Question: How can you claim that God is loving, if He sends people to hell?
Answer: This is a very popular topic and an interesting phrasing of the question. I’d first like to address the implication behind the question, which is the idea that God “sends” people to hell. This assumption is false and I’ll explain why in more detail below. Let’s first address what hell is and why it was created, then we can address the topic of spending eternity there. It’s interesting that the question is commonly asked with hell being the final destination, but I actually believe that making Heaven the final destination is a far more challenging question. It’s much more provocative to ask: how can a perfectly-just & holy God allow people into Heaven? Well, with that being stated, let’s get started.
What is hell?
Hell is a place of eternal separation from God. Wait, that’s it? Yep. Were you expecting a longer answer? While the Bible has many symbolic illustrations on the properties of hell, the adjectives just add to the noun. Hell is a place that God created, for the devil and his angels to spend eternity, because they were created in God’s presence but chose to remove themselves from it. I don’t want to minimize the significance of hell by stripping away the descriptors used in Scripture, because hell is indeed a place of eternal torment, but I’ll explain this more as we proceed.
Why Was Hell Created?
Scripture describes God as [tooltip title=”8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. I John 4:8″]loving[/tooltip], [tooltip title=”11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. James 5:11″]merciful[/tooltip] and [tooltip title=”19 And He said, I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion. – Exodus 33:19″]gracious[/tooltip], but Scripture also says the Lord is [tooltip title=”Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God? – Psalm 77:13″]holy[/tooltip] and [tooltip title=”33 However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. -Nehemiah 9:33″]just[/tooltip], [tooltip title=”Those who brag cannot stand before your eyes, you hate all who do evil, -Psalm 5:5″]hating sin[/tooltip] and [tooltip title=”45 And he will answer them, ‘Yes! I tell you that whenever you refused to do it for the least important of these people, you refused to do it for me!’ 46 They will go off to eternal punishment, but those who have done what God wants will go to eternal life. -Matthew 25:45-46″]punishing sinners[/tooltip]. There seems to be a slight contradiction, but truth be told, there isn’t. These descriptors actually tell us something about the nature of love, and demonstrate the necessity of hell. Why is hell necessary, given the nature of love? We’ll see as this article continues.
When we hear about God being loving, we tend to prefer to focus on Him being merciful, gracious and holy, and ignore the the idea of Him being holy & just. I’d like to explore some of the things that actually make love possible, and then connect the dots on how the existence of hell, is actually our best hope in knowing that God is truly loving. Love is only possible if choice (free will) is possible, because love must be given freely. In similar words to the famous Spiderman franchise, “Love requires freedom, and with freedom comes great responsibility and accountability”. The Lord wants us to spend eternity with Him, but rather than force us, He gives us the freedom to choose whether or not we’d prefer to. Because some (like the devil and his angels) have chosen/will choose not to be with Him, God’s love honors this freedom and allows these individuals to live apart from Him. This is a demonstration of God’s mercy, grace and justice.
Mercy, Grace & Justice
Mercy & grace without justice is reckless and dangerous. Imagine a scenario where an individual convicted of a crime is immediately pardoned by the judge, and is free to go without any punishment for their action. Not only would this be a mockery of our justice system, but if this happened all the time, we’d have chaos. Without consequences (justice), there would be no accountability for our actions. It might have been merciful and gracious of the judge to pardon the criminal, but it wouldn’t have been a just-action. How would you feel if the crime committed was against you, and the judge granted the pardon? You’d be even more upset because there was no justice in the end, and the criminal essentially got away with the crime. True love means caring enough to punish wrongdoings, and this is why a God of love must also be a God of justice. Through His grace and mercy, God has tempered His love for us by recognizing and separating wrongdoers. Hell is this place of separation where God’s love is exemplified through justice.
Love, Freedom & Consequence
Love cannot be forced or coerced. Love requires the freedom of choice, and this includes the freedom to reject God altogether. We were created in [tooltip title=”‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’ -Jeremiah 31:3″]love[/tooltip], and God’s love requires human freedom, which entails consequences for our choices. Free will allows those who don’t want to be in God’s presence to separate themselves from Him, and although it pains Him, God’s love respects this choice. Hell is the place where individuals who freely reject God, experience the consequence of that choice.
I’d like you to imagine another scenario: Picture a man trying his hardest to woo a lovely lady. He buys her flowers, sends her little notes, spends his money.. but she’s just not interested (some of you can probably relate). Now imagine after some time goes by, the woman finally says the words that no man wants to hear, “I like you, but only as a friend”, and the man replies with, “I’ll just have to force you to love me then”. Can he really do that? Can anyone really do that? No, love cannot be forced, but it has to be freely given. The truth is, if this man truly loved the woman, then he’d honor her choice and let her go. This represents God’s love for us. It’s because of the very nature of love, that the Lord will never force anyone into His presence against their will. It is precisely for this reason, that hell was created in the first place; a place where those who freely decide that they don’t want to be in God’s presence, can spend all eternity. The existence of hell is a demonstration of God’s perfect love.
