On God and Hell

Written by Sean McDowell

I don’t like the idea of hell. Hell is not merely an academic issue, but one that is very personal to me. To think that some of my loved ones could spend eternity in a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and eternal torment is deeply troubling (Matthew 8:12; Rev. 20:10). But despite my emotional reservations, I have come to believe, like Jesus, that hell is morally just. As emotion-filled as this issue is, I would like to offer you some humble thoughts on why a loving God would send someone to hell.

WHAT IS HELL REALLY LIKE?

Contrary to popular belief, hell is not a physical place of unending physical fire. Rather, hell is described in the bible metaphorically as a place of both darkness and flames. Clearly both of these images can’t be true or they would cancel each other out (flames would light up the darkness). These images were used to clarify the reality and seriousness of hell. Flames were typically used in the Old Testament to indicate judgment and darkness indicated separation and loss.

Thus, rather than unending torture, at the root of hell is a relational separation from God characterized by utter agony and despair. Hell is truly the greatest loss imaginable. To be in hell is to be excluded from the very source of life, goodness, and hope—God himself.

Does this mean hell is not that bad? I often ask my students if they would prefer a broken arm or a broken heart. Most prefer the broken arm. Why? Because they realize emotional pain can sometimes be even greater than physical pain. The Bible uses physical imagery such as flames to help us grasp the emotional horrors of hell. Hell is the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person.

WHY DOES GOD SEND PEOPLE TO HELL?

God does not “send” people to hell. Rather, people freely choose to reject God’s gift of salvation. God has given people freedom of will, which means some may be “always resisting the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). God desires that everyone believes in him (2 Peter 3:9). But the sad reality is that many people do not want to submit their lives to God.

Heaven and hell are not surprise outcomes. Hell is the natural consequence for people who reject God in this life, just as heaven is the natural outcome for those who embrace Him. Our eternal destiny logically and naturally flows from how we lived and operated on earth. Hell is both punishment and the result of a mind set against God. In fact, heaven would be hell for those who do not want to be in God’s presence.

IS HELL UNJUST?

One might object to hell on the grounds that the punishment of hell is disproportionate to the crime. As some might put it, “How could wrongs in this life merit an eternal punishment?” One response is simply to admit this objection but realize that those in hell might be punished for eternity nonetheless. It might be that those in hell originally had a sentence that did not merit eternal punishment, but their unrestrained sinful nature continually leads them to sin and thus amount penalties which are never satisfied.

Second, it is actually false that sins committed in this life only merit a temporary penalty. The weight of an offense depends on the nature of the being offended. Plants, animals, and humans are three different types of beings that warrant different punishments for crimes committed against them. Injury to a human deserves a greater penalty than injury to a cat. Since God is infinitely greater than any human offenses against Him merit an eternal penalty.

DOES GOD SEND CHILDREN TO HELL?

There is biblical precedent to believe in an “age of accountability” in which children who die go directly to God’s presence. Isaiah 7:16 mentions a period before a child is morally accountable to God, before the child, “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.” David lost a child conceived in his relationship with Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 12:23 David says, “I will go to him, but he will not come to me.” There will be no one in hell that would not have chosen God had they simply been given more time to repent.

WHY DOESN’T GOD FORCE PEOPLE TO GO TO HEAVEN?

God created human beings to have a meaningful relationship with him, even though he knew some would reject him. God didn’t want robots; he wanted a creation that would freely choose to love him. For God to force people into heaven against their desires would be to deny them their dignity. Rather than treating them as valuable beings, he would be treating them as means to an end. When people say “no” to God He respects their wishes.

There are more questions and issues that could be raised against hell than I have dealt with here. Hopefully this has given you some thoughtful responses to some common objections. Was hell the only option for God? It is just and moral? Is it logical? Clearly Jesus thought it was… and so do I.

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15 Responses to “On God and Hell”

  • Persevering says:

    I think it’s also true that God lets those whom He knows will reject Him to even be born. Why? The Apostle Paul in Romans 9:22 eludes that if the Potter desires to make clay for the purpose of destruction to show His wrath, and at the same time show how fortunate His objects of mercy are, who are we to say anything about it? So, in understanding this, I understand better Revelation 22:11 “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.”

  • Persevering says:

    In addition, whether or not people admit it, they are making a conscious decision to reject God i.e. Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Some people simply want to do things their way instead of God’s way. God gives them over to their lusts and lets them suffer the consequences. It’s their choice. God is always good.

  • Bhagwan Dhami says:

    I think hell is a temporary station of soul’s way 4 getting heaven.
    U know God want to give anyone heaven but we can’t get it because we don’t know the way of getting heaven.
    Some person says why we can’t see God,but God ask us what is the special quality u got that u see me.
    I want to say that we should do something different 4 getting god and when we success to find God then we can got heaven.
    Otherwise we can never got God and heaven.
    Differently is life. So do something different in ur life.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hey! I have found this website just now, and I’m finding it really interesting so far. Well, what I need to say is that I grew up with a Christian background (Christian Family, Christian School, Christian Church) but not really had known and accepted it by heart. Right now, I’m still on my journey of finding what I should believe in. And I came across this site by looking up on the net the words: “Why I became a Christian” (It’s because I wanted to know why and how people who were once non-believers became great followers).

    Now, one of the things that bothers me about Christianity is the concept of “Hell”. I looked it up on this site and found this topic.

    It’s really a hard thing to grasp — knowing that a lot of people would be there. The first thing that came to my mind is: How could a so-called “loving” God even make up the idea of hell?
    If He knew from the start that it is inevitable for us to rebel against Him and be eternally punished, then why create? It seems to me that we’re only created to be punished. There must be other ways wherein He could create us without having to be punished.

    Another one is: What about the people who died without knowing anything about Jesus? The belief is that, if you believe that Jesus saved you and that He is the God to be followed, you are then saved. But there are a whole lot of humans out there that still haven’t heard of Him. If they die, would they go directly to hell? It seems unfair.

    I don’t mean to offend or to insult anybody. I’m just a confused teenaged person trying to find the truth so I don’t have to live with fear anymore. I still have a lot of questions that puzzle me about this faith (Christianity). The ones I’ve written are just some of it cause I don’t think I could fit it all in just one post.

    So please, I hope you could help me with my doubts. I do want to believe Christianity is true (because I grew up knowing about this faith). It’s just that, I cannot put away some of my doubts aside. Again, I hope anyone out here could help me.

    Thanks.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Those are good questions Anonymous. Let me encourage you to continue your search for God and to ask Him to reveal Himself to you. It is one thing to have a lot of knowledge about God but it is a completely different thing to know Him.

    Now about your question on Hell I think it is first important to understand some aspects of the nature of God. Jesus disciple John wrote “God is light; in Him is no darkness at all.” (1John 1:5) It is a great analogy comparing God and light because there are similarities: if you have a bright light in the center of an empty room there is no place that light cannot does not penetrate. In order to hide yourself from that light you need to create some barrier between yourself and that light. In the same way, if someone wanted to hide themselves from God they would need a barrier between themself and God. God does not create the barrier but the one trying to hide from Him creates it. Just as darkness is the absence of light so is Hell the absence of God. So the separation from God is something that was created by the desire to absent from the presence of God. Now I can’t tell you if God actually created the physical place we call Hell or if it was prepared by those who wanted to be absent from the presence of God (i.e. Satan and His demons) but the reason for it being created (a place of separation from God) was completely the work of those who reject God’s authority in their life.

    The second part of your question is an important one to deal with as well: why would God create humanity if He knew that our rejection of Him is inevitable? Again, it is understanding the nature of God that helps us to figure this out. “God is love” (1John 4:7) It is not just that God is loving or that He loves but He is the embodiment of love. Now there is a lot we could talk about all of that but in regards to your question, because God’s nature is love it is natural for Him to express His love by creating. We see that even in our own imperfect love: out of the love of a husband and wife comes a child, the love of that child for her parents results in the creation of a gift. Even in our occupations we see that people produce out of the passions they have: the love within an artist results in the creation of art, the passions of an accountant produces organized financial statements, etc. So God, acting on His love, creates. And just as we see in parents, God desired to create humanity with who He could have a loving relationship with. Yes, He knew that there would be those who would reject Him but He also knew that there would be those who would return His love. Just as parents know that there are negative aspects of having children like skinned knees, broken hearts and occasionally rebellion, still they choose to take on those risks because they also know that there is abundant beauty in the love of a family.

    God knew that in order for true love to exist there has to be an option not to love. Part of the joy of being loved is that person could have chosen anybody to love but they have chosen you. A forced love is no love at all whether it is forced by aggression (how many abusive husbands have tried to force their wives to love them by aggression?) or forced by gift-giving (how many stories have been told of the fickleness of a ‘bought-love’?) No, in order for love to be true it needs to be a chosen love which leaves the risk of it not being chosen. In order for God to have the love of His Creation there is necessarily going to be those who choose not to love Him.

    Your statement “we’re only created to be punished” is looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. We were created to be loved! But many people choose to reject that love and its source, God, and condemn themselves to separation from God, separation from love. If love results in creation than the opposite of love results in destruction and ultimately when people choose to reject God they are choosing destruction.

    Your next question is not an easy one: “What about the people who died without knowing anything about Jesus?” Once again we need to look to the nature of God to come to resolution. First of all it is important to know that God loves the whole world and doesn’t want to see anybody separate themselves from Him. Another one of Jesus’ disciples wrote, “He does not want anyone to perish,” (2Peter 3:9) Second it is also important to know that it is God’s nature to be generous in revealing Himself to His Creation. Paul wrote, “From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities– his eternal power and divine nature.” (Romans 1:20) Jesus promised that the, “Holy Spirit will teach you all things” (John 14:26) so God is still active in helping us to understand how to receive forgiveness and life in Jesus.

    Putting all those things together I have to think that God is able to help someone to understand the necessary aspects of the Good News about Jesus Christ without ever having heard His name. Now I can’t take you to verse in scripture and say this with complete certainty but the things that I know about God seem to point in that direction. I can also look at what the Bible says about people who lived before Christ and have confidence of their relationship with God. Most notably, Abraham, of whom the Bible says, “he was declared righteous by God because of his faith.” (Romans 4:9) Abraham had no intimate knowledge of Jesus and yet because he believed in the nature of God and His promises he believed and was made right with God.

    I guess the caveat I would put on that is to say that when someone who has been instructed by God’s Spirit does hear about Jesus, they will recognize Him and will affirm that it is Jesus whom they are trusting. Ultimately though, God is the one who knows our hearts and He is the one who will judge whether a person is a follower of Jesus or not. I am supremely confident in His ability to perfectly judge. I am also supremely confident that He does not do anything unfairly. So I follow His leading to talk with people about Jesus and for those I am unable to tell, I safely leave them in His hands knowing that He will do what is right no matter what.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Jamie, for the encouraging words, the help and mostly, for the response. Your answers and explanations have enlightened me a bit about this faith but still, there are so many things that bothers my mind that keep me from accepting this faith wholeheartedly. I also have to investigate on other religions/belief just to be fair and sure. But anyway, I still thank you for helping.

    And if you wouldn’t mind, may I ask you to share about how you’ve come to accept Jesus and this faith? Of all the religions out there, how come you’ve chosen this one?
    I just want to know… Because there are also Christians who transferred into other religions, and I am also investigating about their explanations. It’s alright if you do not like. I’ll try to find other sources.
    Again, thank you.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Well Anonymous, I was born to parents who had a very authentic relationship with Jesus. My dad pastored a small active church and so growing up I was surrounded by people whose lives revealed the transforming power of Jesus Christ. I realized at a young age (4 years old) that my ability to do the right things was limited. In a very simplistic way I became aware of my need for help and because of the examples of the people I had around me it was an easy step to see Jesus as the source of that help. There was a certain situation that catalyzed all of that for me and I clearly remember asking for Jesus to help me to obey my parents by coming into my life to be my Lord. Now at the age of four I still had much to learn and there have been many “Ah hah!” moments in my life when God has helped me to understand some deeper aspect to my relationship with Him but I know that since that moment in my bedroom at Christmastime 1973 (oops, now you know how ancient I am) I have been a follower of Jesus.

    But that is not to say that I have not looked at other religious beliefs since or had times of doubt. I have spent time trying to understand different religious systems and compare their positives and negatives. I think one of the most significant reasons for me as an adult to recognize the truth claims of Jesus is that He says humanity is unable to reach God on their own. That is a unique claim from all other religions. Every other belief system says that through ritual, meditation, acts of charity, moral lifestyle, power of the intellect or some other human effort that we can achieve the ideal. Jesus is the only one who has said that only God can save us from the human condition, to put us in right relationship with God. All other religions encourage people to reach up to God where Christianity reveals that God has actually reached down to us. Paul wrote, “For it is by the grace of God that you have been saved–this is not of yourself, but it is the gift of God–not by the good works you have done so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) You will not find any other religion that makes that claim. That in itself is intriguing enough to explore more deeply why Jesus said we can’t make things right on our own and why God would go to the trouble of humbling Himself to rescue us.

