How Can a Loving God Send Souls to Hell?
The Bible’s teaching on the reality of eternal punishment for unbelievers has perhaps “made” more atheists than any other teaching of Scripture. After expressing that he did not “believe one can grant either superlative wisdom or the superlative goodness of Christ as depicted in the Gospels,” popular early-20th-century agnostic Bertrand Russell indicated that he was not concerned about what other people said about Christ, but “with Christ as He appears in the Gospels.”1 How so? In his widely distributed pamphlet “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Russell argued, “There is one very serious defect in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospel did believe in everlasting punishment.”2
Many Christians foolishly and hypocritically avoid the Bible’s teaching on hell, but refer regularly to Scripture’s allusion to heaven. Yet, as Russell and many other critics of Christ are very well aware, according to Jesus and the Bible writers, “eternal punishment” is just as much a reality as “eternal life.” After explaining to His disciples how God will separate the righteous from the wicked at the Judgment (Matthew 25:31-45), Jesus concluded by telling them that the wicked “shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life” (25:46, ASV).3 Earlier He stated that the wicked will be sent away “into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Hell’s fire “shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:43), the figurative “worm” that eats on the flesh of hell’s inhabitants “does not die” (Mark 9:48), and the wicked who find themselves in hell (due to their rejection of God’s gracious gift of salvation through Christ) “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9, RSV). As it was in Sodom, when God “rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all, even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:29-30). Thus, as Jesus taught, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5).
Bertrand Russell accused Jesus’ preaching to be full of “vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His [Jesus’] preaching.” “You do not,” he contrasted, “find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane towards the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation.” He added:
I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world…. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.
So there you have it: how can people believe and accept the message of the chroniclers of Christ (i.e., the Gospel writers), when such accounts are full of hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching?
Consider four reasons why Jesus’ and the Bible’s teachings on hell logically should not make anyone an atheist. First, Bertrand Russell stated that he did not “feel” that any “humane” person can believe in eternal punishment, and since Christ did, then He had a “defect” in His “moral” character. Yet, truth, objectivity, and logical argumentation are not based upon people’s feelings. Atheists cannot logically condemn the Bible’s teaching about hell as objectively “inhumane” and “immoral,” while simultaneously believing that human beings arose by chance from rocks and rodents over billions of years. If an eternal, supernatural Creator does not exist, then objective4 goodness and wickedness, justice and cruelty cannot logically exist. Actual good and evil, fairness and unfairness can only exist if there is some real, objective point of reference—“some objective standard…which is other than the particular moral code and which has an obligatory character which can be recognized.”5 Indeed, the best that atheists can “argue” about the biblical teaching of hell is that they “feel” like it is “immoral,” but they cannot actually prove such.
Second, atheists and agnostics also fail in their assessment of hell because they fail to grasp what the Bible teaches about the reality, offensiveness, and severity of sin. This failure should come as no surprise because a person cannot have a proper view of sin without having a proper view of God and the Bible. Once a person comes to know that God exists and the Bible is His Word,6 he then learns that there are no “white lies,” innocent “alternative lifestyles,” or mere “affairs.” There is only Truth or lies. There is only God’s infinite right way versus all of the prideful ways of man. There is only pure holiness versus repulsive unholiness. There is only light and darkness. And, since “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), His innately pure and holy nature will not allow Him to tolerate lawlessness (Habakkuk 1:13; Isaiah 59:1-2; 1 John 3:4).
Third, God’s perfect justice demands punishment for wrongdoing. The Bible reveals that God is 100% just. There is nothing unfair about Him. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne,” exclaimed the psalmist (89:14). “All of His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). A just judge is one who shows no partiality (Deuteronomy 1:17), and God “shows no partiality nor takes a bribe” (Deuteronomy 10:17). A corrupt judge allows the guilty to go unpunished, while a just judge pronounces righteous judgment upon lawbreakers. “[H]e who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:25). The guilty cannot “buy” their way out of punishment. They can’t “flirt” their way out of righteous judgment. Similar to how citizens of an earthly kingdom rightly rejoice at the pronouncement of punishment for the wicked, humanity should rejoice that we have a just Judge who also punishes evildoers.
“But wait a minute! A just judge wouldn’t punish people forever!” Says who? Says the sinner who has a shallow, flippant view of the wretchedness of sin and the holiness of God? Says the sinner who did the crime but doesn’t like the time? Says the person who is not perfectly impartial? Says the person who knows virtually nothing compared to the omniscience of God? What’s more, aren’t just and fair sentences and punishments (even in the physical realm) often much, much longer than the amount of time the crime actually took to commit? A man can murder an innocent person in only one second and yet justly spend the next 1.5 billion seconds (or 50 years) in prison. Certainly the thought of being punished forever and ever is a sobering, scary thought, but in truth, only the omniscient, infinitely wise, and perfectly just Judge is in a position to decide appropriate punishment for unforgiven sin. In truth, a rejection of God based upon the biblical teaching of hell is a rejection based upon emotion, not evidence.
Fourth and finally, though “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and though all sinners deserve eternal punishment, because of God’s perfect love, no one has to go to hell. God has given us an all-powerful, spiritual lifeline (Romans 1:16). Indeed, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Some unbelievers love to talk about God’s “vindictive fury,” but they willfully ignore the overall theme of the Bible—“God is love” (1 John 4:8). He doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). From the moment wretched sin entered the world, God began revealing His answer to the sin problem (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3). Following thousands of years of promises and prophecies throughout the Old Testament pointing to the ultimate “Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), “God sent forth His son” to redeem the slaves of sin to become children of God (Galatians 4:4-5). “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17). Indeed, God is so loving that He not only warned us of the eternal consequences of unforgiven sin,7 but even when we succumbed to sin, God took upon Himself the punishment for our sins, that we might be saved! So why will many people still go to eternal hell? Because they choose to. Because they “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was [they were] sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29).
1 Bertrand Russell (1927), “Why I Am Not a Christian,” https://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html, emp. added.
3 For a detailed response to annihilationists who claim “eternal” hell is not a reference to “time” or “duration,” but only an allusion to its “nature,” see Eric Lyons and Kyle Butt (2005), “The Eternality of Hell [Parts 1 & 2], Apologetics Press, Reason & Revelation, January & February, https://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1474&topic=427; https://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1475.
4 Independent of people’s feelings.
5 Thomas B. Warren and Wallace I. Matson (1978), The Warren-Matson Debate (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press), p. 284.
6 See Eric Lyons and Kyle Butt (2017), Reasons to Believe (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), pp. 1-50.
7 Though Bertrand Russell criticized Christ for preaching on hell, while praising Socrates for being “bland and urbane towards people who would not listen to him,” Socrates was not dealing with the absolute, most important message that man could ever hear: the way to eternal life versus the tragedy of eternal punishment. Logically speaking, Jesus’ warning others about hell was one of the most loving things that He (or anyone) could preach. After all, if His preaching on hell convinced men to follow God’s gracious “way” to eternal life (John 14:6), then He saved them from eternal death. No one thinks of firemen, policemen, or doctors as being unkind when they warn others of potential physical harm or death, so how could anyone logically argue that Jesus was being unkind when He warned His hearers of the greatest tragedy of all—eternal, spiritual separation from God?
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