How can a God of love send people to hell?

This is another common objection to the Gospel. It goes something like this: God is good, and he only does what is good. But someone going to hell for all eternity is very bad. So how can a good God do such a thing? It's not just unbelievers who struggle with this either, as Libbie has recently observed, some believers struggle with it too.

So how do we square a God of love with a God who sends people to hell? Well consider the following scenario: Imagine you are in court at the trial of a notorious killer. Everyone is expecting he will get a hefty prison term. However when the judge comes out, he recognises that the accused is actually his estranged son. Moved with compassion he dismisses all charges and lets the killer go free. What would you think of such a judge? Is he a good man because he acted in love? Is that justice? Not at all! Such a judge would be flung out for corruption and abuse of his office.

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 17:15)

This is what we must understand about God. He is not just our loving Father, he is also the just Judge of all the world. And even though the office is self-appointed, he takes this position so seriously that he cannot abuse it. No matter how much he loves us (and he does love us more than any earthy father loves his most precious child) he cannot just "let us off". He must treat us according to what we have done.

Well, you might think, that's ok for the notorious killer, but I haven't done anything that bad. Why would God send me to hell? This is where we are guilty of making God in our own image (idolatry), we assume that just because we consider some misdemeanours as not very serious, God must feel the same way.

You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your brother;
you slander your own mother's son.
These things you have done, and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
~ Psalm 50:19-21

But God is not like us, and his view of sin is often very different from our own! He is not just a God of love, but a God of hate too. He loves all that is good, but hates all that is evil. He is a holy God. He cannot tolerate any wickedness, no matter how small. If he were to do so, he would no longer be good. The standard of what is "good enough" is not ours to set, the standard is God's. It is a standard that all alike have fallen short of.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

And what is the penalty for our sin?

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

This is why Jesus had to come and die. God could not just overlook our sins and still be the just Judge. But nor would his consuming Father's heart of love allow him to just sit back and watch his children die and suffer eternal separation. So he sent his son, Jesus, to take the punishment in our place. Through him God reveals himself to be both a God of love and a God of justice.

It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:26)

We don't often talk about hell. But Jesus warns us that it is a real place of great anguish, a place we should do all we can to avoid going to!

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)

There are many things that can prevent someone coming to Jesus. It may just be pride and stubbornness. It may be a relationship or a lifestyle choice that you know you would have to end if you received Jesus as Lord. It might be something that is so much a part of you that you think - "Well, that's just the way I am." It may seem as much a part of you as your right eye. But Jesus' words cause us to stop and pause for thought. Whatever it is - is it worth going to hell for?


Mark H said...

Another tricky one. Thanks Chris :-)

May I throw in some food for thought?

Ask yourself the question: did God create hell because he loves to punish people, or because sin has to be dealt with?

This is a bit like asking if the primary motive for our society's justice system is to inflict vengeance upon perpetrators, or to protect society from their deeds. A perfect justice system would be focussed on the latter, not the former. In a perfect society, no-one would be a victim of crime. Sound a bit like heaven?

That's because there is no sin in heaven. That's what makes it heaven. But sin exists. Therefore, sin has to "go" somewhere else, and that place is hell. Heaven is a desirable place BECAUSE there is no sin, and hell is an undesirable place BECAUSE it is full of sin.

Now the question about heaven and hell is only of academic interest unless you desire one over the over. If you don't desire hell then it's easy to see that you also don't desire sin, since sin is what makes hell to be hell.

God's intent for hell is to separate sin from heaven, not to exact vengeance upon people. The problem for us is that we're all joined with sin. At the end of our natural lives, our sin will be separated from heaven, by going to hell, and by default we'll go with it.

Are we really ALL of us joined to sin? Aren't there "good" people and "bad" people? Hmm. So where do you suggest we set the bar? How would I know if I'd met the bar or not? As it happens, the Bible shows us that this particular bar is impossibly high. On first inspection that seems a bit insulting to me if I managed to lead a relatively decent life. But on second inspection, it's kinda good news that I don't have to figure out where the bar is by comparing myself to other people.

But that's not the good news (duh). No! The good news is that the fact that none of us can attain the bar doesn't matter! The wonderful news of the Cross is that God wants to separate us from our sin, so that when our sin goes one way (it's dealt with in hell) we don't go with it (we can go to heaven where there is no sin).

But the even better news is that that's really kind of only the cherry on the cake! The real issue about sin is not the whole heaven/hell thing, but that sin separates us from God. When we believe and trust in the Cross then we come into relationship with God right away. We don't have to wait until the end of our natural lives to enjoy God and heavenly things.

Ricky Carvel said...

In my opinion, the words heaven and hell are both largely misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike. I'm sure we have the wrong mental-picture of both.

