Why would a Good God create Hell?
This is the question almost every devout atheist will ask of those who call themselves Christian’s. In recent years many Christian leaders, in an effort to address the emotional aspect of an eternal hell have done biblical gymnastics to address it.
I want to be up front that I won't do justice to understanding this topic... it is my hope to inspire others to dig into truth themselves!
CS Lewis said of hell:
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”
One may ask, what is the harm in a teaching that makes hell more attractive. On its surface it sounds logical after all. Hell sounds awful… and of course we have all heard the question “How can a loving God send people into eternal punishment?”. The problem is that the question is based on our own limited understanding of who God is… and of His nature.
Let’s start our conversation by talking about the North American justice system. We would like to think we have a balanced justice system… but in reality it vacillates between extreme harshness and leniency. Currently our justice system is extremely lenient… this has resulted in lawlessness and rampant crime in many parts of both the USA and Canada. By making the punishment lenient we have created a condition where justice is increasingly non-existent. This of course reflects what is happening in the North American Church. Passionate and well meaning leaders have sought to align the Bible and Christianity to the current lenient culture. Instead of grappling with hard biblical truth… they have begun to rebrand it - albeit with good intentions.
Several years ago I grappled with the idea of annihilism myself… I to started down this road! As as I studied this topic I found that the Bible, and in particular the words of Jesus did not diminish hells severity, nor it's length for that matter.
In Matthew 25 Jesus explains a bit of the eternal nature of punishment in a message about the kingdom of Heaven:
“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.””
The Greek word eternal “aiónios” is used to describe both heaven and hell in terms of the length of the punishment. As such, if both heaven and hell are discussed in an eternal perspective… we must then be willing to also make concessions on whether heaven is eternal. We cannot choose to accept Gods mercy... and then attempt to limit his justice.
This is hard…
To be clear… I don’t see indications in the New Testament where God calls us to use the fear of hell to scare people into Heaven. I remember this awful 90s drama that was touring many evangelical Churches. It was basically a repeat of various scenarios where someone was mean or did not accept Christ and then they died and were sent to either heaven or hell. Honestly it was horrid theology... and while it would have scared some people straight it perpetuated ideas that were based on cherry picked scriptures instead of sound teaching. I don’t see the apostles doing this in Acts… it is not taught in the letters of the apostles either. It is a message, but not the primary message. The message of Christs redeeming love is the primary message!
All this said, our modern culture-soaked mind along with all its limited understanding of eternity or of a world without time finds offence in the Justice we read about. Some of these passages are difficult to read - particularly without understanding the full context and Gods eternal perspective.
We need to come to the place where we can rest in Gods perfect justice... that He knows what He is doing and that no one will get a raw deal or be denied opportunity to make a decision for Christ fairly.
“If you think that Jesus taught only the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor, then you should reread the New Testament. Pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display when Jesus returns to earth trailing clouds of glory”
But then, as Bertrand Russell wrote in a 1927 essay:
“There is one very serious defect to my mind 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.”
Is Bertrand right? Does Christ have a moral character flaw?
Let’s unravel this thought...
Imagine you are a single girl and a guy that is perfect asks you out. You reject him repeatedly because you don’t want to settle down, life is great and you have plenty of time. Eventually he just leaves you alone and moves on. A few years pass and you find out he’s married to someone else and they are living the dream life you could have had. You remember how you rejected him. Who’s fault is it that it’s not you in this dream life? You chose it! If the dream guy would have pursued you relentlessly he would have been a stalker. Instead he was a gentleman and he just chose to respect your wishes not to spend time with him. You are left alone.
This is not perhaps the greatest example however I think it does help us make a step towards understanding that the choice is ours.
A good God would not force His presence on us. In it’s simplest form… Hell is separation from God. God is giving us what we asked for… nothing to do with Him.. a full divorce. Seperation for eternity.
G. K. Chesterton says of hell;
“Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.”
We have these ideas about hell that are formed from incorrect teaching, cartoons, movies and Church teachings that are not entirely based in scriptures.
In the Book “Is God Just a Human Invention?” by Sean McDowell, Jonathan Morrow we read:
“We can capture Jesus’ teaching on hell in three vivid images. First, he spoke of “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” (Matthew 25, verses 41 and 46). On another occasion, he spoke of hell as a place of “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25 verse 30) Finally, he talked of the destruction of the soul. (Matthew 10 verse 28) Considering the limited time that Jesus had to get his message out, the fact that he frequently taught on the reality of hell should cause the modern reader to take notice. He obviously thought hell was too important to leave unaddressed.*”
It seems increasingly obvious that hell is real, that Jesus taught about it and that it is not something that has a forecasted ending, even a rudimentary study of the Bible and it’s linguistics shows us that hell is real and eternal. This leaves us with a question:
What is hell?
