Can the Idea of Hell Be Defended? Explore More Content
Lots of Doubts
While the Bible clearly teaches that Hell is a reality, many of us are still so repulsed by the idea that we just naturally find ourselves raising a number of objections to the idea that God would (1) create such a place, and (2) assign people to such a place. As Christians, we know that our ultimate authority is God’s Word, so the temptation always exists to simply trust what God has revealed to us and resist the impulse to dig out the philosophical defenses for the existence of Hell. But that won’t help us defend the doctrine of Hell to those in our world who are not yet Christians. It won’t help us to defend our beliefs to a world that does NOT accept the teaching of the Bible. God has commanded us to be ready to defend even the tough truths of the faith as we share our hope of Heaven (and our confidence that we won’t end up in Hell):
1 Peter 3:15-16
…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence
So let’s take a look at some common objections to the Christian notion of Hell as we try to defend the truth of the Christian Worldview.
Why Would a Good God Create Hell in the First Place?
The idea that anything as vile and repulsive as Hell could come from a good God is quite a stumbling block for some people. In fact, the Christian notion of Hell is enough for some to reject the Christian God altogether. How could a supposedly good God even create such a place?
Mercy Requires Justice
The answer here is directly connected to the nature of God. The Christian God of the Bible has a nature that is the perfect balance of MERCY and JUSTICE. Over and over again, the Bible describes God with these characteristics:
The Merciful Nature of God
God Is Loving
1 John 4:8-9
God Is Gracious
1 Peter 2:1-3
God Is Merciful
The Just Nature of God
God Is Holy
God is Just
2 Thessalonians 1:6-7
God Hates Sin
God Punishes Sinners
The God of the Bible is described as loving, gracious and merciful. At the same time, however, He is described as holy and just; hating sin and punishing sinners! While we, as humans, would sometimes rather focus on only the MERCIFUL aspects of God’s nature, doing so would completely ignore God’s JUST nature. And remember, mercy without justice is NOT mercy. MERCY and JUSTICE (‘love’ and ‘truth’) require each other in order to have any value or meaning at all. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I’m driving down the road with my son David and I look over and say to him, “David, my son, I truly love you!” I think he would feel pretty good about that statement and he would value what I just told him, recognizing that I said something significant to him. Something meaningful.
But let’s say I continue to drive down the road and see a mugger beating up an old lady. I stop my car and roll down my window and say to the mugger, “Hey mister mugger, my son, I truly love you!” Then I roll up the window and drive away. My son David would probably have to rethink my earlier statement to him. He might think, ‘Yeah, he tells me that he loves me, but he says that to EVERYONE.” If I am not JUST about who I show my love to, if I am not selective about whom I praise, then my love and praise are meaningless. If I feel this way about EVERYONE, then I don’t really feel this way about ANYONE. Does that make sense?
At the same time, if all I am ever concerned about is JUSTICE, (what’s right and wrong, what’s fair and just) but I have no love for people, then I will eventually end up being a judgmental, arrogant jerk! Justice without mercy is harsh and condemning! Mercy requires justice to have any meaning, and justice requires mercy to have any power. In the end, a loving God (if He is TRULY loving) offers love that is measured by justice. A loving God offers both a Heaven and a Hell. A loving God offers a path to RELATIONSHIP and a possibility of JUDGMENT. One without the other has no meaning at all. With this understanding in mind, it is a bit easier to answer the objection that a good God would not create Hell in the first place:
Why Would A Good God Create Hell in the First Place?
A loving God would NOT be loving if He did not punish evil. Mercy would have NO meaning if it was not applied with justice.
Why Doesn’t a Loving God Make Sure EVERYONE Goes to Heaven?
The idea that everyone is eventually reunited with a loving God in Heaven (regardless of what they believe or how they behave in this life) is called “Universalism”. It is certainly an attractive idea (for obvious reasons), and in a world of increasing relativism, it’s not surprising that this kind of objection would be raised. After all, we are living in a world where more and more of us believe that ‘all paths’ lead to Heaven. As Christians, we know this cannot be true because it cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the Bible, but that won’t suffice for our friends who don’t accept what the Bible teaches in the first place.
