Asking good questions is the foundation of the learning process.
The form in which a question comes is as important as the answer that is given, because the question can reveal some assumptions and expectations of the questioner. To simply answer a question without first recognizing the questioner as a real person with a real background including real joys and pains, is to ignore the eternal nature of that person, and the image of whom he/she is created.
One of the things that I love about what I do is the opportunity to engage in deep, meaningful conversations about the harder questions of life. Often these questions come from students, at other times they come from parents, or other church members. Nevertheless, the best questions are those that come from the hearts of people who are seeking the truth. The question about God’s goodness, and questions concerning eternity, are often at the forefront of faith because they beg the ultimate question, “Will I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
The question, “How can a loving/good God condemn people to hell?” can be broken down into at least four more basic questions.
Does God exist?
Is God good?
Does Hell exist?
Does God condemn anyone to Hell?
The answers to these questions have been hotly debated for millennia by individuals far smarter than myself, so I will try to make my answers concise. References to my position, or opposing positions will be made so that the reader can come to their own conclusion. So lets begin.
Does God exist?
Without plunging into the labyrinth of the existence of a deity, the more important question for our discussion today is, “Does the God of the Bible exist?” The answer to that question is almost as cumbersome as the general assertion in “Higher Powers,” but at least we have a starting point. The original question established a baseline assumption that God is good, and that hell exists, so the questioner is hoping the answer rests within the context of the Judeo-Christian God and Judeo-Christian sacred text. As a result, we will be deriving our answers from the Bible, which minces no words when it comes to the existence of God.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. – Genesis 1:1 [ESV]
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:14 [ESV]
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 [ESV]
Again, being that the original question assumes the existence of a God, we won’t belabor this point, but will press on. ***Additional Reading regarding the existence of the God of the Bible can be found: The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel; or Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharius
Is God good?
For the believer, the question usually conjures one of two different emotions. First is the assurance that our God is good as evidenced by Christ’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. The assertion that God is good is at the heart of our story because, how is it that we come to know God outside of his mercy and grace? Others among the faith feel that this question is an indictment against God, and respond to any question about God’s goodness with contempt and anger. However, responses like these simply should not be present among believers for two primary reasons.
First, the asker has every right to question our gospel, and without evidence of God’s goodness, they ask an important question that should lead us as believers to site evidence of God’s goodness.
Secondly, what kind of puny god can’t be questioned?
Questioning God’s existence or goodness doesn’t damage God in the least. Quite the contrary, when individuals ask for evidence, and such evidence is provided, the case for a good God becomes all the more believable.
Outside of scriptural references to the goodness of God, C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to The Problem of Pain, discusses the contradictory relationship between nature and the notion of a “good” God. When the frigid expanse of space is coupled with the profound isolation of Earth, how is it that our intellectual ancestors, failing to understand a mere fraction of how cold and isolated they really were, proposed the notion of a good God?
But all civilizations pass away and, even while they remain, inflict peculiar sufferings of their own probably sufficient to outweigh what alleviations they may have brought to the normal pains of man. That our own civilization has done so, no one will dispute; that it will pass away like all its predecessors is surely probable. Even if it should not, what then? The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit
There was one question which I never dreamed of raising. I never noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists’ case at once poses us a problem. If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?
Lewis goes on to postulate that the very notion of a creator who is both all-powerful and completely good is the product of either an absurd fantasy, or divine revelation.
Some philosophers attempt to site perceived inconsistencies within the Bible itself as evidence contradicting the idea that the God of the Bible is good. However, within the text itself, references are made to the extraordinary patience God has for mankind. Nonetheless, references often include, the Great Flood (Genesis 5-10), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-19:38), the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6), and the relegation of all non-believers at the end times (Revelation 19:11-20:15).
However, in each of these cases, except for the destruction of Jericho, scripture references the wickedness of the people who were being destroyed. Each passage listed illustrates God’s repulsion toward wickedness; and his response to a culture overrun with wickedness is consistent; God will judge the wicked.