Again, quoting from “Is God Just a Human Invention?” by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow:
“The images of darkness and fire appear contradictory, but they should be regarded as symbols pointing to a reality more horrific than either symbol can convey by itself. In fact, biblical images of hell leave many details to the imagination, perhaps because no picture is capable of doing justice to the reality.” - Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
In essence, If heaven is the completion of our relationship with God, then hell is the deterioration of our relationship with God. In heaven we find our relationship fulfilled, in hell it is severed."
The Darkness spoken of by Jesus is a complete separation of relationships. Since we have been constantly exposed to imagery of flames and darkness we forget that the torment of hell is largely relational.
The apostle Paul says of Hell:
“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,”
2 Thessalonians 1:9
It is interesting to note that the Greek word away means separation… "apart from". The Greek word for our English “from the presence” roughly translates as "face".
Let’s read this in the amplified version:
“Such people will pay the penalty and suffer the punishment of everlasting ruin (destruction and perdition) and eternal exclusion and banishment from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,”
I should point out as well the Greek word for “eternal destruction” here does not specify extinction, rather it implies ruin, it implies “consequent loss that goes with the complete "undoing."
Tim Keller says further to this:
“Modern people inevitably think hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says “Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!” This caricature misunderstands the very nature of evil.
The Biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God, which is the source of all joy and indeed of all love, wisdom, or good things of any sort. Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential…. To lose his presence totally, that would be hell—the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy.”
Hell is a constant never ending decomposition of humanities failures… it is an escalation of the rot we see today in the world.
Tim Keller offers further insight into this:
“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 piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing 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-centered life, going on and on forever.”
Some of us have this idea that God will be roasting humans over a fire for eternity… when in reality hell is in its simplest form… God removing His presence from those who rejected him. We make the choice where we end up. Hell is ultimately defined by what is not there… not what is there.
What is not there is the author of life and all that is good. What is left when goodness is removed?
But then we ask, “If God is love then why can’t he just forgive everyone and start over?”.
JI Packer says this:
“Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints, be morally praiseworthy and perfect?
Moral indifference would be imperfection in God, not a perfection. But not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.”
Michael J. Murray writes:
“Why does hell have to last forever? Biblical teaching does not allow for the two responses of annihilationism and universalism, which both run into conceptual difficulties. So if hell is forever (as Jesus taught), then why? How can someone sinning in a finite lifetime earn an eternity in hell? The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. Two reasonable explanations have been offered. First, people continue to sin in hell. Their rebellion has not ceased; they still don’t want God and thus incur further punishment. Or second, their rebellion against an infinite God warrants an eternal debt to be paid. **
Personally, I’d much rather be studying heaven and it’s rewards. The only reason I chose this topic is because there is a great deal of misinformation and clutter on the existence of hell. We cannot wish it away and any biblical acrobatics simply do not add up when one reads the texts that reference judgement throughly.
On who’s going to heaven? I think we will be surprised by how many people make it. I am constantly in awe of Gods mercy…
Here are a few people to consider:
There was Rahab, who was not Jewish but a prostitute who chose to follow God, she is listed in the lineage of Jesus Christ.
There was Matthew the tax collector… a man given to greed until he met and followed Christ!
Of course there’s Paul, a man who put Christian’s to death until he met and followed Jesus!
We can’t forget David, a man who killed Uriah the husband of Bathsheba to cover up his affair with her. He sought God and was considered righteous by Gods mercy.
Then, the most shocking of all... we come across the thief on the cross. He simply turned to Jesus and asked him to "remember him" when he got to heaven… to that request Jesus said “today you will be with me in paradise”. This man "made it" with no confession prayer, no baptism, no testimony night... it is his simple acknowledgment he needed help to get there and that Jesus could make it happen.
And then there is me… a man who has failed God many times - and yet I have also found salvation through Jesus Christ. He has cleaned me up and replaced my story with his… and I am grateful!
And then there is you! I hope to see you there my friend! The invite is sent! Just waiting on the rsvp. If you made a decision for Christ reading this please do message me and let me know!
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,”
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**For more, see Michael J. Murray, “Heaven and Hell,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray”
— Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell, Jonathan Morrow