Answering challenges can feel like Whac-A-Mole. Whac-A-Mole is an arcade game where players use a mallet to hit little moles that pop up at random and then disappear back into their holes. What makes Whac-A-Mole so difficult is that you can only hit one mole at a time.
Apologetic conversations can feel like that sometimes. A particular issue is raised, we respond to the particular issue, only to have another particular issue pop up.
Let me suggest a better approach. Would Whac-A-Mole be easier if the mallet could hit more than one mole at a time? Of course it would! This is the advantage of answering challenges from a big picture, worldview perspective.
When it comes to Hell, there are some debated details. Is the fire literal or metaphorical? Is it torture or torment? Is the punishment physical, or psychological, or both? Is the punishment everlasting or annihilation? We become so focused on debating the details that we lose sight of the big picture.
One strategy I’ve found helpful in talking to unbelievers about Hell is to focus on its significant worldview implications. Namely, I believe Hell isn’t the problem people think it is. In fact, it’s a solution to two problems.
First, Hell helps answer the philosophical problem of evil.
The problem of evil is not the problem for Christianity people think it is. It’s a problem for atheism, but not for us. Why? Because our entire story is about the problem of evil. It starts in the third chapter and doesn’t get solved until 66 books later. But it does get solved.
Christianity has a lot to say in response to evil. We won’t get into all of that here. But one part of our larger response is that, in the end, evil is defeated. All wrongs will be made right. There will be a day of reckoning.
An eighteenth-century hymn sums it up:
This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
Christians shouldn’t be surprised by evil. It’s part of our Story. And our Story isn’t over yet. There is a day coming when all evil and suffering will finally be defeated.
So, first, Hell helps answer a philosophical problem—the problem of evil.
Second, Hell satisfies our existential longing for justice.
Many people have no problem with a God who forgives. The problem is a God who punishes. I think this might be a secular Western phenomenon, though. Most of us in the Western world live protected lives. We have “rights.” And when those rights are violated, we look to the government for justice. When injustice takes place, we go to the police, or lawyers, or government officials to make things right.
It’s easy for us to scoff at divine justice when we’re used to counting on human justice. But in places where there is no human justice, they don’t scoff at divine justice; they cry out for it.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf—who saw thousands killed and millions displaced in his homeland of Yugoslavia—has us imagine delivering a lecture in a war zone on how God’s retribution is incompatible with His love. He says,
Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit….
[I]f God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence, God would not be worthy of our worship.
In his book Free of Charge, Volf says,
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. [Emphasis in original]
There is no incompatibility between love and final justice. As Volf points out, a god who is indifferent towards injustice would not be good. In fact, it is precisely because God is good that he punishes the guilty. The goodness of God requires final judgment. It is a manifestation of the perfect justice of God.
Even within the current cultural moment, we long for justice. This is why people say, “No justice; no peace.” This is the mantra of many who are marching in the streets in response to what they see as injustice. Our hearts cry out for perfect justice, but that’s something no earthly justice system will ever satisfy. Only God can provide that.
We cry out, “No Justice; no peace.” But if there is no God, there can be no final justice. The truth is, “No final judgment; no ultimate justice.”
With this argument, I’m appealing to what Francis Schaeffer called the “mannishness of man.” In the book Tactics, Greg Koukl says, “Because we all live in God’s world and are all made in God’s image, there are things all people know that are embedded deep within their hearts—profound things about our world and about ourselves—even though we deny them or worldviews disqualify them.”
There is something within us that demands that those responsible for injustice stand before a judge and pay for their crimes. But here’s the rub. We are all responsible for injustice. Therefore, we will all stand before Jesus, and we will all give an account for the wrongs we’ve done. The books will be opened containing a complete list of every crime we’ve ever committed. God misses nothing.
“Will that be fire? Will that be forever?” That’s not our concern right now. Whatever the judgment looks like, it’s going to be worse than your worst nightmare, and you do not want to be there. That is the bad news.
Here is the good news. There is another book, the Book of Life. In The Story of Reality, Greg Koukl says, “It also contains a record, the names of those who, though guilty, have received mercy, at their request: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ All those who have accepted their pardon in Christ will be absolved.”
So, in the final judgment, there are two options. Either Jesus pays, or you pay. Perfect mercy or perfect justice.
In the final analysis, Hell is a solution, not a problem. It helps make sense of something in the world and something in our hearts. First, it helps answer the problem of evil in our world. Second, it satisfies the longing for justice in our hearts by explaining how that longing will be satisfied.