colvmbiana asked a question:
I love God very much. But I recently saw a post on my dash that said, “How can a loving God send people to Hell?” and now I can’t stop thinking about that. How can He?
Hey dear friend, I truly struggle with this doctrine too, and if it were up to me, I’d be done with the whole idea of hell in a heartbeat. But I do want to consider the question, “How can a loving God send people to Hell?” — and examine the words loving, send, and hell.
First I have to say: I’m not sure that any Christian is irrevocably bound to believe the doctrine of hell. I know Christians who believe it and some who don’t. I love them both. We must not make the ancient mistake that 1) our theology is only about “consequences,” because it’s primarily about intimacy and oneness with God, and 2) to bicker over such dogmatic differences. Too many people wrongly emphasize the doctrine of hell as a motivation for Christianity, and that’s a false phantom motive that boils down to, “Date me or I’ll punch you in the face.” If there really is a place called hell and people are going, then 1) no one would become a Christian just by trying to “avoid” hell, and 2) the devil would love to have us arguing about it instead of loving on people towards God.
The following are some thoughts to consider. Please feel free to disagree, to fill in, to discern and to question and to dismantle. I recognize that many of us are appalled at the idea of hell and find it atrocious, and I’m with you: I hold the same feelings, while pondering the gravity and depth of its possibilities. There are no easy, satisfying answers here, but only ruminations, in which you and I must land on a conclusion, however differently.
1) Hell couldn’t be just for anyone. No one could be “sent” there. It would be hard work to get into hell.
C.S. Lewis says, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside.” What he means is, getting to hell takes a massive amount of effort over a lifetime.
I think it’s a lot harder to get into hell than we think. A prison, at least in its original intentions, isn’t meant for someone accidentally wandering in without effort or knowledge. Hell is designed for the unrepentant, remorseless, unconscionable person who is deliberately dead-set on chaos and sadism. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That sort of person is rare, but they exist.
In tiny blips throughout history, someone will perpetually abuse their own singular life to the point of irreversible perversion, and very consciously choose everything against God’s design of love, compassion, and generosity. I believe that the idea of hell, in its purest conception, is a place exclusively reserved for that kind of cruelty. I might even replace the word “hell” with justice, or safety, or balance.
Of course, anyone can be rehabilitated. I will always believe that. I would never ever be satisfied at anyone going to hell, not even at the worst sort of criminal. Anyone who relishes the thought of someone going to hell must really re-think their own sanity. I believe that God gives a billion chances, over and over, all throughout Scripture. Many of our “Bible heroes” were murderers and tyrants and cheaters who reformed. Yes, there is grace even for child molesters and kidnappers. That’s the craziness of grace. If you care even the slightest about God’s divine heart for the world, then no, I highly doubt you’ll fall into hell.
2) I’ve discovered that hell is an uncomfortable idea for middle-upper-class privileged Westerners, but so much more palatable for every other society and culture—especially when hell is re-framed as the cosmic answer to evil.
Hell is certainly a distasteful idea, but let’s consider: My friend’s mother grew up during the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. She watched five of her brothers shot in the head. She saw the absolute worst injustice of the “killing fields” in Cambodia as a young child, and the memories of blood and gore haunt her every nightmare.
Where is the justice for dictators like Pol Pot and his entire regime? What prevents my friend’s mother from picking up a weapon and going on a rampage of vengeance to scorch the earth of her captors? What would truly prevent a cycle of violent retaliation in such a cruel, oppressive culture?
The thing is, most of us reading this live in the suburban quiet of an idyllic first-world gated community. We’re intoxicated by luxury. We have been naive and sheltered about endless tribal violence. Certainly, we have not been touched by war in the same way that my own parents have—my dad, at ten years old, was covered by his mother’s body as war planes dropped bombs on rooftops, and years later, my dad was captured and tortured by the Viet Cong, escaping only to find that they had gone back to his previous camp and killed every single man, woman, and child there in the slowest ways possible. Can you imagine? Because I cannot.