The bible makes it quite clear that God doesn't want anyone to perish. It also makes it quite clear that the decision to follow Christ is ours.

Basically, if we choose Christ we get to be with Him forever. If we reject Him we get to be apart from Him forever. God does not want this to occur - He is not gleefully turning people over to eternal torment in hell, it pains Him everytime someone rejects Him!

But the choice is ours!

I believe that God is the source of all light, love, blessing, goodness, etc. These things will be abundant in 'heaven' (actually 'new earth' if Revelation is right) but absent in 'hell'. It is not intended as an eternal punishment, like the medieval image we carry in our heads, but is simply the void where God is not.

I don't want to go there. Do you?

Anonymous said...

This is a very good post to debate. One aspect of God that we must remember is that he has given us free will. We are allowed to choose our path, either the straight and narrow, or the broad path to destruction. Therefore, whenever anyone asks me how such a loving God can send someone to hell, I have no problem explaining that God does not send people to hell, people choose to go to hell. It is a simple choice, and the only reason that many will perish is their own prde. This may seem matter of fact and even harsh, but it is the simple truth. Many times, the truth is the simplest answer, and I think that applies here.

Tim said...

Great post chris!

Anonymous said...

To say that everyone falls short of the bar is to invalidate any sense of scale. We all have a sense of morality but this argument defeats that. Good deeds mean nothing, evil deeds mean nothing. The notion that the only free will decision that has any impact is one of faith leaves the rest of our lives empty.

Ricky Carvel said...

Interesting point about the scale issue. I hadn't thought of it that way before.

But I'm not sure that the fact that there is one defining choice in any way nullifies the rest of our lives.

12 years ago I asked my then girlfriend to marry me. She said yes. In many ways that one choice completely altered the direction of our lives from that day to this. But just because that choice was absolutely crucial, doesn't mean that the rest of our life since then has been empty or pointless.

And the way you use the word 'faith' there is very loaded. Your meaning appears to be that reason, experience, knowledge and relationship don't come into the decision. It is not a decision based on blind faith, it is choosing to put your trust in the trustworthy.

Would you rather have it so that you were judged according to every single little decision you made, or just on one? If there is only one and you make the right choice, you can be sure of the future outcome. If your future security is based on everything, then it will vary from day to day and pity help you if you get to meet your maker at the end of a bad week...

Anonymous said...

Its exactly that feeling that some decisions are more important than others, the experience of consequence of action and the contrast between satisfaction at achievements and good choices against shame at bad decisions that makes it hard to accept that these things do not count and we are "judged" on a different basis.

As to whether it would better another way, surely the point is what is true rather than whether it is easier.

Ricky Carvel said...

Ditv, I'm with you on the truth thing - I really don't care what the simplest explanation for something is, or the most rational explanation, or the explanation that appeals to me the most - I just want to know the truth.

Also, I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say that every other choice we make is irrelevant either. The Christian life is a life-long string of repeatedly making the choice to do things Christ's way. The 'once saved, always saved' mentality of certain denominations doesn't fit with the bible stories or common sense. Just because someone is 'born again' doesn't mean that God will not judge them for any crimes they commit subsequently.

In Revelation, the vision John had showed that everyone will be judged according to what they have done (Rev 20v12-13), but that there is an additional judgement criterion as well - is their name included in the book of life? (Rev 20v15).

This implies two things for me - that being in the book of life is the main deciding factor, and that even if your name is in the book of life (i.e. you are 'a Christian' or 'born again' or however you want to label it) you are still subject to judgement and the consequences of judgement.

Jesus speaks of storing up your treasure in heaven (Matt 6v21-21) and Paul speaks of what we build being subjected to fire for testing (1 Cor 3v12-15) - if what we build doesn't pass the test we will still be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames... I know I'm going off topic here, but I've always understood that to mean that we will not all be equal in 'the kingdom of heaven' (something that is also apparent in the words of Jesus, e.g. Matt 5v19) - some will have much and some will have little, depending on what they do with their choices here and now.

So all choices count, but some count a lot more than others.

Anonymous said...

hhmmm more inequality eh?
Are you saying that some parts of heaven will be less good than others?
Will hell suffer from the same patchy variegation?
How will upper class hell compare with economy paradise?
Presumabily some people whos actions would have earned them treasure in heaven will get nada 'cause their names not on the list?

Ricky Carvel said...

Equality is a fairly recent concept.

And I'd say that Jesus is clearly recorded as saying that there will be folk who are 'greatest' in the kingdom of heaven and folk who will be 'least'. He says nothing about rankings in hell. Although surely 'judgement' is pointless if all get the same fate?

And yes, people can do good deeds, akin to building up treasure in heaven, and still miss out on heaven by not being in the book of life.

Economy paradise will still be in the presence of God, so much better than the best place in hell, where God is not.