In the case of Jericho, it is important to understand that God did not act outside of his nature by unjustly destroying a city. Instead, we must look to other passages of scripture that illustrate the culture at work in the city of Jericho to ascertain some of the motivations1 of God (Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-31; etc.). In spite of the lack of overt references to the level of wickedness at work in the rituals of the people of Jericho, along with the rest of Canaan at the time of the Hebrew conquest, the worship of Baal in the region of Canaan consisted of a variety of wicked practices including sodomy, bestiality, and child sacrifice.
Some may read this and ask, “What gives God the authority to determine what is right and wrong?” These same people may attempt to maneuver the hurdles of human logic and moral economy to convince others that the God of the Bible has no right to condemn those who are simply, “acting in the nature of their own condition.” But that would be the same as my 3-year-old son judging my authority at bedtime. Bedtime is arbitrary in his eyes, and the line drawn seems harsh in relation to his desire to stay up longer, but the issue is one of obedience, not one of pragmatic intellectualism. My son cannot comprehend the rationale of bedtime, nor will he soon come to grasp that my response to his disobedience is an act of love, but at some point in his life I expect that he will agree with my decision, and be grateful for the loving boundaries I have set for him. However, in no way am I setting these boundaries in hopes that my son will some day love me for the decisions I have made. I act now in response to my overwhelming desire for his good, and for his flourishing. To act in another way would be wicked.
Infinitely more important, the existence of an omnipotent and omnipresent God draws forth the notion that the economy of said deity is all but incomprehensible to those of us bound to mortal bodies.
Does Hell exist?
Prior to a couple of years ago, I didn’t really think anybody questioned this point. However, there are several schools of thought that debate the existence, severity, or duration of hell. Being that the word hell does not appear in the original Hebrew or Greek texts, some see the concept of hell as a simple metaphor. In the book of Matthew, Jesus references the actual place outside of Jerusalem called Gehenna, and somewhere along the line, Christians started translating Gehenna into the English word Hell. In their eyes, the idea of hell is more of an object lesson, rather than a spiritual destination.
Others see it as a compound reference to the metaphorical condition of man outside a relationship with God, a real warning to a particular group of people at a particular point in time, as well as an eternal place of judgment for those who do not know God at the end of time.
While speaking to a group of Pharisees, Jesus began a list of woes (final judgments) and concluded these statements with a final question:
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? – Matthew 23:33 [ESV]
However, being that the word “hell” does not appear in the original language, how should we interpret this passage?
A more literal translation would be, “Serpents, offspring of vipers, how escape you from the judgment of Gehenna?”2
The Greek word for judgment used in the text is Krisis, which is defined as: Judgment (human or divine), justice, the concept of determining the correctness of a matter; negatively, punishment, condemnation.3
On the surface, especially to the original audience of the day, Jesus is illustrating the impending doom of the lifestyle and philosophy of the Pharisee/Sadducee/Scribe in their practice of religiosity and the condemnation of everyone who could not live up to their particular brand of legal interpretation. Jesus is condemning them as refuse, or waste that should be cast into the valley and burned.
An additional layer of condemnation for that particular audience may be the prophetic nature of the statement. In the year 70AD, the city of Jerusalem was sacked by Rome, the temple destroyed, and many of the religious elite were taken to the valley of Gehenna, killed and burned. It is possible that some who heard these words from the mouth of Jesus were among those killed by Rome.
The final layer of interpretation for contemporary Christians is the context of eternal damnation for failure to believe in Christ as Savior and Lord. In this layer of interpretation, one must reference the White Throne Judgment:
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:15 [ESV]
In this passage a phrase is used to describe the final destination of those not found in the Book of Life. The destination is not “Hell,” but instead the “Lake of Fire.” Literally translated: Lemne (Lake) of Pyr (Fire). 3
Exactly what, where, how, when, and for how long this “Lake of Fire” event will endure is uncertain. However, it is evident that there seems to be some kind of terminus for individuals who reject the Lordship of Christ Jesus.