A Compulsory Heaven Eliminates Free Will
People who want to go to Heaven in spite of their free will choice to deny the existence of God while here on earth, are true champions of the concept of free will, aren’t they? After all, they want to be able to express their free will to deny that there is any one exclusive truth about the nature of God and the nature of Heaven. But these same people seldom stop to think that the concept of ‘Universalism’ actually denies free will altogether. If Heaven is the ONLY destination that can possibly await us (based on their assumption that ALL who die eventually end up there) then Heaven is actually COMPULSORY. In this view of the world, we have no choice about where we end up. EVERYONE is reunited with God. In essence, a ‘compulsory’ Heaven actually DENIES the existence of free will, the very thing that they cherish. By offering (but not forcing) Heaven to those who freely choose to love the God who reigns there, God is actually honoring and respecting the free will choice of all of us. He is treating us with the utmost respect and dignity.
A Compulsory Heaven Would Include the “Unsuited”
But in addition to this, the concept of a Heaven that accepts anyone and everyone is counter intuitive and un-reasonable. Just think about it for a minute. Most of us would agree that a holy place of eternal reward is simply not suited for people with a certain kind of character or for people with certain kinds of desires. Now we may not all agree on who should or shouldn’t be included in such a place, but most of us would hesitate while pondering the possibility that people like Hitler (or life long pedophiles with murderous desires) should be rewarded eternally in Heaven. If there is a Heaven, it is surely unsuited for certain kinds of people.
A loving God would make Heaven possible for ALL of us while respecting the free will desire of SOME of us. A loving God would reward those of us who have decided to choose Him while dealing justly with those of us who have decided to choose against Him. It turns out that this is exactly the kind of God that we worship.
Why Doesn’t a Loving God Make Sure Everyone Goes to Heaven?
A loving God honors our free will and our desire to choose Him, while dealing justly with those who have rejected Him.
Why Would a Loving God Punish Finite Sin with Infinite Torture?
For many people, the idea that our temporal behavior or choices here on earth should deserve an eternal punishment of infinite torment seems rather inequitable. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime. In fact, the punishment seems extraordinarily excessive! Why would God torture eternally those who have sinned temporally? Why would God torture infinitely those who have only sinned finitely?
Torment is Not Torture
Well, part of the problem is the way we are using language here. The Bible tells us that those who are delivered into Hell will be tormented, and the degree to which they will suffer is described in illustrative language. The torment is compared to a fire that cannot be quenched. But the scripture never describes Hell as a place where God or His angels are actively TORTURING the souls of the rebellious. It is accurate to describe Hell as a place of separation from God where souls will be in ongoing conscious torment, but Hell is never described as a place of active TORTURE at the hands of God or His agents. Instead, Hell is always described as a state of torment that comes as the result of a choice on the part of the person who finds himself there. There is a difference between torture and torment. I can be in torment over a decision that I made in the past, without being actively tortured by anyone.
Duration of the Punishment is Not Based on Duration of the Crime
But let’s face it, the torment experienced in Hell IS eternal, and for some, this still seems inequitable compared to the finite and limited sins that we might commit here on earth. So let’s address the issue of the DURATION of the punishment. First, it’s important for us to remember that the severity of a crime does not always have anything to do with the amount of time it takes to commit it. Think about this for a minute. If I embezzle five dollars a day from my boss over the course of five years, I might eventually get caught and pay the penalty for embezzling $32,500.00. In the State of California, this violates California Penal Code 503PC and the punishment might be anything from probation to a 5 year state prison sentence. But if I become enraged at a coworker and in the blink of an eye I lose my temper and kill him, the crime is now murder (187PC). This crime took much less than five years to commit. It only took five seconds! Yet the penalty for this crime is far greater. I will be serving at least 25 years to life, and I may even be put to death. The penalties for these two crimes are very different, and they have nothing to do with the duration of the actual criminal act. Instead, the severity of the crime is the key to determining its punishment.
It’s the same way with God. The duration of the crime has little to do with the duration of the penalty. It’s all about the severity of the crime. “But are you trying to tell me that my disbelief alone is severe enough for me to deserve an eternal hell?” That question will be addressed in the next section. For now, it’s enough to simply point out that the DURATION of the crime is not what determines the punishment of the crime.
Punishment is Based on the Source of the Law
In addition to this, it’s important to remember that the punishment for any crime is determined NOT by the criminal, but by the authority who is responsible for upholding the standard. Justice is determined NOT by the law breaker, but by the law giver. Justice and punishment take shape based on the nature of the SOURCE OF THE LAW, not the nature of the SOURCE OF THE OFFENSE. Since God is the source of justice and the law, it is HIS nature that is reflected in the nature of the punishment. Since God is ETERNAL and CONSCIOUS, all rewards and punishments must also be ETERNAL and CONSCIOUS.
