The Problem of Hell
Apologetics for discussing the uncomfortable topic of eternal punishment
One of the most fundamental components of the Christian worldview is that God is good. Just as God is as powerful as any being could be and is as knowledgeable as any being could be, He is also as good as any being could be. That is, God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.
The same God who created the heavens and the Earth also deeply cares about each of us, no matter our age, sex, race or nationality. That is surely a beautiful and compelling truth about the God we serve, and when talking about our faith with nonbelievers, we would do well to focus on God’s love for each of us.
This claim about God’s omnibenevolence, though, can often lead to confusion about other components of the Christian worldview. In particular, many nonbelievers and even some fellow believers have a hard time understanding how a wholly good God who loves us would also allow people to exist in hell for all of eternity. Others go even further and argue that the existence of hell is actually incompatible with the existence of a wholly good God. What, then, are we to think about the existence of hell?
Because Love Wins, Some People Are in Hell
It seems that one of the main reasons people have a hard time believing that a loving God would allow people to exist in hell is that they have a false conception of salvation. This typically involves two erroneous beliefs: (1) that salvation is primarily about making it into heaven; and (2) that one gains salvation by accumulating good deeds. It’s easier to see why those who believe this would be confused about people spending eternity in hell.
If salvation is just entering heaven and nothing else, then surely a good God could just let in everyone. Even if someone acted very wrongly on earth, and so didn’t accumulate enough good deeds, their punishment for those wrongs wouldn’t need to go on for eternity. Eventually, the punishment would be sufficient, and then they too could gain entrance to heaven.
This account of salvation, however, is either entirely wrong or significantly shortsighted. While it’s true that born-again Christians gain entrance to heaven, the primary reason we care about that is because it allows for an even closer and more intimate relationship with God himself. And while it’s true that good deeds follow from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, good deeds don’t lead to that saving relationship.
Ultimately, rejecting a wholly good God who loves us so much that He sent His Son to die on a cross is the reason the condemned spend eternity in hell.
Missing entirely from that false conception of salvation are an acknowledgement of our sin, a recognition that Christ’s death on the cross provides the only way to pay the penalty for that sin, and a willingness to orient one’s life in a way that brings honor to God.
In other words, salvation is not about wandering around on streets of gold but entering into a deep and meaningful relationship with God himself for all eternity. This kind of relationship is only possible because of God’s love for us. Paradoxically, that same love for us is why some spend eternity in hell.
God loves His creation so much that He allows us to accept the means of salvation or to refuse it. God allows His creatures the freedom to receive Him or to reject Him. God’s love for us keeps Him from violating our free will by forcing us to love Him.
Again, salvation is about enjoying a deep and meaningful relationship with God for all eternity. It would be unloving for God to force someone to enter into such a relationship against their will. Because forced love is just not love at all, and God is loving, He allows people to choose an eternity apart from Him.
Wouldn’t Hell’s Existence Be Unjust?
A different concern about hell doesn’t focus so much on God’s love but on His justice. The idea is that it would be unjust for God to punish someone eternally for finite wrongs.
Consider, for example, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishments.” Imagine someone receiving a life sentence for a minor traffic violation. Most people would probably find such a sentence “cruel and unusual” because the punishment far outstrips the crime. Minor crimes deserve minor punishments.
When it comes to spending eternity in hell, it seems that at some point the punishment for even the most horrific crimes would exceed the wrongdoing. Once the punishment outstrips the wrong, further punishment is unjust.
What do we make of this? To begin, it too rests on a mistaken understanding of salvation and damnation. But this argument makes an additional mistake. This may be surprising to some, but it’s important to remember that no one goes to hell simply because of wrongs they committed during this life.
Spending eternity in hell isn’t just about receiving punishment for acting wrongly on earth. Jesus’ death on the cross paid the price for those wrongs, and God forgives any person who accepts Christ as Savior and lives his or her life accordingly. Those in hell have rejected that path of salvation, and that is why they are eternally condemned.
Ultimately, rejecting a wholly good God who loves us so much that He sent His Son to die on a cross is the reason the condemned spend eternity in hell. It’s not simply that they acted wrongly during this life, but that they made an eternal choice to reject God himself. That is the gravity of rejecting an infinitely great and good God.
For those interested in pursuing this topic further, I highly recommend Appendix 1, “Hell on Trial,” of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, by Douglas Groothuis. Also see Chapter 3 (“If God is Love, Why Is There a Hell?”) of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, by Jerry Walls.