How can a good and loving God condemn people to hell?

"The idea of hell was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other…. I have no respect for any human being who believes in it … I dislike this doctrine, I hate it, I despise it, I defy this doctrine…. This doctrine of hell is infamous beyond all power to express."

So said Colonel Robert Ingersoll, one of the nineteenth century’s most fervent opponents of Christ, Christianity, and hell. Though one may rail, rant, rebel, or rally against it, hell stands like a monolithic tombstone in Scripture. It is mentioned on more pages of the Bible than heaven. Obviously, the Spirit of God is telling us something crucial.

Yet, the doctrine of hell poses questions that have run theologians from ragged to apostate.

While I was a student at Dallas Seminary, I befriended another student who was seeing a psychiatrist because of his severe depression. He identified the doctrine of hell as the source of his anguish: "I was at the beach this past summer, and while I was sitting on the boardwalk watching people walk by eating cotton candy, laughing, just having fun, I began to think about hell. All I could see was each of them burning in hell for eternity. How can God punish people for all eternity simply because they didn’t accept Christ?"

Still, the theologian in us cries out. If God is unchangeable (Jas. 1:17), if not a jot or tittle of the Word can pass away until heaven and earth end (Mt. 5:17–18), if the Scripture cannot be broken and God Himself cannot lie, and if we are to take the Scriptures at face value and refuse to shy from even their darkest warnings, then there is a hell, it is eternal, those who go there will suffer acute and infinite pain, and they will have no hope of ever getting out (Mt. 8:12, Mt. 25:46; Mk. 9:47–49; Lk. 16:23–24, Rev. 14:11). That is a staggering doctrine.

While one might think that such words alone would shiver the soul of any human so that he would flee to Christ without a backward glance, the opposite is true. Thousands mock the idea of hell. Millions more soberly reject it. And perhaps billions do not even know it exists. How can a God of compassion, love, mercy, and grace create such a place? How can a Lord who possesses all power to decree, predestinate, elect, save, and apply redemption to the lost soul speak, even hallow, such a doctrine?

Can a Good God Justify Hell?

We know God is good, kind, patient, longsuffering, always willing to forgive. He is love personified, magnified, and exemplified (1 Jn. 4:16). But God is also just, infinitely holy, and perfectly righteous. The Scriptures picture Jesus as both the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29) and the Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5). Like a lamb, He is meek, gentle, a holy sacrifice for the sin of those who confess Him. Like a lion, His claws can tear the unrepentant to pieces.

It is this picture that reveals a first answer to the problem of hell: God’s character demands it. While God’s love, mercy, and grace are demonstrated in the atonement of Christ, other attributes demand equal authority and actually justify hell. What are these attributes?

Righteousness/Holiness. That God is righteous and holy means He always acts in accordance with those things He deems just and lawful. He cannot do anything less than what is right. God’s great plan is ultimately to bring the universe back to perfect righteousness—back into harmony with His character. There are only two ways He can do that. One is by providing a way for sinners to return to righteousness—through the death, Resurrection, and power of Jesus Christ. In Christ He makes us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17).

But what about those who do not seek righteousness, who desire darkness over light? There is a second option. God will confine such people in a place where they cannot affect or harm those who seek righteousness. That is hell.

Justice. The justice of God functions as a logical complement to His righteousness. His righteousness demands that He make things right. His justice demands that something be done about sin. Again, to bring about perfect justice for all the wrongs in the universe, God offers two options: to make payment for them Himself through the death of Jesus; or to require payment by the sinner. God cannot wink at sin, overlook it, or allow it to persist (Hab. 1:13, Ps. 5:4–6)

Omniscience. God’s omniscience enables Him to know everything that is, was, shall be, and could be (Ps. 139, Is. 46:10). How does this attribute require a hell? An omniscient God must eliminate evil from His knowledge. One way is to forgive that evil and choose to forget it forever. God can actually "blot out" or eradicate His own knowledge on such an issue.

But what of those whom He has not forgiven because they have not accepted His forgiveness in Christ? God’s only other option is to gather all the evil into one place and render it dead—separated from Him forever. That is hell. While God may be conscious of the evil in that place, He does not have to have contact with it or look on it ever again.

Love/Wrath. These two aspects of God’s nature are linked together in the doctrine of hell. His love requires a hell because He must protect those He loves from the defilement of His enemies. His wrath calls for vengeance—that His enemies be punished for injuring, hating, and rejecting Him.

Nearly any aspect of God’s character can be used to explain both heaven and hell. We have to take God and what His Word says about Him on His terms, not ours. Those who accept His grace and love but balk at the idea of justice or perfect holiness are guilty of folly.

The Monstrous Sin of Rejecting Christ

Still, an objection arises here. We understand these truths about God’s character. But isn’t eternal hell a rather stiff penalty for simply not believing in Christ or loving Him? The average Christian tends to think of rejecting Christ as a rather small matter: not trivial, but surely no worse than murder, theft, or rape. Isn’t it unreasonable to require such a monstrous payment for such a shortcoming, especially if it resulted from ignorance?

