How can a good God send people to hell?
(Question 7 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)
One of the latest trends in the ongoing quest of the human heart to ascend the mountain and be like the Most High has been labeled “Progressive Christianity” (read more). This new “tent” is fairly large, and the people who dwell in it are diverse, but one of the common sticking points for many of these folks is the view of hell long held by orthodox Christianity. In the progressive camp, there is an increasing desire (demand?) to explain away hell as traditionally defined: “eternal conscious torment.”
Why does that matter? What is hell? How can a good God send people there?
Great questions! Let’s see if we can shed some gospel light into a few places which progressively shifting shadows are trying to darken. Here’s my outline…
- What are heaven and hell?
- Is God’s goodness compatible with “eternal conscious torment”?
- Don’t God’s love and power mean that everyone will be saved?
- Why should I care about any of this?
What are heaven and hell?
First, it’s important to understand that our material universe is not the only “realm” in creation. It’s big and we think we understand it pretty well, so sometimes we think it’s the only game in town. We tend to think of our universe as the only kind of reality that could exist.
For example, some think the universe is infinite and eternal, that it is the ultimate context for everything. This is not true. The universe had a beginning, but it will not have an end … since Jesus is renewing it and has promised to dwell here forever with us someday (Rev 21:3). And the universe is finite, contextualized (surrounded) not by more physical things, but by God Himself. Metaphorically, God holds our entire universe in the palm of His hand (and there is absolutely nothing “holding God up”).
Heaven and hell are the names we’ve given to other kinds of reality. God has given us glimpses into them in the Scriptures, which is how we know they exist. The Bible is called “God’s revelation to us,” because how else could we know anything about otherworldly realms, except that the God who made all realms reveals them to us “from the other side” of the great divide that separates us from them?
To even call heaven and hell “places” or “realms” or “realities” is to make a bunch of assumptions about them, based on our limited understanding of our own world. Are they physical places (full of matter and energy, like our world)? Probably not, or at least, probably not in the same way. Does time pass in those places like it does for us? Probably not, or again, probably not the way we experience / think of it. Etc.
We tend to conflate two different things / realities when we use the term, “heaven.” First, we call the realm in which God, angels, and demons dwell “heaven.” This is referring to another kind of reality in which spiritual beings live. Like our world, this is a place God created in which the beings He created (angels and demons) live and move and have their being … ostensibly similar to the way we exist in our universe. God Himself is likely as transcendent and beyond that reality as He is transcendent and beyond ours (because God stands outside and contextualizes all realities as their Creator, by definition). The Bible does depict God sitting on a throne conversing with angels and demons in this realm (see Job 1 or Rev 4), so who knows?! I suspect that God the Father shows up “bodily” in any other realm in the same way He does in ours: strictly metaphorically. The Bible also talks about God’s walking in the garden with Adam and Eve in our world (see Gen 1), which we know probably doesn’t mean that He had a physical body that crunched leaves when He steps on them. Because God transcends the realities that He has created, He bodily inhabits physical reality only in the person of Jesus … who actually has a physical body.
But I digress. The point is that one way we talk about “heaven” is to describe this spiritual realm. But the other reality that we’ve labeled “heaven” is part of the ultimate end of history when God has completed His project to redeem and restore the world. In this sense, “heaven” is the world that will ultimately exist when our realm and the spiritual realm are someday united in what the Scriptures call “the new heaven and the new earth,” where “the New Jerusalem” will be (see Rev 21). Many think of heaven as the place to which all the Christians will be whisked away by God someday in order to escape the horrors of this world. They think God is going to condemn and ultimately destroy this world, but show favor to His faithful followers by rescuing them from the dumpster fire that is sinful, rebellious human history.
But that’s not what the Bible teaches.
I don’t want to get too far into these weeds, but what the Scriptures actually tell us is that God is in the process not of destroying this world but of redeeming and restoring and renewing it. The ultimate end of history, when God has completed His work to bring total justice and complete redemption, will see this earth made new. God will bring heaven to earth, not evacuate the faithful from earth to heaven. “Heaven” will ultimately be where those who love God and accept His invitation to life will dwell with God intimately and personally and fully … forever. This will be not be a new, different physical universe, it will be this universe, but reborn … in which God’s power rules unopposed and God’s character is present in the hearts of every single person who has chosen to allow Him to develop it there. Every person who has recognized the incomparable value of the blood of Jesus, which has purchased our freedom and restoration, will dwell on this very earth with God after it has been radically regenerated by Him.
But what about all the people who refuse God’s invitation to life … who steadfastly refuse to let Him claim their lives and transform them into the likeness of His Son … who trample underfoot the blood of the eternal covenant? What about them?
Great question! These are the folks for whom heaven will not be a fitting place. They will neither want to be there nor will they be qualified to enter. A completely different eternal destination has been reserved for them — a place we call “hell.”
