How can a loving God send people to hell? This is a copy of my transcript from Sincerely: An Earnest Response to Honest Questions, an event that I had the privilege of being a part. You can listen to the audio of my question here, or visit The Vineyard's website to hear all the answers from that evening.
Firstly, it should be stated that this question is based on the presupposition that a literal/eternal hell exists, a pillar of orthodoxy that has recently come under fire. This understanding of hell can be debunked rather quickly using Matthew 25:31-46.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31–46).
It has been suggested that while hell is real, it is only for an allotted time and not eternal. This postulation is built on the fact that the word eternal does not always mean infinite. Unfortunately, the text does not support that hypothesis; if one is eternal so is the other...No matter the lingual legwork one attempts, hell is not only real, but it is in fact eternal.
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” - A.W. Tozer
There is a false conception of God that paints Him as a masochist–one who derives pleasure from pain– sitting on His throne maniacally laughing as He watches people being tormented for all of eternity. I think that is where the initial question was birthed: If God is love how could He allow anyone to suffer? This is where the sincere apology comes in. Many have responded to this inquiry with a falsity, they suggest that while God is love, He is also wrath.
Attributes & Expressions of Attributes
God is love (1 John 4:8), but what we would assume to be the antithesis of love, hate/wrath, is not true of God, for God is not adversely and equally wrath. In order for that to make sense, a delineation has to be made between an attribute and an expression rooted in an attribute.
In the realm of God's attributes, love is a noun and not an adjective. It is who He is, a part of His being, and not a description of His actions. On the other hand, the expression is the overflow of the attribute. For example, God is love and from His love he expresses grace. God is holy, and from His holiness He expresses His wrath. While it is true that God unleashes His infinite wrath on those not washed under the blood of the Lamb, He is not defined by wrath.You might say, but doesn’t the Bible suggest that God receives glory from the destruction of the wicked? Yes, but here is where the logical fallacy typically occurs. Damnation is attributed to God’s omnipotence and not to His justice.
- God is love.
- God can do all things.
- God sends people to hell.
- God receives glory from sending people to hell.
- Ergo, God is not loving.
It is easy to see where the understanding of God as a masochist comes in. In this train of logic, God does this because He can, showing wrath is simply an exercise of His power.
God is Just
Imagine a judge who is set to hear the case of his son who just murdered a man. He must sentence his son if he will be faithful to the law, but loves him all the same. Through tears he sentences his son to life in prison. Would you say of this judge that he is without love for his son? No! You would say, this is a man who loves justice.
The truth of it is, God receives glory from the destruction of the wicked, but it's praises to His justice and not His omnipotence.
You mustn't forget that this is the same God who:
- Has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that the wicked would turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33:11)
- Weeps over Jerusalem saying, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)
- “Desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
- “Loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
God receives glory from the destruction of the wicked, but know that it is through tears that He exercises His justice.
The thesis of this first section is that damnation has been ascribed to the wrong attribute.
We mustn't think that hell is filled with a sea of people screaming, “we get it now.” Instead, I imagine all who are there speaking in unison, “I don’t deserve this.” While they are wrong in their premise of not-deserving, they miss that it’s not their deserving of hell that caused them to be there.
Going to hell is not a matter of deserving, for if we got what we deserved we would all be in hell. Rather, it is a matter of rejecting that which we don’t deserve, mainly, His infinite grace.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29).
Don’t take what I’m about to say as a full exposition of this verse, for many have spent their lives trying to make sense of this. But one thing that is overwhelmingly clear is, you can’t talk about the unforgivable sin until you mention that ALL OTHER SINS WILL BE FORGIVEN...
The million dollar question is, what sin is so grievous that even the blood of Christ is not sufficient to wash away? It's not murder, it's not adultery, it's not homosexuality, it's not pornographic addiction, it's not stealing, lying, or gossip; it's unbelief.
The only thing God can't forgive is what you’ve never asked forgiveness for.
Truly, the question to be asked shouldn’t be, how can a loving God send people to hell, but should be, what should God do with those who refuse to acknowledge their need of forgiveness, or even more, those who despise Him?
Is He to violate their will because that is what's best for them? I don’t think so. "A tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." - C.S.Lewis
How should a loving God deal with those who despise Him in word and/or deed (my terminology there was intentional in light of Mt 7), to spend an eternity with Him?
Lewis wrote this, “There are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." He went on to say that, "All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell." What I'm trying to get across is that God gives people what they most want, even when that includes freedom from Himself. What could be more fair than that?
This entire discourse would be a complete wash if I didn't share with skeptics and cynics alike, Jesus did not come to save you from hell. Rather, He came to reconcile you to Himself so that you would not have to spend an eternity apart from Him, all this for His own glory and renown; And an eternity apart from the love of God is hell.
In short, how can a loving God send people to hell? He loves them so much that He honors their choice, even when the choice is damnation.