A common objection raised against Christianity and the character of God is, "How can it be fair for God to send people to be punished in hell for all eternity?" It's interesting to note that the concept of an eternal hell has detractors in both Christian and non-Christian circles.
For example, the well-known Christian apologist and writer C. S. Lewis wrote, "There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than [hell], if it lay in my power…" Agreeing with Lewis that hell is an unpleasant thought is the skeptic Bertrand Russell, who had this to say about Jesus and the subject of hell: "There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and it is that He believed in Hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. . . . I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty."
Is Russell right? Is eternal punishment in a place like hell overkill for temporal sins committed in this life? It's a good bet that a lot of people would answer, "Yes!" but what matters most is what God's Word has to say on the matter.
First, where the character and nature of God are concerned, the Bible makes it clear that He is an omni-benevolent (i.e., an all-good) and righteous Judge. In his conversation with God concerning the impending judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham said, "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Genesis 18:25). David simply says in the Psalms, "and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness" (Psalm 9:8).
However, while it's true that God is all good, His nature also includes justice. Because of that, He created a realm that was designed to enact justice on those who violate His laws. Hell was originally created not for humanity, but for the devil and the angels who joined him in his rebellion against God, a fact Jesus confirms: "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'" (Matthew 25:41).
However, hell was extended to also include those from the human race that would follow the devil's rebellion. Describing an end-time judgment, Jesus acknowledged this fact: "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.' . . . 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.' . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46).
Still, the questions must be asked: why does God do this, and how can a loving God actually carry out such a sentence? Through careful thought, prayer, and a study of the Scriptures, a number of reasons emerge as to why God created an eternal hell for those who reject Him:
• God's character demands an eternal hell. Only an eternal punishment is fitting for sins committed against an eternal God. Even in this life, it is recognized that a crime must be gauged according to the worth and dignity of the person it is committed against. As an example, if a person threatens someone's life, it is not uncommon for the authorities to tell the victim they cannot act until the suspect does. But let that same individual make a threat against the President of the United States, and the law will be much swifter, more exacting, and harsher. Because all sin is vertical before it is horizontal, an eternal punishment is fitting for crimes perpetrated against an everlasting Creator.
• God's justice demands an eternal hell. It is a fact that not all evil is punished in this life, and, therefore, a punishment in the next life – which is eternal – must exist.
• God's sovereignty demands an eternal hell. Without hell, there would be no final victory over evil.
• Human dignity demands an eternal hell. A person can willingly choose to follow or reject God, knowing what consequences await. God respects the person's dignity in allowing him to make that choice.
• The cross of Christ implies an eternal hell. Why would Christ suffer and endure all that He did if there is not an unthinkable punishment awaiting those who sin against God?
Regarding how a loving God can send people to hell, we should understand two things. The first is the distinction between what is sometimes called the "antecedent" and "consequent" will of God. Thomas Aquinas explains the important difference between the two this way: "Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts."
The second thing to understand is the difference between "want" and "will." Does anyone "want" to go to hell? No. But do people "will" to go to hell? Unfortunately, the answer is, yes, many do.
Jesus addressed people in His day who "willed" to go to hell when He said, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40, emphasis added). C. S. Lewis stated the matter this way: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell chose it."
The fact is, there is a way to escape hell and the sin that brings such a terrible judgment upon us. God is indeed justice, but He is also love, and in His love He took our sins upon Himself at the cross. Christ paid the judgment in full so that we don't have to face hell. Paul writes, "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Romans 5:8–9).
On an American troopship, the soldiers crowded around their chaplain, asking, "Do you believe in hell?" "I do not", replied the chaplain. "Well, then, will you please resign, for if there is no hell, we do not need you, and if there is a hell, we do not wish to be led astray."
If there is no hell, then there is no need for a cross or a Savior. But hell is very real, and as Christian author Os Guinness says, "For some, Hell is simply a truth realized too late." It is a sobering fact that those who choose to reject Jesus in this life will have their request honored in the next by a loving God who will indeed acquiesce to their wishes and send them to the choice they themselves have made.
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