If heaven is deep and abiding union with Jesus, becoming one with Him to share in His life and His inheritance (ruling the world and enjoying the benefits of intimacy with God) forever, then hell is the opposite. Hell is deep and abiding separation from Jesus, absolutely and permanently unable to share in any aspect of His life and His inheritance forever. If heaven is experiencing the benefits of God’s presence — life, joy, security, abundance, wisdom, peace, power, deep satisfaction, wholeness, the total rest of Shalom forever — then hell is experiencing the complete absence of these things — death, misery, fear, scarcity, foolish ignorance, conflict, impotence, deep dissatisfaction, radical emptiness, and a total inability to rest — by being cut off from God’s presence forever.
Wait! I thought God was transcendent, not to mention omnipresent. How can anything be “outside” the presence of God?
Because God’s “presence,” in physical terms, is a metaphor. We’re not talking about God’s sitting at a restaurant, such that if you’re in the room, you’re “in His presence,” but if you’re out in the parking lot or out on the expressway, you’re not in His presence. I know the expressway can feel like hell sometimes, but neither heaven nor hell are likely physical places the way the parking lot, the expressway, or the restaurant are. You can’t take a spaceship to get to either “place.” Physical location is used as metaphoric language in the Bible to help us relate to things we can’t truly understand. Here’s another example that might help… If God were a fire, then we could (very imperfectly) say, by analogy, that “heaven” is the reality of or the place of warmth and light we experience by being close to the fire, and “hell” is the reality / place of cold and darkness we experience by being out in the woods a mile away from the fire.
Losing the analogy… “heaven” is the reality or “place” where we are united with God, in God’s presence, fully accepted and welcomed, because the blood of Jesus has been shed to give us access to God’s person and presence. It’s not about physical proximity, it’s about God’s (again metaphoric) face being turned toward us in welcome and acceptance. Similarly, “hell” is the reality or “place” where a person is totally separated from God, cast out of God’s presence, not accepted or welcomed at all, because he has rejected the blood of Jesus and his own merit is woefully inadequate to qualify us for life with God. It’s God’s face turned away from a person in judgment … because she demanded to stand on her own merit and approach God drenched in sinfulness that demands the judgment and wrath of a holy God.
Here are a few NT examples of how Jesus describes hell, this place of condemnation …
- “Throw [the one not clothed appropriately] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 22:13b CSB)
- From Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet; check out a blog post I wrote on The Kingdom that Demands a Response (a former sermon manuscript)
- “Throw [the one who didn’t trust the Lord enough to invest his talents] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 25:30)
- From Jesus’ Parable of the Talents
- “Depart from me, you who are cursed (because you did not love your neighbor) into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels … into eternal punishment” (Matt 25:41,46a)
- From Jesus’ teaching about separating the sheep and the goats at the end of the age
- “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us” (Luke 16:26)
- From Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
An Alternative Model
At the risk of adding confusion, I feel compelled also to mention an alternate way of thinking. I hope this helps more than harms.
Another way of thinking about hell… Perhaps it isn’t so much being “separated” from God as it is remaining in God’s presence forever but unprotected by the blood of Jesus. If my friend Joe is “in Christ,” clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27), made a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), given a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26), then standing in the radiance of God’s presence is light and warmth and joy — like a super-cool futuristic spaceship with unimaginably good shields hanging out in the sun’s corona sphere. But take that same spaceship with no shields, fly it that close to the sun, and I don’t care what it’s made out of, it goes up in flames. This might be a fitting analogy to hell, except with no end. If the same person (Joe) is ushered into God’s presence but is NOT in Christ, NOT clothed in His blood, HASN’T been made a new creation or given a new heart, then the radiance of God’s presence is no longer wonderful, it’s agonizing and highly destructive. But if Joe is an eternal being, enabled by the tree of life to live forever, then the agony and burning and unbearable brilliance of the glory of the Lord becomes “eternal conscious torment.”
And this sounds an awful lot like the way Jesus described hell in other places in the gospels…
- “Throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:42)
- From Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
- “[The one who remains in his sin will] be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48, quoting Isaiah 66:24)
- From Jesus’ warnings about the devastatingly serious consequences of sin: “It’s better to have one eye or one hand than to be thrown into hell whole.”
- Jesus is quoting the closing words of Isaiah, where Isaiah contrasts those who will live in the new heavens and the new earth with those who rebelled against Yahweh and are left outside the kingdom to rot in the valley of Gehenna (where dead bodies and other garbage was burned outside the city walls of Jerusalem): “[As those who worship Yahweh leave the city], they will see the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all humanity.” (Isaiah 66:24)
Regardless of which of these models best describes hell (they might even be the same, from heaven’s perspective), the discussion brings up another important question about the nature of hell and, by extension, about the character of God…
Is God’s goodness compatible with “eternal conscious torment”?
