I love this time of year. We decorate our homes with tinsel, nativity scenes and snow globes. And of course, the tree!
Christmas is a time when most families come together to share gifts, stories, laughter and love. For others it is a bittersweet time, or even a painfully lonely time. Despite the rampant commercialism, encroaching secularism and yes – the stress – Christmas day still points to and commemorates one of the most important days on the Christian calendar, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
As Christians it is a time we can unashamedly share the Good News of Jesus and have reason to invite people to Church. Despite the prevalence of gifts and delicious food and all those jolly men in red suits, the foundation of the Christmas celebration in western culture is still Jesus’s birth and because of this our conversations can more easily turn to God and the true meaning of Christmas. The conversations can be light and friendly or, because our current culture questions everything, we can find ourselves faced with some tough questions about our faith. One of the most asked questions and possibly the hardest to answer is:
“But if God is so loving, how could He send people to hell?”
I’ll be honest, the first time someone asked me this question, I fell silent. It was a question I personally struggled to find an answer for. The biblical concepts of an all-loving God and the terrifying descriptions of Hell were too incongruent. With a primary focus on our Loving God in current sermons and writings, I began to wonder if Hell did actually exist and if God really would send people there.
Yet, although Hell has largely disappeared from current Christian conversations, it has not disappeared from the Bible. There are many verses in the Scriptures that forewarn of it. Jesus warned of Hell more than He discussed heaven.1 Despite its awfulness, biblical authority won and I could not deny Hell’s existance.
To find some clarity on this tough doctrine we can look at three attributes of God. First, God is Holy – perfectly pure in a way we can barely imagine from our earthly perspective so marred by sin. Sin can be described as a corruption of good that affects both the natural realm and our internal selves – damaging our character and spirit by turning our focus inward, rather than outward in worship to God. It is as impossible for sin to exist in God’s Holy presence, as it is impossible that a tissue can survive a burning flame. God hates sin and all it does to humanity.2 Rebecca Manly Pippert put it well in her book Hope has its reasons,
‘Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.’3
Second, God is Just. There will be a time when He will set things right and complete justice will prevail. He is also just, in that He will never force us into a relationship with Him. If we spend our lives denying God, refuting Him and refusing Him, it would not be just for Him to force us to then live eternally in constant fellowship with Him.4
Third, God is Love. His love for humanity is all encompassing, and incredibly patient. Although we sometimes wish He’d quickly rid the world of evil, His love for us means He is waiting for as many people as possible to turn to Him.5 I’m personally grateful He waited for me! The evil in the world is a result of our having free will. We have the choice to love God and follow His ways and we have the choice to deny Him and follow our own ways. It follows then, that when we die, our choice to be in relationship with Him, or not, would also be honored. It would not be a loving or just act for God to force us to be with Him for all eternity. There has to be a hell, a place of complete separation from God, for those who don’t choose Heaven.6
In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote:
‘There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.’
God does not send us to Hell, we choose to go there and that is the greatest tragedy. God didn’t just reach out for us, He came down as one of us. Down into our messy reality to save us from our sins and give us a way up and out. Love came down in the form of a baby boy who would one day make the ultimate sacrifice to change the world and bring hope and the offer of life beyond all we could imagine. He still offers us the hope that there will one day be no more suffering, sickness, death and destruction and that one-day every tear will be wiped away.7 So in our response to the first question, we could also sincerely ask,
“Why would you not choose Heaven?”
There are many verses where Jesus explains about, warns against and describes Hell, for example, the sobering Matthew 25:31- 46. In Luke 16: 19-31 Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is interesting to me that the Rich Man does not ask to be let out of Hell, he seems resigned, but he does want his family warned.
R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6: “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.” – R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985).
Rebecca Manley Pippert, Hope Has It’s Reasons (Harper, 1990)
Jo Vitale – apologist with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, quoted from Just Asking, during a podcast titled: How Can a Good God Send People to Hell?
In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (Penguin Random House, 2009), Timothy Keller goes into more depth on this topic in Chapter 5 – How can a loving God send people to Hell?
Revelation 21:3-4 “And behold I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”