The Crime is Worse Than You Think
Finally, it’s important to remember the nature of the crime that eventually leads one into Hell. It is not the fact that you kicked your dog in 1992. It’s not the fact that you had evil thoughts about your teacher in 1983. The crime that earns us a place in Hell is our rejection of the true and living eternal God. This rejection is not finite. People who reject God have rejected Him completely. They have rejected him to their death, to the very end. They have rejected him as an ultimate and final decision. God then has the right and the obligation to judge them with an ultimate punishment. To argue that God’s punishment does not fit our crime is to underestimate our crime.
Why Would A Loving God Punish Finite Sin With Infinite Torture?
A Loving God simply allows us to suffer the anguish and torment that are the consequence of our bad choices. There is a difference between self-inflicted torment and active torture at the hands of another. The duration of the crime has nothing to do with the duration of the punishment (even in this life). It is the source of the law that determines the shape of the punishment, and God is a perfect eternal, conscious being. Don’t be surprised to find that we often underestimate the eternal consequence of our own sinful and ultimate choice to reject God.
Why Would a Loving God Send Good People to Hell?
Many of my friends have complained that it is unfair for God to penalize people who are otherwise good, just because they haven’t heard about Jesus. How many times have your non-believing friends say something like, “Hey, I’m a good person. If there is a Heaven, I know I’ll be there, because I’ve never done anything to deserve Hell”? I hear this all the time. It is almost as if they are making the claim that the Christian God simply sends people to Hell because they haven’t heard about Jesus or because they didn’t believe in Jesus. But this is simply NOT the case.
There Are No Innocent People
God sends people to Hell because they DESERVE it. God assigns people to Hell because people are GUILTY:
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
And what are the ‘works’ of human beings? Remember what Paul quoted and described when outlining the true nature of humans:
There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Humans are NOT actually as ‘good’ as they would like to think we are. We are continually ‘missing the mark’. We are continually ‘sinning’. And this sin is worthy of punishment:
For the wages of sin is death…
This is the Biblical description of humanity and the consequence of our supposed ‘goodness’. The Bible makes the case that none of us are good to begin with! But for those of us who might not want to accept the truth of the Bible, let’s simply look at it from a more philosophical perspective.
It’s All About “Perfection”, Not “Goodness”
If there is a God, then this God is responsible for creating everything in the Universe. This means that this God created matter from non-matter. This God created life from non-life. If this is true, then this God has incredible power; infinite power; unspeakable power. With power like that, a God like this surely has the power to eliminate imperfection. This is why, as Christians, we believe that God is perfect; He has the power to eliminate imperfection. So, you see, our God is NOT a good God after all. He is a PERFECT God. His standard is not ‘goodness’, it is ‘perfection’. The real question that each of us has to ask ourselves is NOT “Are we good?” The real question we should be asking is, “Are we perfect?” Can any of us answer in the affirmative here? Can you? Even if we reject the teaching of the Bible, but accept the possibility that there may be a God, we quickly need to realize that His standard will be perfection and we will ultimately fall short of His standard.
You and I are guilty. That is why we deserve punishment. Our very nature is a nature of self serving rebellion. As we stand in front of the judge, we have little defense that we can make. We do, or at least think about doing, wrong or bad things each and every day. We cannot argue to God that we should be given Heaven as a result of our own good behavior. To do so would be to underestimate the nature of our own fallen condition. But guess what… God offers each and every one of us a pardon. Read the second part of Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Although we’ve earned death, God is offering us a ‘free gift’ of eternal life (in spite of our behavior). He’s offering us a pardon! God does not send people to Hell, good, bad or otherwise. We DESERVE Hell. We send ourselves to Hell when we reject God’s free pardon.
Why Would A Loving God Send Good People to Hell?
A loving God recognizes that none of us are good (even though we sometimes think we are) and in spite of this, He offers us forgiveness and a life with Him in Heaven. All of us DESERVE Hell. But God does not send us to Hell even though this is true. Instead, He offers to pardon us and prevent us from getting what we deserve.
Why Would a Loving God Condemn People Who Simply Don’t Have the Chance to Hear About Jesus?
The last objection we will examine here is the concern that many non-believers (and some believers) have. There are still many people in our world who have not heard about this free pardon that is being offered by God. If faith in Christ Jesus as our Savior is all that is needed to prevent us from getting what we clearly deserve, what about those people who are not in a position to hear about Jesus? What about very young children who die before being able to hear about Jesus? Is it fair for these people to go to Hell?
