In fact, this idea is so attractive that some suggest there is an intermediate punishment after death in which we suffer for our sin for a limited time. After taking our punishment, we are released to Heaven. Not only is this idea found nowhere in God’s Word, it grossly underestimates the offensiveness of our sin and undervalues the offendedness of God.
Whenever we reduce a penalty, we reduce the wrongness of the wrongdoing and the value of the person being wronged. For example, if you make the penalty for murder a $10 fine, you have just set the value of the person murdered at $10. Think of the implications there.
We have offended an eternal God. The penalty can be no less than eternal.
God sends people to hell because of their sinful refusal.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”
People choose hell by suppressing the knowledge of God in their mind and the law of God in their hearts. They choose it by default when they reject God and cling to their sin. With their refusal to repent, God has only to say to them, “Thy will be done.”
As we saw earlier, God takes no pleasure in people going to Hell. However, God also makes no concessions for sin.
How could a loving God send people to Hell? Because his holiness demands it, and our sinfulness deserves it.
Even after taking time to think through these ideas, it is not surprising that we are still disturbed by the notion of Hell. Hell is a disturbing place. But, that is precisely why the Bible teaches us about it so explicitly. That is why Jesus preached about it so frequently. The Biblical message concerning Hell is a message of warning.
Many people allow the repulsiveness of Hell to steer them in a negative direction. Unbelievers allow Hell to be an excuse for their unbelief, as if one distressing aspect of Christianity does away with the overall validity of the Christian worldview. Believers allow Hell to be an excuse for their reinterpretation of God’s Word, as if this unsettling reality is a license to distort clear Biblical teaching.
They see Hell as a problem, and it is. However, it is not one without a solution. The real problem of Hell has been solved in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus, we see God as a father who “so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish [in Hell], but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
In Jesus, we see God take on flesh to become the only human being to ever be good, to be truly righteous. Yet, he was made “sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
In Jesus, we see God achieve justice by putting the punishment of our sin on him at the cross, punishment that would have taken eternity for us to receive.
The bottom line: Hell is only a problem for those who refuse to repent and trust Christ.
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