How Can A Good God send people to Hell?
The English word "Hell" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for a fire, which a tailor kept burning under his work-bench, into which he would throw rejected scrap pieces of material and assorted rubbish. The picture of Hell which emerges from the Bible is more unsavoury. Hell is a place of conscious torment where the wicked are punished forever. The horror of such an idea has caused similar reactions throughout the ages.
In a recent survey of religious beliefs in the UK, perhaps not surprisingly, people found the idea of the existence of Hell less believable than that of Heaven. Why do people hate the idea of Hell so much? Why do so many people reject something which is plainly taught in the Bible?
There are probably many reasons why people reject Hell. Some reject it for sentimental reasons. They say they do not believe in Hell, when what they really mean is, they find the idea of hell so uncomfortable they reject it. Feelings and sentiment can play havoc with the facts.
Others reject Hell on psychological grounds. They rightly note that the idea of Hell produces fear. They contend that fear is always a bad motivation to do anything and should not be used. They reason that, since Hell is bound to make people fearful, Hell itself must be wrong. But is this always true? Is fear always an unhealthy motivating factor? When fear is based on reality, it can be a good thing. The fear of speed cameras has slowed down more car drivers than actual working speed cameras. A sense of danger which is another name for fear, is seen as a good thing for a child to learn. Anyone, who has seen their toddler poised high above the ground on a climbing-frame, knows that a child's lack of fear, is not necessarily a good thing for their long term safety! Fear stops us taking stupid risks and makes us cautious so that life is preserved. Of course, fear can become a phobia which paralyses us into inaction, but fear itself is not necessarily always a bad thing.
Another strong contender for why many people today reject the idea of Hell is on the grounds of justice. Although criminal offenders are sentenced to prison for their crimes, imprisonment is not seen as society's revenge. Imprisonment is seen as a deterrent to others and also as an opportunity for the rehabilitation of offenders, where they can consider the error of their ways and turn to the good. Justice is not seen as primarily retributive i.e. about punishment. Indeed, many today are uncomfortable with the idea of justice being seen as a punishment only. Surely in 21st century Britain, we belong to a more humane society than our ancestors because we are not so obsessed with revenge and punishment. Surely, they reason, if we now operate a more humane justice system as a society; how could God be less humane than us in sending people to Hell where there is no chance of parole, mercy or rehabilitation? Similarly, others question the justice of a person being punished for an infinite eternity, for sins which were committed in a considerably shorter, finite lifetime.
However the most common objection to the existence of hell is: How could a good and loving and merciful God send people to Hell?
Before answering these last objections: Did you know that the New Testament contains more information about Hell than the "bloodthirsty" Old Testament, and the "loving" Gospels mention Hell more often than the "strict serious" letters of the New Testament? Most of our information about Hell comes from the lips of our Lord Jesus. It was as if God knew we would have a problem with accepting Hell, and so He provided a witness, who was so loving merciful and kind, we could not reject His words as merely the words of a bloodthirsty guilt-stirring, fear-monger.
Sin is an unimaginable insult to God. Jesus told a story of some tenants who refused to pay their rent. Indeed when the debt collectors came, they beat them up. Finally, in exasperation, the landlord sent his only son to collect the rent. This time, the tenants seized the opportunity and killed the landlord's son, hoping no doubt that the landlord would give up asking for rent and the house would be theirs. Jesus asked the question: what should the punishment of those wicked tenants be? We need to be careful how we answer that question because, we are tenants in God's world. Have we paid our rent or have we treated God's world as our own and tried to do away with the landlord's Son? Sin is so serious precisely because it is committed against an infinite loving perfect good God.
Part of our difficulty with Hell stems from our inability to understand the majesty of God. The prophet Isaiah was known as a "holy" man living at a time when God's people were rebelling against Him. One day Isaiah had a vision of God and his angels. The angels worshipped God not just as "holy" but as three-times holy. And what was this "holy" man's response? Isaiah collapsed to the ground saying: "Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips living among unclean people!" One of our problems with Hell stems from our inability to understand what it means to be a Holy Holy Holy God in whom there is no sin and who lives in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16). For us, sin is a little thing. But when it comes to sin, God is like a cleaner who is hyper-sensitive to dirt; God cannot tolerate sin within his presence. Unlike us, who can ignore some wrong-doing and even not notice it at times.
The good news is that God has dealt with the awfulness of sin on the Cross. There is no need for anyone to pay the penalty of sin themselves. Indeed Christians don't get their just deserts, we get the rewards of Christ - a room in our Father's house - simply for following Jesus. But someone will ask: but surely, a God of love would do anything to prevent people going to hell? The singer, Meatloaf crooned: "I would do anything for love (but I won't do that)". Similarly God would do almost anything for love sake - including sending His only Son to die - to prevent us suffering that fate worse than death. God has loudly warned us of the consequences of our actions and shown us how to avoid that terrible fate by trusting in Jesus. What more could God do? However, one thing God cannot do, in preventing people's self-chosen slide into hell, is to compromise his justice. In asking God to turn a blind eye to injustice anywhere in his Creation - to say "sin doesn't matter" - is to ask Him, to turn a blind eye to injustice everywhere. And a God who cares not for justice, is no longer just or good.
Rev. Dr. Mark Duggan
Published in the Bramley Baptist Church Magazine, May-June 2008