The “Middle Knowledge” of God
First of all, if God is who we say He is, and if God has the power that we say He has, we don’t need to worry about how He will judge all of us. First, we know that God has ALL knowledge; He is all knowing. He doesn’t just know everything that each of us has done, he also knows everything that each of us WILL DO. He knows the past AND the future. Theologians will often refer to God’s “middle knowledge”; the fact that God has knowledge of what every possible free creature would do under any possible set of circumstances. We see examples of this in the Scripture. Look, for example at how God knows in advance the choices that the men of Keilah will make when they encountered David:
1 Samuel 23:9-13
Now David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; so he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Thy servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Thy servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Thy servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the pursuit.
God clearly knew what these men would choose to do. If God knows in advance what each of us will do under any possible set of circumstances, then He may choose NOT to send the Good News of Jesus Christ to certain people. If God knows in advance that someone in a remote jail cell in Afghanistan will simply NOT accept Jesus as Lord, then He may not bother to send someone there with the message of Christ in the first place. This situation may simply be the case for those who we see as presently ‘unreached’. Perhaps the ‘middle knowledge’ of God is at play here and He has not sent messengers to people He knows in advance will simply reject the message.
The Grace Offered to Children
It is God’s desire for all to be saved, but clearly some will not choose to be saved. Children however, may not even have the chance to choose! What will God do with young children who have not had the chance to be taught about the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus? Well, the Bible NEVER describes Hell as a place for children. You will not find a single description of Hell in which children are present. In fact, there is good Biblical reason to infer that God offers a special grace to young children. Remember from Samuel’s description of the life of David that David had a young baby with Uriah’s widow. This child died while still an infant, yet the Scripture affirms the notion that the baby’s soul was present with the Lord after his death, in spite of the fact that he was far too young to even hear about God at all:
2 Samuel 12:22-23
And he said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
We have good reason to believe that David’s soul is present with the Lord today (more on this HERE), and David tells us that his son preceded him! God appears to offer special grace to children who are not yet able to hear about Him or understand the message of Salvation. This seems consistent with the idea that God shows special mercy to those who are not yet even capable of understanding right from wrong:
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. “He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good.”
In this passage, Isaiah affirms the principle that there is a point at which young people “know enough to refuse evil and choose good”. Perhaps this is why God demonstrates his mercy with children. Young children simply cannot understand and do not have the capacity to choose good over evil. While all of us have a sin nature that rebels against God, His special revelation has been given to those of us who have the ability to understand it. This also seems consistent with other Biblical passages that depict God’s Law as targeted toward those who were capable of understanding:
And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday , in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
All of us are born as sinners. No one is righteous. We are all sinners from birth. But it does appear that God shows special mercy toward those who simply do not have the capacity to understand. This may include those who are mentally handicapped and it may also include those children who are too young to understand the truth of God’s offer of Salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Loving and Just Character of God
Finally, it’s important for us to end right where we began this discussion. God’s character and nature are the perfect blend and balance of mercy and justice. We trust that God will act with justice when judging those who have never heard about Jesus. We have great confidence in the character of God. We expect God to do what is both loving and just. We know that He alone understands the heart of men and women and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him:
…He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Given the character of God, we trust that He will deal with each of us fairly.
Why Would A Loving God Condemn People Who Simply Don’t Have the Chance to Hear About Jesus?
A loving God knows the heart of each of us. He knows who will accept Him and who will reject Him, even if this is not clear to us from our limited perspective. God is gracious and just. He will deal with everyone fairly as His character and nature demand.
We Often Deny Our True Condition
We sometimes find ourselves shaking our fist at God and questioning why He has either the right or the authority to judge us in the first place. But when we take this position, we are really denying our own fallen nature. As humans we have a tendency to do this, don’t we?
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
In our ‘unrighteousness’ we deny the existence of God, and we deny His right to judge our sinful condition. As we wrap up this list of responses to the common objections people level at the concept of Hell, let’s read carefully the words of Ghandi from his own autobiography. Even as an unbeliever, he understood the magnitude of his own sinful condition and the fact that it was his OWN sin that prevented him from having a relationship with God:
“It is an unbroken torture to me that I am still so far from him whom I know governs every breath of my life and whose offspring I am. I know it is because of the evil passions within me that keep me so far from him; yet I can’t get away from them.”
Remember that we worship a loving God who does not SEND us to Hell, but offers instead a path to forgiveness and Heaven through His Son, Jesus Christ.