How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

Chris Price Articles 6 Comments

Hell is a difficult topic to address. Few speak about it openly in our day. It seems incongruent to hold that God loves everyone, yet some will end up in an eternity apart from His love. It is even more jarring once we realize that Jesus was the most loving person in the world, but he spoke about hell more than anybody else in the New Testament. Clearly, Jesus and his first followers didn’t see any inconsistency between asserting that God is love and that people go to hell.

So, how are we to understand the nature of God’s love and hell? This post cannot provide an exhaustive answer to these questions, but it does hint at a few possible avenues of response that the Christian might pursue.

How Serious?

We often ask, ‘how could a loving God send people to hell?’ We seldom wrestle with the question, ‘How could a holy God let sinners into heaven?’ This may hint at one of the reasons modern people, including Christians, have such a difficult time with the doctrine of perdition. We believe that God is love. But we don’t truly believe, at a heart level, that God is holy. We are assured that God is gracious, but we don’t really believe that we are sinful. In other words, we don’t take God’s holiness and our sin seriously enough and this is one reason why hell seems like an overreaction on God’s part.

Here is an odd question: have you ever sprinkled a slug with salt? Sadly, I have. And I’ve noticed that if you assault a slug, there are no real consequences. The police don’t knock on your door, reporters don’t congregate in your front yard, and animal rights activists aren’t up in arms. On the other hand, you kill a dog and the consequences are more severe. You kill a Lion and Late Night hosts will tear up publicly. Murdering a person is even more reprehensible and the consequences are even more extreme; in some places it may cost you your own life in return. What is happening here? Clearly, the more valuable something is the greater the consequences are for assaulting it. Now, to guard against a potential confusion, I am not saying that killing a Cocker Spaniel is more tragic than killing a German Shepherd, or that murdering a king is more terrible than killing a peasant. Rather, I am speaking about different orders of being, not different types, or positions, within an order of being.

God can’t force us to freely love Him. We might as well insist that God exist without existing.
God is the most valuable being in the universe. God is the source of all goodness and the locus of all value and, as such, nothing is more praiseworthy than Him. Our sin, therefore, is an assault on God’s worth, His glory and His right to be worshipped as the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos; and, again, the greater the value of the offended the greater the offense and the greater the consequence. Our sin is high treason against our Sovereign king, it is a transgression committed against our eternal God and, therefore, it can have eternal consequences.

To say it another way, all sin is at its core a no to Him, and to continually say no to God results in no God and no eternal life that flows from God. Thankfully, the good news of the Gospel is that the eternal God, in love, steps in to pay the debt of our sin on the cross. And this amazing act of God’s love hints at the nature of heaven and hell. Both of these realities can be described in relational terms and our willingness to accept or reject the love and salvation that God offers.

The Nature of Love

George MacDonald once wrote these words, ‘the one principle of hell is I am my own.’ He is right in part. Hell is a freely chosen identity apart from God where the worship of self is primary. Moreover, heaven is a world of love and this statement is antithetical to love. A core principle of heaven is in direct opposition to the autonomy of hell; it goes like this, ‘I willingly belong to another.’ Incidentally, this is why I doubt if we can ever truly scare anyone out of hell. Fear of the sort that only clings to heaven to escape the clutches of hell is ultimately rooted in self-preservation, not the love of God.  Heaven is not about preserving oneself, but giving oneself away to God, throwing oneself on His mercy in Christ, as well as giving oneself away to others in service and mutual enjoyment. This all requires a free choice on our part.

And, as C.S. Lewis once wrote on the topic of freedom, heaven and hell:

If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to say truthfully, ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’

We are tempted to resist this explanation. After all, if a child is freely running into a busy street isn’t the parent duty bound to, in love, override the little one’s will and rescue her from perishing? I certainly think so. But the problem for us is we are not children running ignorantly into the street. I do believe that actual children who die young are welcomed into the presence of God based on indirect scriptural evidence. But this is not the situation of those who ask these types of questions. Admittedly, to explain the existence of hell based on the free nature of love breaks down if we assume we are simply victims refusing rescue because our sin makes us act irrationally. If our sinful state as human beings is akin to a drowning person fighting their rescuer, then the rescuer is duty bound to override our will to save our lives.

The problem, of course, is that we are not just victims drowning in sin, we are perpetrators; we are rebels refusing to lay down our arms; we love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil. And God can’t force us to freely love Him. We might as well insist that God exist without existing. So, in the end we must turn from our sin to Jesus and receive the salvation He offers us as a gift of grace. This remains an option we can refuse. As J.I. Packer writes:

Hell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.

To conclude this short post, it is important to note that God does not desire any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Moreover, God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). To this end, God so loved the world that He sent his one and only Son, so that whoever should believe on Him would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus tasted the relational dynamic of hell on the cross when he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus was rejected so that we could be embraced. Jesus endured hell on our behalf. Why? Because he loves us and he doesn’t want any person to perish, but all to receive life.

In the long run the answer to those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing over every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. Forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone. Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.

– C.S. Lewis


About the Author

Chris Price

Chris Price is the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist church and the author of Suffering with God, published by Apologetics Canada. He lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C. with his beautiful wife Diandra and his two children Kaeden and Mila.


