How can a loving God send people to Hell? The punishment of eternal damnation doesn’t seem to fit the crime in which most non-Christians are generally good people.
J.T. Bridges: This is a question that allows for some important stage-setting for those who are unfamiliar with significant aspects to Christian theology.
As with many inquiries, this one begins with a certain slant that needs correcting to make headway toward a satisfying response. The slant is that the question is framed only in the context of God as “loving.” But this is not the sole identifier classically attributed to the Christian God. In Christian theology, God is love but God is also just. He is merciful, but He is also a God of wrath and vengeance.
To get at a more fully orbed understanding of God, humans and Hell, we must take into account more than merely God as loving. The Bible uses language about God to express these different attributes. It gives us analogies as shortcuts to express things about God. It presents God as a loving Father (to those who believe through Jesus Christ) but it also presents Him as a just and sovereign King. “Loving Father” implies protection and provision. “Just and Sovereign King” implies judicial oversight, absolute authority and rulership.
Now we ask, is it possible for someone to both love an individual and believe that justice demands his punishment? Take, for example, the parents of a serial killer. It does seem possible that, in light of their son’s crimes, they could both love him and agree that his crimes demand punishment.
By analogy, there is no obvious contradiction between God being a God of love and seeking the just punishment for human sin.
This brings us to another aspect of the question: Does that punishment have to be eternal damnation in Hell?
That does not seem a fair and equitable sentence for most individuals’ sins. This question still has multiple aspects we must consider. First of all, in Christian theology, Hell was never intended to be a place for humans or their punishment. The Bible clearly tells us that Hell was intended for Satan and the rebellious angels who followed him (Matthew 25:41).
Keep this in mind, God created a reality wherein there are pure spirits who, once they are created, have no natural principle of decay. Unlike humans, whose bodies naturally wear out and die, angels are pure spirits whose existence is wholly immaterial.
God, in His unchanging eternality, cannot both will an individual spirit to exist and not will an individual spirit to exist without contradiction. This is why God did not simply annihilate Satan and the fallen angels at their rebellion. When He creates another’s existence, that thing has genuine (not autonomy) but what we might call “full individuality.”
When God creates angels and humans (and all other things), He allows them to act according to the full range of their nature for good or evil without internal interference (though He might limit them externally to accomplish His goals; think “Jonah” here).
God created angels as pure spirits that, once created, can never not exist. Some of these creatures sinned. We can, for simplicity and breadth, define sin as “an individual’s movement away from God’s original design/intention.”
For God to accomplish His ultimate plan — a plane of reality that is unbroken harmony and order and peace that we call ‘Heaven’— He had to quarantine these rebellious beings away from that plane. This place of quarantine and punishment for these rebellious spirits we call "Hell."
If Hell is meant for Satan and his comrades, then how/why does God send human souls there? This brings us to the nature of human rebellion/sin. But before we talk about the nature of human sin, we have to talk about human nature.
If angels are creatures that are purely spiritual and without a principle of decay/death, then humans are creatures who have a mixed nature: part spiritual and part physical. The physical part we share with plants and animals; our bodies wear out and die. The spiritual part we share with angels; we have a spirit whose nature is such that once it is brought into existence it does not die.
In Christian theology, just as there was a purely spiritual rebellion by Satan and his followers, Satan incites his rebellious ways to humans via Adam and Eve, the first humans.
The first rebellion seeds the second rebellion. This provides a much richer context then we had when we first posed the question: "How can a loving God send generally good people to Hell?"
We have come to a stage now where God has a second set of creatures whose spirits cannot die and yet have chosen to rebel against His original design/intention and whose continued existence would disturb His ultimate plan to create a plan of reality of complete harmony, order and peace.
But this is all still too abstract to satisfy. Let’s really get to the gristle.
People are not, in general, really morally good (think Mother Teresa). They are not generally criminals. In its original form, when we say “people are generally good,” we do not have morality in mind but rather law. People generally do what is legal and avoid doing what is illegal. That is true. But God, humans and Hell are not matters of thin legality. They are robust spiritual matters of covenant, righteousness, sin and eternal life.
