I was listening to a Q&A podcast the other day at the gym and one of the questions was the familiar, “Why would a loving God send people to Hell?”
Sometimes this question is asked by a person who is genuinely struggling to reconcile God and eternal punishment. Sometimes the question is posed by a hatetheist who has no interest in a real answer but is rather more concerned with throwing out a gotcha question whose answer (hopefully) helps solidify their already-decided position of non-belief.
As I listened to the podcast, it occurred to me that in all the years I’ve heard the question asked and answered, I’ve never heard anyone ask it in this way:
Why would a just and righteous God send people to Hell?
Allow me to take a stab at an explanation as to why that is.
God’s attributes – all or nothing
When you study theology, you’ll come to a field called ‘theology proper’, which is a deep-dive into the attributes of God. Sometimes you’ll see ‘attribute’ called a ‘characteristic’, ‘perfection’ or ‘excellency’, but whatever term is used, it refers to a descriptor or essential trait of God’s nature. Literally every doctrine of Christianity can be traced back to one or more attributes of God, so this is an important area of study.
One attribute of God is love, something reiterated many times in Scripture such as in 1 John 4:16, which says, “God is love”.
Other attributes include His holiness, justice and righteousness, which are repeated throughout the Bible such as in Psalm 11:7 – “For the Lord is righteous”.
God’s attributes are holistic with respect to His nature. That is, God is not more righteous than He is loving or more loving than He is holy. Moreover, His attributes qualify each other and go together so, for example, His justice is a holy justice and His love is a righteous love. Psalm 89:14 says, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; lovingkindness and truth go before You.”
All this to say that God does not jettison or depress one attribute (justice) for another (love); it’s all or nothing. This is important to understand especially when it comes to topics like eternal punishment.
Love and justice
Everyone ‘loves’ the idea of love, but justice and righteousness, well, their popularity is very dependent on the circumstance. We welcome the latter two if we personally benefit from them, but we aren’t such fans when justice comes knocking at our door to demand payment.
Today, more than ever, we believe punishment is something that’s for other people, but not us. This is because we’ve become exceedingly proficient at both maximizing the badness we believe exists in others and the goodness we think we possess.
The truth of the matter is everyone commits wrong, large or small, and because of that, the Bible places us all in the same boat that’s been christened ‘Lost’.
Judicially speaking, Scripture says every sin matters to a Holy God, and each offense causes us to fall short of His glory and disqualifies us from spending eternity in His presence. The French dramatist, Moliner may have said, “It is a public scandal that gives offense, it is no sin to sin in secret”, but whether public or private, our wrongdoings bring the potential for great penalty in the next life.
On that fact, people tell me all the time that God assigning us to Hell for sin is not fair and overkill. But the truth of the matter is, God has done more for us than we deserve, and His justice is more in line with what we believe on the matter than we want to admit.
Right thinking on God and Hell
People who picture God as an evil ogre in the matter of judgment would do well to understand God’s antecedent and consequent wills. Thomas Aquinas explains it like this: “Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts.”
The antecedent will of God has resulted in Him graciously providing the means to escape eternal punishment through Jesus’ work on the cross to any who will accept it. If it’s love you want to see expressed by God, well then, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Moreover, the elegance and beauty with which God expresses His love and justice in rescuing people from eternal punishment is mind blowing. In Islam, for example, Allah capriciously grants eternal life to some and punishment to others. In this way, Allah provides love at the expense of his justice, and thus justice is left wanting.
But Christianity is markedly different in that God provides love through His justice. God’s justice is satisfied because Christ paid the penalty for all believer’s sins. But at the same time, His love is greatly poured out on those being saved by Christ. Perfect love and perfect justice are meted out in unison.
Back to our question
I doubt anyone would ask why a good judge would punish a guilty person; in fact, we would think the judge unjust if they didn’t. But when it comes to God and us, we don’t think anyone (well, maybe Hitler) has done anything worthy of such an over-the-top punishment like Hell, especially us.
But transgressions against an eternal God demand an eternal reprimand. Threaten my life and nothing will likely happen to you. But make a realistic threat against the President’s life and you’re going to federal prison. The severity of a punishment oftentimes takes into consideration the party wronged.
A just and righteous God has every right to sentence those committing transgressions against Him to a God-less eternity. But that same loving God has provided a way for those wrongs to be placed on His Son who has willingly paid the price for them, resulting in a verdict of “not guilty” for anyone trusting in Christ.
The doors to Hell, as C. S. Lewis said in his book The Great Divorce, are “locked on the inside”. Anyone who doesn’t pop that lock with the gift our loving, righteous and just God has given them to avoid eternal punishment has only themselves to blame.
Robin Schumacher is a former software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.