Comments 6

  1. I think the answer is much simpler than the awkward free will defence attempted here. Either God is loving, OR God sends people to hell.

    How could a loving person torture other people? A loving person does not torture people. Willfully inflicting pain on another person’s body can never be called an act of love. Psychopaths torture people. Someone who tortures people for perceived wrongs against them is a psychopath and a sadist. A god who demands love and worship under the duress of eternal torment is no less than a monster.

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  3. I’m not sure what is meant by awkward here. I would understand if you had written the free will defence attempted here is ‘irrational’ or ‘unconvincing’, but then I would ask you, by argumentation, to show where the irrationality lies. Where is the fallacy, the explicit or implicit contraction in what is written? If you found it unconvincing that would be a statement of your psychological disposition to the argument, likely rooted in what you’ve written below, which I will address in a moment. So, again, I am not sure what is meant by awkward here. If you meant the writing was awkward that is something I could probably get on board with.

    As to your last paragraph, my answer would be that what you present is simply a caricature and nothing more. I can agree with it wholeheartedly and have nothing about my belief in God or hell rattled. This type of portrait might arise from blowhard, uniformed, potentially mean-spirited ‘Christians’ misunderstanding Jesus’ use of language, or from a refusal to listen to what informed, thoughtful and winsome Christians say about this difficult topic. I don’t know which it is in this case. But what you’ve written certainly doesn’t represent the picture given in this post and expressed clearly in the last C.S. Lewis quote.

    I deeply regret it if you have had experiences with Christians, or growing up in the church, in which the doctrine of hell was used in the manner you described above. I truly am sorry if that was the case and I would suggest reading the chapter on hell found in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Problem of Pain’ or what Timothy Keller has written in, ‘The Reason for God’ and then writing a critique that takes those arguments seriously, represents them fairly, and then deconstructs them adequately.

    Lastly, thank you for taking the time to comment on the post. I appreciate your engagement and your willingness to criticize respectfully. You were gracious on what can be an emotional topic.

    Thanks again.

    Chris

    1. I do want to thank you for your considerate response. I believe you meant well by it. In the context of a pastoral counselling relationship, it would be quite reasonable to the motives behind my response. However, that is not our relationship and I do not invite it. If we are to continue this discussion, please do not speculate what psychology underlies the positions I hold. To say such is an oblique ad hominem – you have implied that my response is tainted by emotion or negative life experience – and it comes across as patronizing. (As an aside, neuroscience has revealed that the emotion-reason distinction is quite artificial: feeling and reasoning are strongly interrelated, if not the different expressions of the same mental process.)

      That said, the reason I consider the appeal to free will in this question awkward because it is a misdirection. It avoids the underlying question – the contradiction between the very existence of hell and the existence of a loving God. I repeat my assertion: only one of the two can exist. The misdirection attempts to place blame for this state of affairs on people without resolving the dilemma. My response to the underlying question is that it would be immoral, and inconsistent with any usual definition of “love” for any being, divine or otherwise, to create hell, cause a person to enter hell, or worse, send someone there.

      To be clear, I do not presume that God is exempt from moral scrutiny. God’s actions are not good simply because they were performed by God – they can be only be deemed good if a different being performing the same actions were also good. If God can continually redefine goodness to the set of all his actions, we can hardly be expected to keep up.

      By analogy, creating hell would be like someone building a torture chamber in their basement. That immediate tells us someone about the disposition of the chamber’s creator. Its creator is at least contemplating malice towards other sentient life. If God can say that to look at a woman in lust is adultery – that thoughts of sinful actions are sinful – then I can say by the same principle that creating a torture chamber (hell) is a sinful act. If God has created hell, what does it say about the condition of his ‘heart’? What would you think of a neighbour who keeps a cremation oven in his backyard “just in case”?

      If God did not create hell, but allowed it to continue existing, that would be someone buying a house and discovering a torture chamber in the basement. A moral person would be appalled, contact the authorities, and have it destroyed as quickly as possible. That is to say, if hell is some sort of passive hazard that people wander into through self-deception, ignorance or other failures, it would be morally better for God to destroy this hazard than allow people to be tortured by it.

      1. JB,

        Sorry to overstep an bounds or make assumptions that were unwarranted. I certainly did not intend to come across as patronizing, but I see your point. I receive the correction.

        You have good thoughts here and voice objections that should be taken seriously. And you voice them clearly. In reading your response I appreciate your clarity, but I would still have to insist that in referring to hell as ‘created by God’ or as a ‘torture chamber’ you are missing the mark as to what many thoughtful Christians say. Your response also doesn’t reckon with the length to which God went to remove hell from our experience.

        I’m not sure how deeply you want to explore an emotionally troubling topic (I certainly don’t much enjoy writing on it), but I really do think that a fair reading of C.S. Lewis’ chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain, or Timothy Keller’s chapter in Reason for God or, perhaps better yet, Joshua Bulter’s work in Skeletons in God’s closet, would address the issues you raise squarely. I won’t repeat their arguments here and I won’t continue the discussion much past this, though I find your interaction stimulating and helpful. It is more of a time thing. Perhaps, other authors on this site will continue conversing or make your objections the centre piece of a pod cast or something. I think that would be worth while.

        Thanks so much,

        Chris

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