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.

Independence or community?

Every now and then I contribute to a Christian magazine published at the University of Cape Town called The Good News. This time round a question was posed to a Christian (me) and an atheist. Each of us were given 350 words to answer it from our respective worldviews. The question this time was, “Were humans born to live independently from each other with an ‘every-man for himself’ kind of mentality?” My answer is as follows:

The short answer is no. On the Christian worldview we are born as distinct individuals to participate in loving community. We are called to love God above all things and love others (Mark 12:30f). This is not arbitrary either: God is the most perfect being (Ps 145:3), and while humans are animals, we are not merely animals: we are also image-bearers of God (Gen 1:27). What this means is that, in some finite way, we reflect his infinite greatness.

Now, it is by virtue of being image-bearers of God that all human beings are valuable. Moreover, since this is something intrinsic to being a human, it follows that all human beings are equally valuable, and therefore deserving of equal respect and love. This does not depend on their place in society, the amount of money in their bank accounts, or how much they agree with us. We can point to no difference as a basis for putting ourselves above or before anyone else, for we are all equally valuable and all called to love one another. This involves appreciating others, willing the good for them, and striving for union with them. How much further from self-centred could we get?

As I reflect on the society around me, however, it seems that we are turning away from unconditioned love and universal value, towards self-centredness and valuing people based solely on their usefulness. We see this in how we treat our poor, our unborn, our cleaners, and often even those dear to us. The Christian worldview is not ignorant of this: we are broken, deeply affected by sin (Rom 3:9ff). In a way, every human is predisposed towards putting themselves first, then others, and then, maybe, God. Nonetheless, we were born to live with and for others, and to this we must strive.

We see this goal embodied in Jesus, the perfect image-bearer. He told us to love and value one another, and modelled this by calling people from all social classes (Mark 2:15, 12:34) and laying down his life for our sake (1 John 3:16).

It’s 350 words if we count each pair of parentheses as one word. That’s ok, right?