Why would a loving God send people to hell?

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Mon, 19 Feb 2018 Source: Robert G. Coleman

For centuries Christians, especially, have scared the daylights out of many with the concept of hell, where people who have sinned against God would languish in torment forever. Hell is not the nicest topic for discussion. Some intellectuals tone it down, others argue against its existence altogether.

Still, others use it as an argument against the existence of a loving God. Some prefer to believe that God will simply cause those who rebel against him to cease to exist rather than putting them in hell. This topic is a hot one and creates discomfort for many of us, both the religious and non-religious.

But within many people there lies a yearning for ultimate justice where those who have caused heartaches to others would be brought to account. But even this yearning seems not to be enough to stomach the idea of an everlasting hell. So now we wonder, if even humans like us, who extend calculated love towards our fellow humans, cannot bear to see a person tormented for eternity, how can an infinitely loving Being like God look upon hell in comfort? The question has strong emotional power (we can hardly talk about it without strong feelings) and it almost seems like an embarrassment to Christianity.

I suggest we start looking at the subject with cool intellect and controlled emotions. Let us think on this. If God did not send people to Hell, would that be good and loving, and eliminate the problem we have about God’s “Lovingness”? I doubt it. Can we even imagine a universe where a loving God and human beings existed yet this God did not send any of them to Hell? In a universe where some people, because of their greed and sheer wickedness, are bent on hurting their fellow men just to save and serve their own interests, if such people ultimately got away with it, would we not call God's goodness (justice) and love into question? We certainly would. “What kind of God is this who does not punish evil?, we would ask. So we see that God’s justice must exist in his loving nature.

But I suspect that for most of us, our problem is not so much that God rewards sin with hell but that finite sins committed infinite time should merit an infinite hell. This we struggle with. Clearly this seems unfair. But again, with our cool intellects on, let us think about it: even in our world, we give some finite crimes life sentences, don’t we? What sentence then is an infinite God to give to people who perpetually rebel against their Creator, except to keep them away from himself for all eternity?

We often do not realize it but the basic assumption we make when we ask “how can a loving God send people to hell?,” is that every person wants be with God in heaven. But this is just not true. Atheist, Thomas Nagel, for example has declared honestly and unabashedly that he wants atheism to be true and explained his reason saying: “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[1] If the thought of God is so disturbing now, how would it be like to be with God for all eternity? Well, Mr. Nagel has put his desire into vivid words, but others only live it out. Indeed, our own experiences also tell us that the assumption that everyone wants to be with God in heaven is not true because many of us freely choose to do immoral and other evil things (the very things not found in heaven) because we find such things more attractive and gratifying than choosing to love and obey God. Like the Apostle John noted, ”…men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” God is light and truth. And if a person does not want God in his finite life, what makes us believe he would want him in eternity?

God (who gave us free will) will not force Himself on us. God loves us and wants us to worship him from free will. To force his love on us will be no love at all; it will rather be dehumanizing and immoral, just like rape. God’s love rather dignifies human beings by allowing us freedom to choose to say “no” to God. But choices have consequences.

For a person to go through his whole life constantly ignoring and rebelling against God by the way he chooses to live without God, is the ultimate sin. And the consequence of this ultimate sin is everlasting separation from God. In the Gospels, Jesus uses several metaphors to communicate to us that this is a horrible experience that every person can and should avoid. Self-will is the rejection of God and as someone put it “When self-will ceases, hell ceases”. Self-will brings loneliness because one has cut himself from God, the source of life, inner peace and all goodness.

The nature of sin

It is worthy to note that Christian doctrine does not teach the concept of hell in isolation but always in relation to the concept of sin. Unfortunately today, from modern Biology to Psychology to Political theory to Philosophy, we have been determined to rationalize man’s corrupt nature so much so that we no longer reason responsibly about God’s judgement on sin. I am persuaded, however, that when we really understand the depth and nature of sin we may come to understand why hell must exist.

Sin literally means missing the mark. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way,” said the prophet Isaiah. But this is not just about making a mistake as a result of lack of knowledge. It is rather about the posture of the heart that says, I want to do wrong even though I know what is right. It is the posture of heart that knows the truth but insists on rejecting it, no matter the cost. This posture has eternal ramifications of being separated from God and it is self-inflicted rather than imposed.

We have lived with and in sin for so long in our societies that we are inoculated against the seriousness of sin. The fact is, God hates sin but we do not, and this is a fundamental reason why hell seems so contemptible to us. When a person has spent all his life living in a way that says, “I don’t want God” the best compliment God can give such a person is to say “Have it your way then.” As the literary genius, C. S. Lewis once observed, in the end there will be only two kinds of people: Those who say to God “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says “Thy will be done.”

But why can’t God prevent people from taking up this rebellious or sinful posture? God is love and it is in the nature of love to give space to the beloved. But he pursues and persuades the hearts of all men and women with his love. Those who respond to his love, he comes and lives with them through his Holy Spirit.

The Bible never says anywhere that God will send good people to hell. Let us be clear on that. The problem however, is that there are no good people according to God’s standards. Yes, a person may be very kind and charitable but he may also be liar (whether chronic or occasional) or an immoral person. His kindness does not undo his sinful nature. Every child starts life as a little savage – he is selfish, impulsive, impatient, rude and self-serving. We do not have to teach children these bad traits. The opposite of these traits however need to be deliberately and consistently taught to a child. Children who grow up having been given free reign over their impulsive actions tend towards evil and crime, rather than towards selflessness and charity. In the Bible when a man came to Jesus and called him “Good teacher” and asked what he could do to be saved, Jesus responded with a question: “Why do you call me good. No one is good except God.” Now think about it. Many of us believe that Heaven is for good people and hell is for bad people. But now if only good people are going to heaven yet none of us is good then what is our destiny? Hell! There is no in-between.

Any hope?

It is against this background that Christians tell us that the message about Jesus Christ is Good News. Good news is only good news if there is bad news, and the bad news is that all of mankind is doomed for hell because of sin; no one is good, no not one. The good news, however, is that there is a saviour, Jesus Christ. He came from eternity into time, and wields the power of life beyond the grave. His resurrection convinced his timid early followers so much that they became bold even in the face of death and it still convinces many today. No one needs to go to hell because in Christ God has opened the way to heaven for all who accept his Son as Lord.

Columnist: Robert G. Coleman