How can a loving God send people to Hell? audio (3MB)
This is a series based on and heavily dependent on Timothy Keller’s Best Seller "The Reason For God" for which I’m deeply grateful. It uses much of his argument though with various additions by myself or the other preachers of the series.
A lake of fire, of unquenchable fire, chains of deepest darkness, wrath and fury, anguish and distress; the language used in the Bible for hell is overwhelming isn’t it? Not to mention the popular images of pitchforks and horned demons. It’s the sort of distressing picture that we shy away from. It’s the sort of idea that’s so easy to make into a stereotype: preachers thumping the pulpit, spouting hellfire and damnation; men on street corners with big black bibles warning people to turn away from the wrath to come.
It’s no wonder people ask how could we believe in that sort of a God. How could a God of love possibly condemn anyone to that sort of suffering? Surely if God is the sort of God that Christians mostly talk about, he could never consign people to an eternity of suffering, could he?
The question becomes more pointed when it becomes personal. How can we look at someone who’s a leader in humanitarian work but who isn’t a Christian and suggest that that person is going to hell because they’re not saved? Can’t we think of lots of people who are really kind, who are loving and caring, who do all sorts of things for others out of the goodness of their hearts? What about them? Isn’t it a contradiction that a God of love would consign them to eternal suffering?
What do you think? Is it a contradiction? Well let’s think about the thinking that lies behind these questions. What do the people who ask them believe deep down.
A God of Judgement can’t Exist?
There’s a given in our modern western culture that goes something like this: I’m an autonomous individual and I have the right to come to my own conclusions about what’s right and wrong without a church or religious group telling me what to think. In other words, moral truth is completely relative - relative to what I’m thinking at the moment that is.
That means I’m very happy with a God of love who treats me like a kindly grandfather, supporting me no matter how I live. But the idea that God would punish me for my sincerely held beliefs is quite offensive. If we were in the US, it’d be even worse because it’d imply that my freedom of speech, freedom of expression was limited somehow.
Since the advent of the industrial revolution and the development of modern science we’ve become so used to the notion that humans are the masters of their own universe that we think that applies to every aspect of life. C.S. Lewis points out that in ancient times people understood there was a transcendent moral order to the universe that required us to shape our character to meet it’s demands. So if we were to live in conformity with the reality of the universe we needed to develop humility, compassion, courage, integrity. Now, though, we see the world only as a material reality and we think we can shape it to our desires. So the wrongdoer is no longer evil, just psychologically damaged, in need of therapy. If we find ourselves stressed by living in the tension of the age we’re prescribed drugs to relax us, or are taught stress-management techniques.
This view of our ability to shape the physical world spills over into a belief that we can shape the metaphysical world as well. The result of this way of looking at the world is that we simply change the rules. We say, if it feels good, do it. It’s your life. You only live once, so why not enjoy yourself? It’s your right.
And when we discover that there’s a God who wants to punish us for disobeying his laws we feel cheated, offended that he’d ignore our rights like that. No-one thinks there’s anything wrong with sex outside of marriage so why would God care?
A God who Forgives?
The corollary of this being offended by a God who judges is the idea of a God who forgives. Why are we offended by a God who judges but not offended by the idea that God would forgive us? Why do we think it’s OK that someone who does something wrong could get off Scot free? You may have heard of a group called Vocal, Victims of Crime Assistance League. It’s a support group for victims of crime whose aim is to get justice for those who’ve been victims of crime. They want to see criminals stopped from committing crimes and if not stopped then punished. And they want victims to have a say in the proceedings against the perpetrators.
For most people who are victims of a crime the idea of forgiving the perpetrator is outrageous. So why do westerners think it’s OK? Well, we’ll think some more about that in moment.
A God who Judges can’t be a God of Love?
Let’s think some more about this question of the contradiction between a God of Love and God who judges, who sentences people to eternal suffering. To be judgmental is seen as a terrible thing isn’t it? Being judgmental implies a sense of superiority on the part of the judge, an arrogance even: that you think you’re good enough to judge another. And at one level that’s true. Jesus told the Pharisees, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”
But isn’t it true that loving people are often filled with anger, not despite their love, but because of it? When you see someone putting your loved ones in danger don’t you get angry? When someone hurts someone you love, don’t you want them to be punished? In fact, isn’t your anger greater the closer you are to the one who’s hurt? You hear about someone like the man who threw his child off the Westgate Bridge and you’re appalled by it but you’re not angry the way you would be if it were your own child, are you?