You and I don’t know that sort of trauma. And if you do, then you may instinctively long for a sweeping justice of evil. Most people already believe in the idea of hell, whether they admit it or not, because they believe in justice, fairness, and the hope that we will be held accountable. At the risk of unfairly generalizing, I believe that most people troubled by the idea of hell have probably never been troubled by much else, and have been lucky to live a relatively charmed life bereft of suffering or consequence.
3) A loving God does not mean a God who lets people off the hook.
For every story that you read of a five-year-old raped and killed, or a single mother made mentally disabled by a home invasion, or third-world children shot in the street, there is outrage, and rightly so. Any other reaction is coldhearted privilege. Let’s take the news story of an eighteen year old boy who was molesting an eleven-year-old: the molester was beat up by the eleven-year-old’s father until his eyes were swollen shut. It turned out the molester had been taking advantage of the boy for three years. While I’m not a fan of comment sections on any article, the comments reflected what we were all thinking: the father did exactly what we would do if we found our eleven year old son being molested.
In all of us, there’s an inherent, innate sense of justice, and it’s mostly luxury-bound Westerners who have the most trouble comprehending that justice is crucial to our world for the suffering and traumatized.
A loving God isn’t one who turns a blind eye to the plight of the ostracized, marginalized, and minimized—whether in this life or the next. A God who isn’t against injustice wouldn’t be God at all. Love has to include justice, truth, discipline, and rebuke, or else you have a remote-control God who only does your bidding, and then we’re not talking about God anymore but an enabling abused spouse who only caters to your whims.
If you love in such a way that “you can do whatever you please,” then you couldn’t possibly be truly loving, because boundaries exist to protect our safety, and actual love is for the best of a person, not their pleasure. Pleasure is not the ultimate goal. Love balances perfectly with truth, with harmony, with the scales made even. The Christian God, of any faith system, is the most splendid mix of both love and truth that aims for our best.
4) We have no clue how God is working with each individual in their own complicated journey of piecing together the Divine.
When someone tells me, “You have to know Jesus to get into Heaven!”—I have to ask, “How much do you need to know? What is the exact amount of Christian theology that wins someone into Heaven? What about a five year old? What about a kid with Down syndrome? What about those tiny huts in third world countries where no one’s seen a Bible? What about an eighty year old at his deathbed with five minutes left? Can you even tell me exactly what you believe? Are you believing for the right reasons? How do you know?”
The thing is, most people use their own normative standard to judge someone else as “acceptable” or “unrighteous,” but you and I are not the judge of that. God has such a wide grace that we can’t possibly judge who has “enough knowledge” to “get saved.” We don’t know the cut-off point between Heaven and hell. Only God knows who belong to Him (2 Timothy 2:19). We have no idea how God is working with each individual. My guess is that His grace is so absolutely encompassing that He works differently with each person and how they’re wired, according to the grace given them, in accordance with a perfectly crafted love and justice that only God would have the power to wield.
5) If hell does exist, Jesus already paid for it.
When someone tells me, “It’s not fair that a loving God made a hell!”—I never hear anyone also say, “It’s not fair that Jesus had to pay hell for us!”
Think of it: Christianity is the only religion in which the Creator was the architect of a prison for the sinful selfish rebel, and then He Himself carried out the sentence of His own prison so that we could be freely loved. No one talks about that part. Maybe we’re scared that it’s too easy. But that’s the recklessness of grace. God opened His arms that wide.
You see, any plain idea of God could “love” with sentimentality. Jesus could’ve silently forgiven us from a basement and drank poison to die quietly. But only costly love could be real love, because love without a cost is cheap and merely out of surplus. Only love with a cost is electrifying, galvanizing, tenderizing, and transforming. Only love that paid the cost of justice would ever set us free. That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t merely love us by sentimental notions or verbal pledge. He was flesh, he was vulnerable, he absorbed our darkness, he took on our pain, and in solidarity brought us into union with himself. He is not just the way to Heaven, but Heaven in and of Himself.