This question reveals a second reason hell is the logical and just result of man’s impenitence. Consider what the unbeliever has really done to God through His unbelief.

Hebrews 10:29 gives a graphic picture of the enormity of this sin. The writer says, "How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?" The writer refers to people who have received the knowledge of the truth—salvation through Christ, God’s grace to the lost, and forgiveness of sin—but continue sinning anyway. In the mind of God, this person commits three reprehensible acts.

Trampled Him underfoot. First, he "trampled the Son of God under foot." The word used here is katapateo, which can be translated "trample, tread upon, treat with disdain." Characteristically, the Spirit provides us with two graphic illustrations, both used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He spoke of tasteless salt as "no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men" (Mt. 5:13). He was referring to salt which, when it lost its savor, was thrown into the road, where at least it could keep weeds from growing. Applying that idea to Heb. 10:29, we see that the unbeliever regards Christ as being utterly worthless and useless.

Imagine your response, for instance, if your son went down to a neighbor’s yard, helped weed the garden, cut the grass, and watched the children while the neighbor when to work. Suppose that neighbor returned, and, after observing all the son had done, came to you and informed you, "Your son is absolutely worthless. I can’t stand him. Get him off my property." You ask, "But what did he do?" The neighbor replied, "I don’t like his character. He does too many nice things. He’s too perfect, too friendly, too willing to sacrifice for others. I can’t stand the sight of him." An angry response is understandable. Simple common sense demands that God do something about those who treat His Son as worthless.

But Jesus paints a more piercing picture in Mt. 7:6: "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces." A pig has no sense of the value of anything. If you threw a pearl to him and he tried to eat it, what would happen? The pearl would stick in his teeth. The pig would spit it out in fury, grind it into the dirt, and then come after the one who threw him this unsavory object. In other words, the unbeliever has treated Jesus the way a pig treats non-food.

Regarded Him as unclean. But the unbeliever has done something else: he has regarded "as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him." The Greek word for unholy, koinos, means "common, ordinary, profane." The verb form relates the idea of "unclean," and relates to the Hebrew law concerning Gentiles, who were considered defiled and not to be approached, befriended, or invited to dinner. Thus, the unbeliever has treated Christ’s blood as though it were nothing more than the blood of a dog. Yet, it is this blood that cleanses the foul heart of man and pays the penalty for a multitude of sins. Peter called it "precious blood," worth far more than gold or silver (1 Pet. 1:19).

Insulted the Spirit of grace. Unbelievers commit a third crime against God: they have "insulted the Spirit of grace." The word used here is enubrisas, the intensified form of ubrisas, which means to "treat in an arrogant or spiteful manner." The intensified form means to treat so arrogantly and mockingly as to inspire outrage in the mind of the victim. What has the believer done to the "Spirit of grace"?

To use the neighbor illustration again, imagine a second son who goes to the neighbor on behalf of the first son. This second lad talks quietly to the neighbor, tells him how much the first boy loved him, and repeatedly entreats the neighbor to change his mind about the boy. But the neighbor refuses to change. He treats the second son outrageously, calls him names, shoves him off his lot, spits in his face, and says, "Get out. Leave me alone. I want nothing to do with you."

That is what the Spirit of God does—he seeks to woo the unbeliever to change his mind about Christ and God. But ultimately, the unbeliever thrusts him out, screaming, "Leave me alone." In the last resort, that is what God will do—leave them utterly alone where they can do no one any more harm. In hell.

On every front, Christians must reject the lies of Satan that tell us, "It’s not so bad to reject Christ. God is being unreasonable. How can He put these harmless people in hell?" Rather we must rely only on the truths of God’s word, which reveal the unbeliever as far more malicious and pernicious than they might appear to be on the surface.

The Unbeliever’s Choice

A third important justification of hell is that the lost have consciously chosen to reject Christ and to follow the lies of darkness. It was their choice. No one forced the decision upon them.

Still, an objection arises. Was it really a conscious choice? Does an unbeliever realize what he’s doing? Can we somehow excuse his behavior? Paul’s argument in Ro. 1:18–32 leads to several clear conclusions.

His wrath is revealed. First, Paul says God’s wrath is "revealed" (apokalupto) from heaven against the godless (Ro. 1:18). This Greek word indicates clear disclosure, revelation, an unmistakable statement. Unbelieving people know that God stands against unrighteousness, hates it, and punishes it. How? Simply by observing life. Criminals are punished. The wicked are slain. Righteousness (in general) survives and lives on.

But even if simple observation didn’t help, Paul says later that certain things about God are "clearly seen." Those things are His power and nature, which includes His wrath and indignation at sin. The word here for "clearly seen" means "to make manifest, to reveal." While this can indicate a general, impersonal revelation, it can also indicate a personal effort (1 Tim. 3:16, 1 Jn. 1:2). God has personally declared to each per son His wrath against sin, most likely through conscience. Thus, while the unbeliever may deny knowledge of God or the truth about punishment and hell, he is lying. All people know the facts about God’s wrath against sin.