Does God condemn anyone to Hell?
Perspective, more than anything else, sets our ultimate trajectory in regards to philosophy. Cultural statements like: outside looking in, in-crowd, half empty vs. half full, top down, and bottoms up, are representative of perspective. Sometimes, questions are asked in an effort to determine the perspective of an individual. The thought is that the individual is likely to make future decision based on their overarching/general perspective in life.
For example, in the course of being interviewed by a church, I was asked to define my outlook on life. The questioner asked, “Do you consider yourself to be an Optimist or a Pessimist?”
My response was, “Neither. I am a Realist.”
Not satisfied with my answer, the interviewer tried to dig a little deeper with, “Is the glass half-empty, or half-full?”
“Neither. And Both. And None of the above.” I commented. “The glass can be neither half-full nor half-empty because the terms Empty and Full are absolutes. The glass is both half-empty and half-full if you are only interested in the relationship between the fluid level and the bottom or top of the glass. Or you could say that the answer depends on the state of the glass prior to its current situation. Was it being filled, and stopped midway through, or was it being consumed and that process halted? Moreover, the question of the height of the fluid must come subsequent to other questions like; What’s in the glass? Do I need that fluid or a different one? Why do I need the fluid? How much do I need?”
Somewhere along the way I realized that I had missed the point altogether. They wanted to know if I was going to be an encouragement to the overall mission of the church, or if I was going to constantly demoralize the congregation.
It’s easy to see how perspective can influence your view. I was so dead set on being argumentative, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees (another great analogy of perspective). Similarly, individuals who ask questions about Hell often phrase their question in a way that reveals their ultimate perspective. For example, if I ask whether or not God condemns people to hell, it may be assumed that I am placing the entire issue in the hands of God, as if people and their actions play no discernable roll in the process.
Without getting into the Calvin/Arminius argument, it is apparent to me that a choice is given to man. A choice is given in regards to the issue of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and the Lordship of the Risen Christ.
9 …because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:9-13
It appears to me that an individual who hears the story of Jesus Christ, and who understands the implication of that story, will be held accountable for the decision they make in regards to belief.
This issue is incredibly complex, and I am not trying to oversimplify the journey that some have endured. However, the truth of belief in Jesus Christ is a simple one – Not at all easy, but simple nonetheless.
Do you believe?
I believe that your response to that question is the defining perspective of your life.
It’s not a question of half-full or half-empty, or greener grass beyond fence. The question of how you will respond to the story of Jesus Christ will create the foundation of your worldview. How you see what you see is wrapped up in how you see Jesus.
So the question of God condemning nonbelievers to hell is not so much a question of God’s action in the end, as it is a question of our action here and now.
Also, be careful to focus on your own heart before running off to some distant hypothesis about what happens to those who have never heard the gospel. The fact of the matter is, you have heard. And you, and you alone will be held accountable for your response.
Simply put, a righteous judge will pass a righteous verdict of condemnation if sufficient evidence is presented, regardless of his or her own discomfort in the process.
So, how does a loving/good God condemn people to hell?
The way I see it, He doesn’t condemn anyone who has not first condemned him or herself. It is out of His goodness, love, and mercy that we are given an opportunity for redemption and restoration. Furthermore it is an act of righteousness and justice that those who fail to yield to God’s rule on earth are condemned to spend eternity in the unrestrained wrath of God. For God to react in any other way would be evidence of his failure to be righteous, just, or good.
As always, I eagerly await your comments, and discussion. May we all be ready to ask good questions, and may our ears be attentive to hear the truth.
1 God cannot be motivated because there is nothing in existence that can apply any kind of force upon the Creator. Additionally, being that God is fully content in himself, there is nothing that can lure or draw God to act in a way outside of his nature. The word motivation use is intended to illustrate the self-derived impetus of God’s activity.
2 Marshal, A. (1993). The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
3 Strong, J., Kohlenberger, J. R., & Swanson, J. A. (2001) The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan