Would a loving God send people to hell?
In everyday life, some people are rewarded for what they have done, and others are punished for what they have done. But the idea of eternal punishment that God might inflict on some of us by sending us to hell is hard to accept. It seems offensive. How could God be loving, yet allow anyone to go to hell? How do we reconcile what we think is the love of God with a punishment as severe as hell? A loving God wouldn’t do that would He? Does that make sense?
This post is based on a video by J Warner Wallace.
God’s love and justice
In criminal justice, those guilty of a serious crime are punished. After a crime is committed, the perpetrator is punished in order to give justice to the victim’s family. If we don’t do that, we are doing harm to the victim’s family. How loving would it be to give those who aren’t Hitler the same consequence as Hitler? And how loving would it be to a family who was victimized by a serial killer, if ultimately the justice of God treats them exactly the same way as the serial killer? To be loving to the offender is to be unloving to the offended. In the end there must be a balance between the love of God and the justice (judgment) of God. God is both loving and just. You can’t have one logically without the other.
Some think that a loving God would tolerate everything and show mercy to everyone. If this was true, everyone would go to heaven. But the Bible says that God is also holy and just. If God did not punish evil, He would be most unloving. Punishing evil is a loving act. So a better question would be “why does God send anyone to heaven?” Because none us deserves to go to heaven (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Everyone one is guilty of breaking God’s moral laws, and the penalty is death.
Let’s look at the word “send”.
Sometimes we talk about the fact that God “sends” someone to hell. But we need to be careful about how we use the word “send”. It almost sounds like God is forcing someone to a place where they don’t want to be. But there are people who have no desire to be with God. Their idea of eternity and bliss is not to spend eternity with God – they reject God now. They don’t imagine themselves enjoying any time with God. God will not force people into His presence who have spent their entire life denying His existence. That’s how loving God is. He will not force you. He will allow you to make a choice. And those choices determine our consequences. Why would we think that people who reject God for their entire life would suddenly want to spend eternity with God? All who are in hell choose it. God gives them their self-chosen destiny. A loving God would honor your choices, not force you into His presence.
We do not blame a judge for sending a criminal to prison. When a criminal breaks the law, they are choosing the consequences of their crime. So God doesn’t send anyone to hell. People send themselves to hell.
Let’s look at the word “hell”.
The nature of hell
What do we mean by the word “hell”? Most of our notions about hell are shaped more by the culture around us and the fictional accounts we have read about, such as Dante’s fiery inferno. These are notions of hell that we have placed into the Biblical account, rather than let the Bible tell us the truth about hell.
For example, how many times have you thought of hell as a place of eternal torture? But the word “torture” isn’t used anywhere in the Bible. The word “torment” is used. Regret is a form of eternal torment. I can regret the decisions I made in my life that landed me here.
Do we think that everyone who is separated from God in hell is suffering the same experience? Or do we think that there are degrees of punishment in hell? It turns out that you can make a strong case for degrees of punishment (See Appendix). That means that for some of us who reject God’s existence, it may be an experience of eternal regret. While others who have committed serious crimes would experience different punishment to someone who has just denied God’s existence. I think people experience different levels of punishment in hell. If that is the case, we should stop allowing our cultural definitions of hell to dictate what we believe about hell.
A loving God would make sure that justice is given when justice is due. That’s what is loving to those who have been victimized. And He would appropriately deal with those He has separated for all eternity, so that justice is fair for those He is judging. That’s what a loving God would do. And why a loving God might use a place like hell to accomplish His mission.
Humanity’s biggest problem is that we have all broken God’s moral laws that are embedded in our consciences (Rom. 2:12-16). So we are all guilty before God (Rom. 3:10, 12, 23). This is more serious than we realize. That’s the bad news; that we all deserve to go to hell. But the good news is that we can avoid this if we accept Jesus’ sacrificial death as payment for our sins. Hell is avoidable. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish [in hell] but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16NIV). The implication is that some will go to hell due to their unbelief. This is not something that God caused – God never directs people to not believe (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:9).
Our loving God does not want anyone to go to hell. Instead, He wants us to be reconciled to Him and spend eternity with Him. The problem is when we choose not to believe God and repent of our sins. In this case, our relationship with Him is broken. If our relationship is not restored, then we have no way to enter His holy presence.
God is loving – and yet He doesn’t love everything. He hates wrongdoing. God loves the world enough to punish wrongdoing, and He loves people enough to take the punishment Himself.
Heaven and hell are matters of divine judgment. And divine judgment is good – it’s “just and true” (Rev. 15:3; 16:7; 19:2). It’s something to long for because it’s when the wrongs on earth are righted. And when justice will finally prevail.
Just because we don’t like something (like the idea of people going to hell), doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
God allows people to choose their eternal destiny. Those who go to hell are granted their desire to live without God. They are not sent there unwillingly. They volunteer. All who are in hell, choose it. They do not want to be forgiven.
Appendix: What is hell like?
Hell involves separation from the presence of God: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (Jn. 3:36).
Just as there will be degrees of reward in heaven (1 Cor. 3:12-15), so there will be degrees of punishment in hell (Mt. 11:20-24; Lk. 12:47-48; Rev. 20:12-13). The depth of suffering in hell is conditional on the opportunities rejected and the sins indulged.
The metaphors of hell in the Bible include darkness, fire, torment, remorse, and a second death (Rev. 20:14-15). Those in hell will be being reminded of their sins, separated from God and all that is good, which will lead to being continually tormented, without relief, crying, and angry. It’s a terrible place; isolated from God and from other people (2 Th. 1:9).
For example, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31). This could be an account of a real event as it’s not said to be a parable (Lk. 15:3; 18:1). The lesson is that wealth doesn’t guarantee a place in heaven. And it shows that the choices made in this life determine our eternal destiny, and after death, that destiny is fixed.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side [heaven]. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets [the Old Testament]; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’” (Lk. 16:19-31).
This post is based on a video, “Would a loving God send people to hell?” by J Warner Wallace in “Quick Shots: Fast answers to hard questions”.
Written, January 2021
Also see: Heaven and hell: What is hell like?