They suppress the truth consciously. What then do they do? Paul reveals a second conclusion about their conscious choice to reject God. He says they "suppress" or "hold down" the truth. The word in the original language pictures something that keeps bubbling up which the unbeliever stomps on and tries to squelch. This knowledge of God’s wrath then, is something that keeps pricking his thoughts, jarring him when he sins, and nagging him after he’s sinned. But he fights it, repels it, restrains it. He literally doesn’t want to hear it.

They are without excuse. Paul’s conclusion is the third thought. He says they are "without excuse." They have no acceptable reason that relieves them of full, final, and personal responsibility in the matter.

There is a subtle yet important truth here: when Christians explain the gospel to nonChristians, the unbelievers will often deny everything, scoffing at the truth, saying, "Who can believe that?" They may appear to be truly in darkness. Yet, even while they’re lost, dead in sin, and blinded by Satan, these things are clear: they know God punishes sin; they suppress what they know is the truth; and they are without excuse. They have consciously made a choice to reject God, the truth, and Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul says "their thinking became futile," their "foolish hearts were darkened." Though they even claimed to be wise, "they exchanged the truth of God for a lie …" (Ro. 1:21–24). The unbeliever will speculate—come up with theories such as "God is dead," "Christ was a great teacher," etc.; he will fall into deeper and darker mental murk; and he’ll even announce that he has arrived at true wisdom—and worship and serve himself. Clearly, while God has done everything to make it possible for the lost man to be saved, he chooses to reject it all.

The Logical Result of Rejecting God and All That is His

A fourth justification of hell is more a logical consequence than a theological statement. Hell is the result of the unbeliever rejecting God and all that He stands for.

When a person rejects God, what is he really rejecting? Everything that God is, has made, and owns. God created water. Therefore, if the unbeliever rejects God, he also rejects God’s good gift—water. Hell will be a place of infinite thirst.

God is love. When the unbeliever rejects God, he loses every contact with real love. Hell will be a place of infinite hate and anger.

Name anything that comes from God or is Godlike—joy, peace, hope, food, sex, rain, light. Hell will be the absence of all of those things because God will not give His gifts to those who reject the Giver. Thus, hell is the habitation of those who want nothing to do with God. As a consequence, they also lose everything He has to offer.

Self-Imposed Torment

A final answer relates to the agonies of hell. Will God actually inflict pain on the unbeliever in hell?

In Lk. 12:47–48, Jesus says that the "servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows," while the one who didn’t know God’s will but sinned, will receive few. Clearly, the punishment of hell involves individual judgments. Some will suffer more. Some less. But does God personally cause greater suffering to the unbeliever?

As you study the agonies of hell— total solitude (Mk. 9:42); absolute darkness (Jude 13); utter worthlessness (Job 18:5–21); fire and burning (Rev. 14:10, Rev. 21:8); thirst (Lk. 16:24); weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 22:13); sleeplessness (Rev. 14:11); shame and disgust (Dan. 12:2); hopelessness (Mt. 25:46)—you begin to see its nature as the exact opposite of all that is of God. He offers hope; hell writhes with despair. He gives peace; hell screams with pain. He wipes the tears from our eyes; hell is nothing but shrieks and weeping. He gives us His rest, water, food, and fulfillment; hell offers only thirst and hunger. He is light; hell is "blackest darkness" (Jude 13). Hell ultimately is complete and total deprivation of everything God created that people need, want, and enjoy. Thus, hell is nothing more than existing in a world totally bereft of God. The person in torment will have only what his own mind and powers can create.

What can a person lost in hell generate? Only those things intrinsic to the human psyche—desires, feelings, thoughts, movements. Much of his agony will arise, I believe, from his own lusts and unsatisfied needs.

For instance, what happens when a person is thirsty? The desire builds from mild irritation to inflamed passion to rapid lust. It becomes a fire. Hunger builds to a burning passion until the mind can think of nothing else.

Take every human need and imagine it multiplied by feelings of total deprivation and magnified through time. The unbeliever becomes an agonized lump of fire, screaming for a satisfaction that can never come.

Thus, while God himself may appoint degrees of punishment in hell, the unbeliever ultimately causes his greater agony because he has rejected the only one who can meet his raging needs.

Clearly, hell is not a pleasant picture. It is not meant to be. It is the prison for all those who willfully reject God and His Son. Hell is not some tactic on God’s part to scare us into repentance. It’s the only thing He can do with those who hate and reject Him.

The reality of hell is a painful knowledge, even for those of us who know that we will escape eternal torment through our faith in the One who has already borne our punishment. It is a reality we must face as we walk every day among those who continue to live in darkness. May that knowledge not lead us to despair, but give us a new urgency as we share with others the good news of Jesus Christ.

Publisher Paul Westervelt, Discipleship Journal, Issue 34 (July/August 1986) (NavPress, 1986; 2006).

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.