    That is one of the many aspects of the claims of Jesus that ring true for me. After 39 years (now I am really making it easy for you to guess my age) of seeking to know God and allowing Him to transform me I can say with all confidence: Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can live out their God-given purpose without Him. To hear other people tell their story of coming to faith in Jesus have a look at the “i am second” videos at http://powertochange.com/iamsecond. There are some amazing ways that God has helped people discover new life in Jesus. It is totally worth the time.

  • Andrew says:

    I believe that God gives everyone the opportunity to accept salvation through the sacrifice of Christ. Their is no holding place where a person goes after they die as their are many instances where someone who has accepted Christ and entered the afterlife only to return. What they seen in heaven words are not able to describe as atheists and people who don’t believe in Christ try to dismiss what a person saw or described as something imagined.When the disciples seen heaven in visions they were unable to describe what they saw as it is impossible to describe the supernatural. If a person wishes to find Christ God will reveal this to him through his people which is why it is important that we who believe in Christ share salvation to those who are questioning you about your beliefs.

    The Holy Spirit will give you the answer as it always is my objective to share my faith with whomever I meet as God is using me as his messenger. It is the Holy Spirit who will convict the person you are speaking with and then it is up to them to choose if they wish to accept Christ. God Bless.

  • Zach says:

    So many problems in your arguments…

    1- Billions of people never had the chance to hear the gospel, therefore they never made a choice to reject it.
    2- If children automatically go to heaven, and you want people to go to heaven, then the BEST thing you can do is to murder as many children as you can.
    3- if God can create people who would never be able to choose him no matter their circumstances, then they are denied free will to choose. Futhermore, for God to know that it is impossible for them to choose him but creates them anyways, then he is no longer a loving god.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Zach, I don’t know if I can agree with all of your points. It is true that there are those who have never heard a complete presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ but God says that they have still had ample evidence of His active presence in the world and have no excuse for rejecting Him. Romans 1:18-21 says, “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. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” So they have made an informed choice to reject God and choose separation from Him.

    I understand that you are being facetious in your second point but God’s grace has never been reason for His people to stop proclaiming the truth to people. Our hope is not in escaping Hell but rather that we can fulfill our created purpose which is to bring glory to God and enjoy relationship with Him.

    Your third point addresses the complex nature of our free will in light of the sovereignty of God’s plan and purposes. Because we are limited in our understanding it is impossible for us to comprehend how those two can both be true at the same time. But somehow, in God’s infinite knowledge and purpose, those two are held in perfect tensioned balance. So by faith, we hold both to be true–nothing is able to thwart God’s sovereign plan and yet every person has the freedom to choose and is responsible for that choice. Neither is diminished by the other.

    I am curious to know what your understanding of Hell is. Do you dismiss it altogether or do you feel it is a reality?

  • Zach says:

    Jamie, thank you for your response. Here are my thoughts.

    1. There is no possible way these people have made an informed choice. They have never heard of the christian faith. It is not evident in nature. Nobody looks at nature and says, “aha, i am an evil person, but a savior died for me, I must accept him into my heart.” If everyone did already have this knowledge, then there would not be a reason for evangelism-priority movements such as campus crusade to exist.

    2. If we have failed in our created purpose, then what does that say about our creator? Furthermore, if such a ridiculous plan (murdering innocents) can result in a better outcome for God (more glory) and billion of people (relationship), then it is likely that your first assumption (nearly all people go to hell) is wrong.

    3. I agree it is a complicated topic. But saying something doesn’t make it so. You mentioned god’s purpose. If god’s purpose is more glory for himself via humans, then surely 90% of all humans burning in hell for eternity is a major failure of god.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    It’s good to hear from you again Zach. I appreciate your willingness to have this conversation.