The soul’s movement away from God cannot be measured in legal terms. It has to be measured in soulish terms.
When Jesus compares lust to adultery and hatred to murder, he is communicating this reality. When you hate someone, what your soul desires is their non-existence — you have “murdered them in your heart” (Matthew 5:21-22). Your soul has moved away from God in hatred to the very same degree as it would if you had physically murdered. That is what you are being held accountable for and “God weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2). Who among us has not lusted or hated? Who among us, then, is without sin?
“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders ... And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals because you were slain and with your blood, you purchased men for God …’” (Revelation 5).
If Christian theology places human actions and their punishment in such stark terms, then it also provides a rich and deeply satisfying solution: Jesus Christ.
Christians are humans who have had their spiritual blinders removed and see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for what it really is: spiritual rescue. Where we rebelled, we now submit. And in this submission, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, the sovereign and just King becomes our loving Father and all our sins are annihilated.
God always destroys His enemies. For the rebellious there is Hell; for the repentant, there is the Cross where He destroys sinners through His love and makes them sons and daughters.
J.T. Bridges is academic dean and assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.
William Lane Craig: The first question is emotionally loaded. The Scriptures indicate that God wills the salvation of every human being.
"The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3.9). "He desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2.4). God says that He takes “no pleasure in the death of anyone,” and literally pleads with people to turn and be saved (Ez. 18.23, 32; 33.11).
Thus, in a sense, the biblical God does not send anybody to Hell. His desire is that everyone be saved. He seeks to draw all persons to Himself. If we make a free and well-informed decision to reject Christ's sacrifice for our sin, then God has no choice but to give us what we deserve.
It is a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. The lost separate themselves from God despite God's will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.
The second question suggests that it would be unjust of God to condemn people forever. Therefore, at most Hell could be a sort of purgatory, lasting an appropriate length of time for each person before that person is released and admitted into heaven. Thus, ironically, Hell is incompatible, not with God's love, but with His justice. The objection charges that God is unjust because the punishment does not fit the crime.
Some Christian thinkers have sought to avoid this objection by adopting the doctrine of annihilationism. They hold that Hell is not endless separation from God but rather the annihilation of the damned. The lost simply cease to exist, while the saved are given eternal life.
Other Christian philosophers have denied that Hell involves retributive justice on God's part. Rather God respects people’s moral autonomy to separate themselves from God forever. God would permit the damned to leave Hell and go to Heaven but they freely refuse to do so. They grow only more implacable in their hatred of God as time goes on. In such a case, the door to Hell is locked — as Jean Paul Sartre said — from the inside. The damned thus choose eternal separation from God.
You could adopt either of these two views. But is that necessary? It seems not.
(1) The objection equivocates between every sin which we commit and all the sins which we commit. We could agree that every individual sin which a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But it does not follow from this that all of a person's sins taken together as a whole deserve only a finite punishment.
If a person commits an infinite number of sins, then the sum total of all such sins deserves infinite punishment. Now, of course, nobody commits an infinite number of sins in the earthly life. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of Hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, Hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.
(2) Why think that every sin does have only a finite punishment? We could agree that sins like theft, lying, adultery and so forth are of only finite consequence and so deserve only a finite punishment. But, in a sense, these sins are not what serves to separate someone from God. For Christ has died for those sins; the penalty for those sins has been paid. One has only to accept Christ as Savior to be completely free and clean of those sins.
But the refusal to accept Christ and his sacrifice seems to be a sin of a different order altogether. For this sin repudiates God's provision for sin and so decisively separates one from God and His salvation. To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And in light of God's status, this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly deserves infinite punishment. We ought not, therefore, to think of Hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence which we have committed, but as the just due for a sin of infinite consequence — namely the rejection of God Himself.
William Lane Craig is a renowned Christian apologist and philosopher who has authored and edited over 30 books. He is a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University.