Dark clouds hide the sun

How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

  • By: Scott Stein
  • Jun 26, 2023

…if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, acceptable, awful reality… sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting “the gospel” is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn’t safe, loving, or good.
- Rob Bell, Love Wins

Is it cruel for God to send a person to hell forever? Rob Bell says “yes”.

Ask anyone on the street and they’d likely agree.

But what if that person is Hitler? Surely, we’d say in Hitler’s case that hell is justified. You might even argue it would be cruelty to the millions who were murdered and their families if God didn’t send Hitler to hell.

I know. I know. But that’s Hitler. What about just ordinary people going about their lives? Surely, none of them deserve hell. How could a loving God do that?
The answer depends entirely upon which “God” you’re talking about.

Homer Simpson’s or Isaiah’s God?

Confession: I watch the Simpsons. I’d like to tell you it’s purely for cultural research, but it’s mostly because they make me laugh.

In one episode, Homer stops going to church and has a dream about God coming to confront him. I think the scene captures a very common view of God.

Scene: God arriving in thunderclouds and lightning

God: “Thou has forsaken my church!”

Homer: “Well, kind of, but…”

God: “But what!?”

Homer: “I’m not a bad guy. I work hard and I love my kids. So why should I have to spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”

God: “Hmm…You’ve got a point there. You know, sometimes…even I’d rather be watching football.”

Homer: “So, I figure I should just try to live right – and worship you in my own way.”

God: “Homer, it’s a deal.”

The writers of the sitcom capture our culture’s God-wish: A friendly giant who just wants people to be happy and get along. (And yeah, it’s kind of funny)

But contrast this with what Isaiah sees in his vision: there are clouds and lightning, so the sitcom got that right. But the power of God is unimaginable. But let’s try. The angels cower, covering their eyes and feet. The foundation of the temple is quivering dangerously. Then, and this is so hard to imagine, thousands of angels shout (over and over again): “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

Meeting God, even in the vision, destroys Isaiah. His knees buckle. A dreaded sense of exposure paralyses him. He screams:

“Woe to me! I’m ruined! I’m an unclean sinner and I’ve just seen the King, the LORD Almighty!” (6:5)

This is no friendly coffee buddy chat (like Homer has).

Behold Your God

Homer and Isaiah have entirely different reactions because they have entirely different “Gods”.

Homer’s god is one we’ve invented. He looks like us, talks like us, acts like us and wants to be our friend.

Isaiah’s God is the God of the Bible. He’s the sovereign Creator. He is perfectly holy and righteous. He is infinite in being, knowledge, power, majesty, and worth.

He is worthy of worship.

A finite offence against an infinite God = an infinite offence

Rob Bell argues that we are finite so our sins are also finite, and therefore could never merit an infinite punishment. But his conclusion is false because his assessment of sin is based on his own sinful reasoning. To him, in his own assessment and world view, hell seems like a disproportionate consequence.

But what qualifies Bell, or anyone else for that matter, to make such a determination?

We need to be careful.

The truth about God in Scripture begins with His infinite holiness, majesty, purity, and worth.

While our sins may be finite, we’ve committed them against an infinitely holy God. So the measure of offence isn’t the finite human offender, but the infinite God who is offended.

Jonathan Edwards explains it like this:

“Our obligation to love, honor, and obey any being, is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority… So that sin against God being a violation of infinite obligation, must become a crime infinitely heinous; and so deserving of infinite punishment.”
- Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses1

But What’s the Point of Hell?

Many Christians today think that eliminating hell makes God more loving and the gospel more appealing.

But it accomplishes neither.

First, to eliminate hell means we have to dismiss God’s infinite worth and holiness. Paul says:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:12)

We’re blurred by the darkness of our sinful minds. We convince ourselves that sin is no big deal. Once our vision is blurred by our own dimmed view, we can’t comprehend the gap between our offence and God’s infinite worth.

David Kingdon writes:

“Sin against the Creator is heinous to a degree utterly beyond our sin-warped imaginations’ [ability] to conceive of…Who would have the temerity to suggest to God what the punishment…should be.”2

Second, eliminating hell invents a God who loves his creation more than he loves himself. That makes sense, doesn’t it? But wait, true love isn’t mere sentiment. It has substance. And what is the substance of God’s love that he gives to us? It’s God himself! “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and God alone is of infinite worth (Rev. 4:11), God loves us infinitely by inviting us into the eternal enjoyment of life in union with himself. Anything less would not be infinite love.

If sin is our denial of God’s infinite worth, then eliminating hell as the consequence for sin can only be done if God joins us in denying his own infinite worth. If he accepts the lie that our denial of his infinite worth is insignificant, then it is equivalent to God denying himself.

But that’s impossible. God could never do so without ceasing to be God. And even if he could, in denying his own infinite worth he would be depriving us of his infinite worth, which would empty his love of the very stuff that makes it infinite love in the first place.

As John Piper puts it:

“Hell is God’s declaration to the universe that what every sin demeans is of infinite worth.”3

In a very real way, hell serves an eternally necessary purpose: declaring along with all creation for eternity the glory of God.


Notes

1 Jonathan Edwards: “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners”, in Sermons and Discourses 1734-1738, vol. 19, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, 342-43.

2 Quoted in Wayne Grudem’s, Systematic Theology, p. 1151.

3 John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God, p. 38

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