    I agree that the message of nature is not necessarily as straight forward as that. But I would suggest that everyone is aware that they have made poor choices and had evil thoughts, and felt powerless to overcome those negative parts of their character. I would also suggest that the world around us points to a Creator to whom we are responsible. I have a friend who lived amongst the people of Zimbabwe for most of his life (it was called Rhodesia when he lived there) and he had opportunity as a young man to talk with the elders of that region who remember the first Christian missionaries who came to share with them the story of Jesus. David asked those elders if they had been aware of God before they had ever heard of Jesus. They told him, “Oh yes, we knew there was a God. We could see evidence of Him in the world around us. But we preferred to worship things that we could control.” You see it is not just the Created Order that points us to God but it is God using that Created Order to reveal Himself. So people know that there is a God and that He is accessible to them. When a person comes to the place of realizing their powerlessness against the evil in their character it is not a stretch for them to look to God for help to do what is right. They would obviously need to have God helping them to understand that but so is everyone who hears the story of Jesus dependent on God to help them understand and accept that for themselves. That is why Paul wrote, “I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the wonderful future He has promised to those He called. I want you to realize what a rich and glorious inheritance He has given to His people.” (Ephesians 1:16-18) There is much about the way God enlightens people about His Truth that I don’t completely understand but I know that I can trust what He says in the Bible, so I accept that He has given everyone all they need to know about who He is and how they can become an adopted child of His.

    Again I would say, this does not mean that His followers need not be involved in telling other people about Jesus. That is clearly something that all Christians are called to join in on because of Jesus’ parting words, “make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19)

    As far as our failure to live out the purpose for which we are created, that is the result of our choice to reject that purpose and reject the God who created us for that purpose. What it says about our Creator is that He loves us and has given us the opportunity to love Him which necessitates giving us the choice not to love Him. If we were created without that choice ours would not be love for God but a programmed response. No one–not even God–can force someone to love; it must be something that is chosen. It seems to me that any attempt to accuse God of failure based on the poor choices of humans is nothing but an attempt to shift the blame.

    So what is your understanding of God Zach? Do reject the existence of a Supreme Creator or is your understanding of Him different from what I am presenting? What do you base your beliefs on?

  • Tawba says:

    Peace. I appreciate Anonymous’ Truth search. The heart is true.

    Humbly consider others. Be true in mind and words.

    My mom was confused too until she found Islam. She now knows who G-d is. G-d cannot beget or be begotten. Eternal has no birth or death. None but G-d is Perfect above all. All the Prophets Moses, Jesus, and last Muhammad (peace be to them) were mere humans. Confession is to G-d, only. Repentance is to G-d and no one else. We all bear the sins we all earn. My dad became a Muslim too. He found out the Jews placed false words into the bible. Thus, the Qur’an had to be revealed. The Qur’an stays as the last and only holy book kept pure.

    Surat ‘Ali `Imran 3:85 – And whoever desires other than Islam as religion –
    never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the lost.

    The first commandment is most important. Yes? It’s easy for Muslims cause they know who G-d is. For them the Truth is all clear. The blessing that Christians need most is to find out the Truth about the Prophet (peace be). Please humbly search the Truth. Qur’an.com/4/157-158. Qur’an.com/19/1-40

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Tawba, thanks for sharing your expeereince with Islam here. You wrote that we all bear the sins we all earn. What does Islam say is the consequence of those sins? You also wrote that all the Porphets were mere humans. Did they also have sins to bear?

  • This is the verdict, God has sent light (truth) into the world ,but men loved darkness (error) rather than light,and would not come to the light,lest their deeds be proven evil. What really prevents man from comming honestly and humbly to GOD, is our natural sinful PRIDE, in and of ourselves…I was an athiest for the first 24 years of my life, A GOD mocker,a Christ hater, a bigot,and a violent,angry young man…GOD the HOLY SPIRIT, Sought me,..Revealed,the LIGHT of this world,,JESUS CHRIST..Who for the last 32 years,has been ,my SAVIOR, my salvation,my righteousness,MY GOD,and my friend..When you reach the very bottom…look up to JESUS and be SAVED.. Like the apostle Paul i can honestly say..This is a worthy statement,That CHRIST JESUS died for ALL sinners of whom i am the chief sinner. Pride keeps us from GOD, for GOD resists the proud, but gives grace to the HUMBLE…A broken and contrite spirit you will not despise…O (GOD)…but the proud man is far from you. What sends a person in the end to HELL is their continual resistance towards GOD,s GRACE., and insistance that they are good enough and GOD needs to listen to THEM. Indeed GOD is not willing,that anyone be lost, but that ALL come to saving faith in His SON . GOD did not send His SON into the world to condemn the world , but that the world COULD be saved THRU HIM>>>MAY GOD BLESS YOU WITH a REVEALING OF JESUS CHRIST today.

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