Many skeptics contend that it seems unjust and immoral for a supposedly loving God to send good people to a place of fiery damnation to be tortured for all eternity, simply for not believing in Jesus.
In responding to this contention, it is helpful to firstly clarify what is meant by the word ‘hell’. In our day and age, when most people hear the word hell they think of a place of eternal physical punishment filled with fire and brimstone, like a fiery torture chamber run by little red demons with horns and pitchforks. This is a painful caricature. So, how is hell to be understood really?
It must be said that there are many instances in the Bible where hell is described as a lake of fire and burning sulphur. Even Jesus himself referred to it as a place of fire (Mark 9:48). However, as we read the Bible we must understand when words are being used literally or figuratively. Jesus also referred to hell as a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13). If taken literally, these two descriptors of hell given by Jesus seem contradictory. How can hell be full of fire and therefore light, while also being consumed by total darkness? Jesus is known for using metaphors to help explain difficult concepts, so his listeners would understand. Here it seems reasonable to hold that Jesus was speaking figuratively, using objects and ideas we can understand to help explain the foreign nature of hell.
Hell is perhaps best understood by what is not there. The apostle Paul describes it as a place “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Try to imagine a place completely void of God, who is the source of love, beauty, peace, joy, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, acceptance, laughter, fulfilment, and everything else that is called good. A place without God is a place of total and eternal hopelessness, fear, hatred, depression, anxiety, jealousy, bitterness, anger, rage and loneliness. Such a place would be hell – literally. The anguish of existing in such a place would be excruciating, much like being trapped in a lake of fire or completely lost in total darkness.
It has been noted that the metaphor of hell being like a lake of fire refers to the decomposition of the soul. It describes the never-ending disintegration of all that is good in a person. Christian apologists Josh & Sean McDowell note that, “…we are living souls that are becoming something. We are either becoming a person who is unselfishly loving God, and others, which is real life, or we are selfishly loving ourselves, which is real death.”
Pastor, apologist and author Timothy Keller provides further insight into this concept:
"Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self- centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to perceiving bitterness, nauseating envy, paralysing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?” Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centred life, going on and on forever."
Jesus warned us; “If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. And how do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose or forfeit your own soul in the process?” (Luke 9:24-25).
Now that we’ve got a better understanding of the true nature of hell, let’s look at God’s nature and the contention that He sends people to hell.
The Bible makes it clear that God “does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9). God so loves the world that He gave His only begotten son Jesus, that whosoever believes in Him will not be separated from God but rather will enjoy eternity in Heaven in His presence; experiencing a relationship with Him - the very source of love, joy, peace, goodness, and truth.
God loves us and as such has given us the freedom to either choose or reject Him. He will not force us to love Him and enjoy a relationship with Him. In the end, God doesn’t send anybody to Hell; they make a free choice to reject Him. The famous English writer C.S. Lewis noted that, “All that are in hell choose it…the door to hell is locked on the inside.” Lewis also added that, “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.” We have the freedom to choose God or reject Him. However, we don’t have the freedom or power to avoid the negative consequences of rejecting the very source of love, joy, peace, truth and all goodness. When people choose to serve themselves instead of serving God, they ultimately choose a place void of relationship and full of self – a place best described as hell.
At this point many skeptics may still ask does it not seem unjust and immoral for God to send people to hell, who may not believe in Jesus but are nevertheless still good, decent human beings? This raises several important questions: what do we mean by good? Is there any such thing as a good person? What standard are we using to determine whether someone is good or not? The Bible makes it clear that we all fall short of the glory of God. Jesus said it’s out of the heart that sinfulness comes. Just a moment of introspection will reveal that we are all sinful and broken. We are given to pride, selfishness, arrogance, envy, deception, lying, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, anger, rage, lust, and the list goes on and on. We might think of ourselves as good because we don’t break the law or because we love and care for our families and friends. But compared to God, the source and standard of goodness we can never measure up based on our own efforts and merit.
Now you might be thinking, well if God is all loving why doesn’t He just forgive us and allow everyone into Heaven? It’s important that we don’t limit our understanding of God’s nature. While God is all loving, He is also infinitely holy and righteous and His justice must be satisfied. There are inevitable negative consequences for rejecting God.
But God hasn’t just created us with free will and then condemned us for rebelling. He is also all loving and has made a way out for us: a way for us to be reconciled to Him. Jesus Christ took the punishment of our sins upon himself on the cross. If we will repent, turn to God, and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we will not perish but have everlasting life.
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Further reading recommendations
'Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone go to Heaven?' by Timothy Keller, R Albert Mohler (Jr), J I Packer, et.
'How Could a Loving God Send Anyone to Hell' by Benjamin Skaug, James Anderson, and Greg Welty.
'Four Views on Hell' by Denny Burk, John Stackhouse, Robin Parry, and Preston Sprinkle
'What Kind of God?' by Michael Ots
'Is Hell for Real?' by Erik Raymond
'The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask' by Mark Mittelberg