How can a loving God send people to hell?

I was recently asked to contribute a piece for a local Christian magazine called Scope Magazine, on the topic of how a loving God could send people to hell. Below is the unedited version I sent them. The official (and slightly edited) version can be read online here.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable Christian doctrines is the doctrine of hell. How is it, the question goes, that a loving God can send people to hell? Surely a God who truly loved all of mankind would allow everyone, without exception, into heaven? It seems to me, however, that reality is not as clear-cut as it first appears. A complete discussion would take more space than we have available to us, so my goal here is to draw a broad outline of the reasons why.

Let’s start by defining our terms. What is hell? While it is often pictured as fire and brimstone, it seems that the essence of hell is to be the opposite of heaven. What, then, is heaven? Christians have traditionally understood heaven to be the everlasting and direct experience of God himself. But wait, isn’t heaven supposed to be fun? Well, it depends. God is the supremely good and most beautiful thing in all reality, and to the extent a person realizes this they will desire God above all else. To such a person nothing could be more pleasurable than such an experience. And to be cut off from such goodness and beauty would be, for anyone, an undesirable fate indeed.

What is love? At its core, love is willing the good of another, appreciating the good in them, and striving to be with them in some way. If the love is mutual, then we build an every-growing bond. If the love is not mutual, then what can we do but make ourselves available in the hopes that one day the love will perhaps become mutual? To force oneself upon the other does not seem to be in line with loving them; rather love calls for some measure of honoring their wishes.

Putting these two together we begin to see something like the doctrine of hell: God has revealed himself in such a way that anyone who sincerely and consistently seeks him out will come to know him, and those who willfully ignore him will not have him forced upon them, neither in this life nor in the next. As Frank Turek has said, “God loves you too much to force you into his presence against your will.” Furthermore, while there is a certain continuity between this life and the next, we must realize that resurrection brings with it some measure of transformation. And the same permanence of will that safeguards an everlasting desire for God in heaven also safeguards an everlasting obstinance toward God in hell.

Consider this from another angle: we note that respect for someone flows out of love for them. When it comes to their actions, this means recognizing their responsibility as proportional to their abilities. So, it is out of respect we treat adults like adults, children like children, and animals like animals. This respect governs how we praise and reward someone for the good they’ve done, and blame and punish them for the bad they’ve done. In short, our respect for someone leads to a desire for justice for them. So God’s love for us leads to a desire for justice for us, and so he holds each of us accountable in perfect proportion to the bad we’ve done.

Now, God is the ultimate king over all creation and a being of infinite worth. To reject him or ignore him, therefore, is to be responsible for a kind of “grand cosmic treason”. Since in this case, the victim is of infinite worth, this represents a crime of infinite gravity, for which justice demands an infinite punishment. More broadly, Christians have traditionally held that God will judge each person proportional to their response to what they have been given, which fits quite well with our intuitions on the matter even if we disagree on the particular outworkings.

In summary, God’s honor and respect for us, both of which flow from his love for us, seem to suggest something like the doctrine of hell when properly understood. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the clearest expressions of God’s love, namely that he would make himself a man and die for us. While perhaps not immediately obvious how, this act secures two consequences relevant to our topic here: it enables us to respond to God so as to enter into that bond of mutual love, and it acquits us of our guilt before him and thereby redeems us from punishment.

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