No, anger is a necessary part of our loving relationships in a fallen world. God is angry over sin and unrighteousness because it’s ruined this perfect creation that he loves. Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian who lived through the Balkan wars comments that if God were not angry at injustice and deception and if he didn’t promise to make a final end to violence he wouldn’t be worthy of worship. He goes on to suggest that the only way to promote non-violence on the part of humans is to insist on a belief in divine vengeance. He says it may be nice, in the quiet of a suburban home to have the belief that God’s refusal to judge will lead to non-violence but “in a sun-scorched land soaked in the blood of the innocent, [such a belief] will invariably die ... [along with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” Romans 12 encourages us to be at peace with all people on the grounds that, what? “Vengeance is mine says the Lord. I will repay.”
How is our passion for justice to be satisfied without us taking vengeance by ourselves? If there’s no accounting by a higher power, I’ll have to do it myself, won’t I? And that just leads to a downward spiral of violence.
Does a belief in a God of judgement lead to a more or less brutal society? What we’ve seen over the past century is that those societies that had lost the concept of a God of judgement, both Nazi and Communist, became far more brutal than any before them. And what about our own Western democracies where the belief in God is slowly dying out? Are we becoming more or less violent? Much more violent I would have thought. If we’re all free to determine our own morality then what’s to stop those who are naturally violent doing what makes them feel good?
Is Hell contrary to God’s loving nature?
As I said at the start, the concept of eternal punishment seems so contrary to the nature of God. Surely God would just send us to hell for some time-out the way my daughter sends her children to their room for a short time when they’ve been misbehaving? But the biblical language describes an eternity of punishment. Can that be true?
The problem we have is that the picture we have is so shaped by our earthly experience. We picture people who are sentenced to hell crying out for mercy and a hardhearted God saying “No! Too Late! You had your chance! Now it’s my turn to be boss.” But I don’t think that’s how it will be at all.
The reason that people don’t turn to Christ in this life is because they prefer to live their lives with themselves at the centre. They don’t want God to be Lord of their lives. That would limit their autonomy. So when they appear before God on the judgment day what will their response be? It won’t be any different to what it’s been in this life. They’ll still want to be autonomous individuals. And here’s the irony: God will give them what they want. Life without him.
Unfortunately life without God in the next world will be life without any of the good things that God gives: joy, beauty, love, companionship, fellowship. Again, C.S. Lewis describes life in hell as increasing isolation. It’s the extreme of what we see in our world today. People can’t stand those they live near so they move away from them. They blame others for their problems so they avoid them. Lewis describes hell as an endless line of empty houses, with only the odd resident remaining. The houses are empty because those who lived in them couldn’t stand living near the people next door.
The Bible describes hell in terms of fire because fire destroys everything good and because being burnt is the epitome of agony. But in fact isn’t the greatest agony being isolated, alone, removed from anything that could bring joy to your life?
Would God send people to such a place if he could avoid it? I don’t believe he would. In fact he sent Jesus to die so he wouldn’t need to. But he won’t, in fact I guess he can’t, force us to love him. And if people won’t love him, because they love themselves more, they can’t be with him. If they won’t acknowledge him as their God how can he allow them into his kingdom? We either choose his presence or our own. I know which I’d prefer for eternity.
Is it Loving to Preach Eternal Judgement?
There was a news article a few years ago about a cliff on the Mornington Peninsula that a child had fallen over and been killed. The locals were up in arms because there was no warning sign or fence around the cliff to protect people from a fall. What would be the loving response to that situation do leave people to make up their own mind about the danger? you think? To put up a warning sign or a fence or to The answer’s obvious isn’t it? When you know someone is in danger the loving response is to warn them. If you believe that God is serious about the way people respond to him shouldn’t you be warning everyone you know of the danger they’re in? Perhaps not in terms of hellfire and damnation any more but in terms of an eternity excluded from all the good things that God provides for our enjoyment.
And on the positive side of that warning is the promise that God makes, that he’ll come to us and make himself known to us personally and intimately, indwelling us, giving us a small foretaste now of the joy of heaven where we’ll enjoy his presence forever.