How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?
In our 21st-century sophistication, the idea of hell has become increasingly remote, even humorous. Woody Allen quipped, “Eternal nothingness is okay, if you’re dressed for it.”
The headlines that followed Pope Benedict’s sermon about hell show the incredulity with which people hold the Christian doctrine of hell.
The pope said: “Hell really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore.” The shock that a Christian leader actually believed in hell prompted breathtaking headlines in the New York Times: “Pope Proclaims Hell Exists.”1
After negotiating our way through the haze of humor and bemusement concerning the idea of hell, several serious questions remain that we must address. Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?
How we feel about justice depends on which side of the law we find ourselves. Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.
Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.
A friend of mine was recently beaten while her young children looked on. Her partner hit her so hard she could not open one of her eyes for a day. The doctors were concerned that her eye may have suffered long-term damage. Covered with cuts and bruises, she went to the hospital. Despite her condition, she was unwilling to report the man to the police.
As her friend, my heart cried out for justice for her and her children. This is because I love her. Love and justice are close companions. We see this in the Bible.
My colleague, Michael Ramsden, says, “The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom. A loving God cannot ignore these violations of His world or else He would not be a loving God.
Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?
Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.
If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.
Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.
Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.
The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.
1. New York Post, March 26th, 2007.