We could break this one question down into a progression of good “sub-questions”…
- Is hell really a place of “eternal conscious torment,” as the church has taught for 2,000 years (and the progressives are now inclined to deny)?
- And if so, how could a “good” God create such a place or send someone there?
- And by implication, wouldn’t it be better (more humane) to just snuff people out who don’t go to heaven?
- Surely a loving and merciful God would just cause someone to cease to exist rather than torture them forever, right?
Let’s take these one at a time…
Is hell really a place of “eternal conscious torment”?
The bible teaches (somewhat indirectly), and the church has always held, that hell is a place of “eternal conscious torment” (the theologian’s words, attempting to summarize numerous references in Scripture, but not a direct quote). Recently, however, many have questioned if this is a proportional response to a life that rejects God’s grace. The argument goes like this:
If I steal something or hurt someone or violate God’s law, that’s sin. Yes, sin is bad and requires some sort of corrective action, even punishment. But it’s totally unjust for the sentence to be “eternal conscious torment.” That punishment doesn’t fit the crime, because it’s too extreme. Therefore, it’s unjust and unloving. So, any God who would create such a system is also unjust and unloving. Even if someone killed a zillion people or something else extremely, unbelievable horrible, still some kind of never-ending torment would be a disproportionate response. The progressive view is to see the sin as finite and the punishment of hell as infinite, so therefore disproportionate, unjust, and unloving.
But here’s the fly in the ointment (and the flaw in their thinking)… The magnitude of the offense isn’t in the particular wrong committed or in the one who perpetrates the wrong. Rather, the magnitude of the offense is determined by the one against whom the wrong was perpetrated, because only the offended party is qualified to judge the wrong that was committed. We’re judging hell as unnecessarily cruel, because we don’t really think sin is all that bad or that a human victim of sin is worth enough to warrant an eternal consequence for the perpetrator.
This is all because we too are sinful and see these things through sin-darkened lenses. But God is not and does not.
What makes sin so horrible (even worthy of hell!) is that it is an offense against God Himself. Sin violates the One who is infinitely perfect, infinitely beautiful, infinitely holy and infinitely good. Therefore, sin incurs a debt that is infinitely large. Even the smallest sin violates an infinitely perfect God and therefore requires an infinite recompense to “make Him whole” again in the face of the wrong committed. Parenthetically, this is also why Jesus had to be both God and man. He had to be fully human in order to be counted among us and pay the bill for human sin. And He had to be fully God in order to have the infinite resources of God with which to pay it.
So, if sin is an infinitely serious offense, then either the infinitely valuable sacrifice of God’s only Son will cover the debt incurred by it, or we will be punished in the infinite torment of hell because of its severity. Those are the only two options, unless we plan to throw justice out the window entirely.
Put another way, it’s precisely because God is so good and so just that hell is so horrible
How could a good God send people to hell?
Simply put, God doesn’t send people to heaven or hell. We choose. If it were up to God, everyone would have either obeyed Him in the garden in the first place or would today accept His gift of salvation, which is free to us but cost Jesus everything. The only people that need worry about hell are those who spit in God’s face and tell Him where He can put the priceless, unparalleled treasure of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus, talking about Himself, puts it this way…
“God loved the world so much / in this way: He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned [welcomed into heaven], but anyone who does not believe is already condemned [cast into hell], because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:16-19)
Wouldn’t God be more loving if people simply ceased to exist in hell?
And that brings us to our last two questions in this section: Wouldn’t it be better (more humane) to just snuff people out if they can’t go to heaven? Surely a loving and merciful God would just cause someone to cease to exist rather than torture them forever, right?
First, it’s a really gutsy move to tell God you’ve got a better strategy for running the universe than He does. Anyone thinking this way… Well, that’s not going to work out very well in the long run. But let’s set that aside for a moment.
Secondly, God very intentionally made us immortal beings. Death was not part of the plan, and neither is just ceasing to exist. If God had made us to have an end, I suspect it would compromise our ability to relate to Him the way He designed us to. I have no specific Scripture to point to on this; it’s speculation. But it feels much like the question: Why doesn’t God prevent us from sinning? And the answer is: because then we’d be a totally different kind of being that couldn’t have a love-relationship with Him. I think the idea that some human beings would just cease to exist violates the same kind of “physics” in the spiritual world … it would mess up our ability to have the kind of love-relationship with God that is the highest and best form of life for us. So the goal isn’t to have a “party hardy until I cease to exist” option available to us, it’s to get onto the “be truly human” plan by submitting to God and finding out satisfaction in Him forever, like we were made to.
Plus, we already talked about the justice involved in serving an infinite sentence for rebelling against an infinitely holy God. Seen in that light, it would be a severe injustice if hell wasn’t an eternal punishment, because only an eternal punishment is just in the face of an infinite offense.