Heaven, & the Necessity of Hell
There are only two options for eternity, either you will spend it with God in Heaven, or separated from Him. Heaven, by it’s own nature, is place of perfection filled with God’s loving presence. Heaven tells us that God is not a “good-God”, He’s a “perfect-God”. This means the standard for Heaven is not goodness, the standard is perfection. I believe that we can all honestly admit that we have fallen short of achieving this standard right? You can see why my question in the beginning makes more sense now; how can a holy and just-God allow people into Heaven, if the standard of judgement is perfection? We need to acknowledge that His standard is perfection and that we ultimately fall short of it.
Heaven Seems Like an Impossibility
I think we can see why my question in the beginning, “How can a holy and just-God allow people into Heaven?” is more significant than “how can a loving-God send people to hell”. In light of Heaven being a place of perfection, we can all (at least I sure can) admit that we’ve [tooltip title=”23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, -Romans 3:23″]fallen short[/tooltip] of this standard of perfection, and see that we actually deserve to go to hell. In fact, I’ll be completely honest and tell you that Scripture confirms that none of us deserve to go to Heaven. If God only let people into heaven who deserved to go there – then heaven would be empty! We all have sinned, and even one sin – just one – is enough to keep us out of heaven.
What is Sin?
Sin, as defined in the original translations of Scripture, means “to miss the mark.” The mark being the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Messiah. Viewed in that light, it is clear that we are all sinners. Standard of Heavenly perfection aside, God has given us other [tooltip title=”And God spoke all these words: 2 ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 ‘You shall have no other gods before me. 4 ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. 8 ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 12 ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 13 ‘You shall not murder. 14 ‘You shall not commit adultery. 15 ‘You shall not steal. 16 ‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. 17 ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.’ -Exodus 20:1-17 “]standards[/tooltip] to follow while we’re here on earth. These earthly standards help us recognize sin, which is important because sin in any amount, distances us from God. Despite what some worldviews teach, you cannot earn your way into Heaven by refraining from sinning (good deeds outweighing your bad deeds type of thinking). Don’t get me wrong, refraining from sin is a good thing as it’s an expression of our love for God, but the fact is we do sin, and sin cannot go unpunished.
Sin must be punished, because as we read above, mercy and grace without justice is reckless and chaotic. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you and get caught, is saying, “I’m sorry” enough to be let go? Why not, you apologized? Without a form of justice, what’s to stop you from stealing again? Of course we are aware of people who never seem to learn their lesson, and continue to do the wrong thing, even after being caught multiple times and paying for the crime each time.. but this just exemplifies the danger of having a sinful nature rather than a loving nature. God judges sin, and holds us accountable for our actions. Doing a good deed will not replace or cover-up a sin that was committed. Using human standards, sure, you can scratch the paint of someones car, pay to have it re-painted and you’ve now done something good to replace the bad, but God’s standards are much [tooltip title=”As high as the sky is above the earth are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (says the Lord) -Isaiah 55:9″]higher[/tooltip] than ours. Sin distances us from a perfect, holy and just-God, from which the only acceptable form of justice is separation. Look at some of the earthly standards God has set for us:
- Love Him
- Respect your parents
- Be honest
I’m going to stop there because here are only three standards, and speaking for myself, I’m already guilty of violating them. These violations/sins against the Lord cause distance between us and Him. A perfect God cannot blink at sin and remain perfect, there must be a price to pay. If we cannot earn our way into Heaven, saying “I’m sorry” wont cut it, good deeds don’t blanket the bad, and God’s nature cannot allow Him to overlook our sins, then how in the world can a perfect God, allow any of us into Heaven?
The crucifixion tree is at the heart of the Gospel message, and the best demonstration of God’s love for us. Every religion in the world teaches people to try to work their way up to God through good deeds. The Gospel message is unique however. It’s the only place where you’ll read in Scripture, than no matter what you do, you are unworthy and can never work your way up to God. In order to be with God, we have to be perfect. Well, we’re not. Because God is perfectly-just, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. But because He’s also perfectly-loving, He wants to save us.. so what does He do? God finds a substitute in Himself, comes down from Heaven, adds humanity over His deity, and takes the punishment for us. You see, the only sacrifice that can bridge the gap between perfection and imperfection, must itself be perfect. This perfect, unblemished sacrifice was Messiah; God in the flesh. The crucifixion tree allowed God’s perfect justice to be enacted, while His perfect love was demonstrated simultaneously. The one place where love, justice and forgiveness converge, was the crucifixion tree on the Mount of Olives. The crucifixion tree is where we find forgiveness.
I stated from the beginning that God doesn’t send anyone to hell, and we can now see that we actually choose hell for ourselves. We are imperfect, sinful and unworthy of God’s grace, yet He still paid the ultimate price for us by taking the punishment for our iniquities upon Himself. God’s love took Messiah to the hell of the cross for our sake. This love was costly, bloody and has no parallel. God is willing to forgive our sins, if we accept His sacrifice and truly repent from our actions. This is what makes Messiah the only way to Heaven. Apart from the cross, there is no hope of forgiveness or reconciliation with God. Hell is the only alternative. I’ll end with my favorite scripture, spoken by Messiah Himself:
There won’t be anyone in hell that didn’t choose it for themselves. If you want to be with God in eternity, then honor Messiah by accepting His sacrifice, obey His teachings and repent; He will vouch for you! If you don’t want to spend eternity with God, then reject & deny Him; He’ll honor your decision.