Put another way, it’s precisely because God is so just and good that hell lasts forever.
Don’t God’s love and power mean that everyone will be saved?
But wait (again)! If God is so great, then why doesn’t He just save everyone and make hell unnecessary? Doesn’t God’s great love and immense power and the incredible sacrifice on the cross mean that everyone will be saved? If so, then the whole concept of hell would just go away, right?
Well, yes, I suppose if we could guarantee that everyone would choose Jesus or if the cross could be applied to everyone, whether they wanted it or not, then yes, hell “goes away.” But how would that work?
God can’t force people to choose Him, because then, by definition, they aren’t really choosing Him. There is no relationship, no love without choice. And choice means that I can choose to reject God and walk away from the relationship. It’s a terrible choice, but it has to be a choice … or else “love” is meaningless.
And how would we apply the power of the cross and the forgiveness Jesus offers to someone who doesn’t want it? Would it not be a severe violation of that person’s dignity for God to force the relationship He wants to have with us on people who don’t want it? How is that loving? How is that good? God’s not like that!
Instead, God gives us choices. We are not robots. He doesn’t force us, He woos us. He wants love and worship, not slavish obedience, and He has provided a means for every single person who wants to be with Him to spend forever gazing upon His beauty. If you want eternal life with God in heaven, literally all you have to do is ask! It doesn’t make God unjust or ungood that He honors our choice; in fact, quite the opposite.
And just so there’s no misunderstanding about what I’m saying… Jesus’ atoning sacrifice makes eternal life possible for everyone who accepts it. So, everyone can have eternal life, but not everyone chooses to have it. And in the end, if you were to round up all the saints of heaven and do a crosscheck before takeoff, you’d discover that this is exactly the same group that God has chosen for Himself. (The “both-and” nature of which is fodder for an almost endless series of blog posts, and for sure more than we can tackle here.) Salvation is not universal. It is given by God as a free gift that must be received (chosen). The power of the cross applies only to those who receive it by faith.
Check out how the Scriptures say it…
“The true Light (Jesus!) that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created through Him, and yet the world did not recognize Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were [born again].” (John 1:9-13, c.f. John 3:1-21)
“For you are saved by grace through faith…” (Eph 2:8a)
“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved… For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame’ since [God’ richly blesses all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13, quoting Isa 28:6 and Joel 2:32)
… and probably a hundred other passages.
You have to receive the gift of eternal life from God by faith in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no other way to be saved.
Why should I care about any of this?
And that brings us to the point of this entire discussion. The real question isn’t: “Is there a hell?” or “Is hell a just and fitting punishment for sin?” The question is whether or not you know and trust and believe Jesus, so that the hell’s existence is irrelevant for you.
Because if you say “yes” to Jesus’ marriage proposal, then a perfectly good, perfectly just God will credit your account with the infinite righteousness of His Son. Jesus will pay your unpayable debt with His own blood. And you will spend an eternity of worshipful gratitude in the presence of the God of the universe, enjoying the inheritance He desired for you since the foundation of the world: Jesus Himself.
And if not, then God will again prove His perfect goodness and perfect justice by giving you what your life of rebellion and wickedness (all sin is wickedness — the fact that we don’t believe that is part of the problem) has demanded. He will leave you where you are demanding to be. Not rescued. Not transplanted from the dying vine of fallen humanity to the new vine of a new humanity that gets its life from Jesus. Not transferred from death to life (Col 1:13). Not spiritually reborn (John 3:3). Instead, you will remain where your sin has landed you … condemned to eternal separation from the One who made you for Himself, which is the most severe torment imaginable.
The whole purpose of your life is to make this choice. And whatever you choose…
It will last forever.
Come, let us worship and bow down;Psalm 95:6-11
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God,
and we are the people of His pasture,
the sheep under His care.
Today, if you hear His voice:
Do not harden your hearts [as others have done,
who] tried me, though they had seen [my power].
For forty years I was disgusted with [those who rebelled];
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray;
they do not know my ways.”
So, I swore in my anger,
“They will not enter my rest.”
1) Chasm: Church of the Holy Family
2) Aragorn on Horseback: The One Ring Blog
3) Campfire: Dreamstime
4) Layers of the Sun: Wondrium Daily
5) Fork in the Road: Lisa Merlo-Booth blog
6) Minions and Ice Cream Truck: YouTube
7) Two Natures: Original (from 11/6/2022 sermon on Galatians 5:16-25)
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Well written. Makes me think of Moses conversing with God and having to put on a veil when he returned to the Israelites. And even he couldn’t see God’s face and live.
Also makes me think of how dark leaves that fall on a snowbank “burn” holes and sink down because they can’t reflect the light and they heat up. Likewise the stains of our sin keep us from reflecting God’s glory to those around us and if we aren’t purified, we sink.