How can a loving God send anyone to hell?
That’s a great question, a potentially explosive question. If God is so loving—and the Bible says that he is—then surely he wouldn’t send anyone to hell, would he?
The Bible says that hell is a place without any of the good things that God gives us and which we enjoy today, such as friendship, love, joy—it’s an awful place. And so why can’t God just forgive everyone, and let anyone into heaven? Why does he insist in a seemingly cruel way that some people must go to hell?
Well the Bible says that God is loving, and it also says that he will send some people to hell—so could it be that both things are true at the same time? I’d like to briefly give a couple of suggestions as to why this is the case.
Just because God is loving, does not mean that he loves everything—there are some things that God doesn’t love, that in fact he hates. So he doesn’t love murder, or abuse, or selfishness, or pride. Actually, if he is loving, then he will hate these things. It wouldn’t be very loving of God to look at something like child abuse and say: “Well, I’m not really that bothered.”
So God is loving—and yet he doesn’t love everything.
And because this loving God hates bad things, he does something about it. And this is good news. We all have a kind of a sense of justice—so it’s good news that people who mistreat others are not allowed into God’s perfect kingdom, but are shut out—that is, they’re sent to hell.
It’s loving of a just God to hate and punish wrongdoing, so that only perfect things are in his perfect kingdom.
Now I guess not many of us have a problem with the idea of famously bad people facing punishment—but this actually leaves us with a problem too, because none of us are perfect. None of us have treated God, or treated each other, in the perfect way we were intended to.
If I’m honest, I know I haven’t treated people as I should. I’ve hurt people, I’ve ignored their needs, actually I’ve upset even some of the people I love the most. And I haven’t treated God as I should—as my Maker and my Creator, and therefore the ruler in charge of my life.
And so I deserve punishment of my wrongdoing too. We actually all deserve to be punished. We all deserve to go to hell. None of us are perfect—so none of us should be in God’s perfect kingdom.
Now as I say this, I know it’s not an easy thing to hear. It’s not an easy thing for me to hear. But just because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
And it’s not something that Jesus says flippantly or lightly, without caring. He doesn’t say it just to scare us. But he does say it to warn us—and to help us see how amazing it is that he offers us a way out.
Because this is the amazing news—that even though we all deserve punishment, even though we deserve to go to hell, Jesus—God himself—has provided a way out for us. He doesn’t do this by leaving things unpunished, and so forgetting about justice. He does it by himself taking our place; in his death taking our punishment and himself experiencing hell so that we don’t have to.
It seems to me as if this is a truly loving God. He loves the world enough to punish wrongdoing, and he loves people enough to take the punishment himself.
He loves us enough to give us a choice: we can to ask him to be part of our lives now, and so avoid hell and look forward to enjoying his perfect eternal kingdom.
Now I know that this is a huge topic and I probably haven’t answered some of the questions that you have, and maybe this has thrown up more questions or things that you disagree with. If that’s the case, why not look at the Go Deeper section of this page? Or the great thing about Jesus is that he’s verifiable: so why not have a look at one of the eyewitness accounts of his life, one of the Gospels, and have a look for yourself at some of the things that he said, and some of the things that he did.
One of the things that’s striking about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and words is that he didn’t shrink from talking about hell (people often think that God’s judgement and anger were more Old Testament kind of themes). In fact, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the whole Bible.
As Abi said, hell isn’t an easy thing to hear about or think about. But of course that doesn’t mean it’s not true. If Jesus is who he says he is—God on earth—then it’s well worth listening to what he says lies beyond our deaths.
What did Jesus say about hell?
It’s a real place: this might sound obvious. But Jesus talks of someone who “died and was buried [and was] in hell” (Luke chapter 16 verse 23). Hell is not just feeling sad or depressed (like when people say: “I’m going through hell”). And it’s not the worst this world can throw at us (“Hell on earth”). It is a real existence in a real place beyond physical death.
It’s awful: Jesus spoke of people in hell being “in torment” (Luke 16:23). This side of death, God kindly gives gifts (life, friendship, love, hope, possessions and so on) to all kinds of people, whether they thank him for them or whether they just enjoy them while ignoring him (Acts 14:17).
But the other side of death, we either live with God, enjoying him and his gifts: or we live without him, and without his gifts: what the Bible calls “hell”. It’s hard to imagine existence without anything good at all. No joy or peace or love or security, and no prospect of ever having them.
It’s final: Jesus said: “a great chasm has been fixed [between heaven and hell], so that those who want to … cross over cannot” (Luke 16:26). There are no second chances, no get-out clauses.
It’s eternal: Jesus often pictured hell as a fire, which, he said, “never goes out” (Mark 9:43). Strange though it may seem, we’re all created to live eternally: the question is where we’ll be forever.
Crucially, it’s fair: Hell is a place without God’s loving rule, which is precisely what people who go there have rejected. As Abi said, because none of us are perfect, none of us deserve to live in God’s perfect world, because “nothing impure will ever enter it” (Revelation 21:27). God is a loving, perfectly just God, and so he judges wrongdoing: mine, yours, everyone’s. Just as it’s fair that a lawbreaker in this country faces punishment, so it’s fair that we who live in God’s world and break his rules face his punishment.
In some ways, since no one is perfect, the real question isn’t: “Why does anyone go to hell?” but: “Why does anyone go to heaven?”
If life were “fair”, we would all go to hell and no one would get to live in heaven, in God’s perfect kingdom beyond Jesus’ return. But the amazing news, as Abi said, is that God has done something to make it possible for imperfect people like us to live in his perfect kingdom beyond death.
And he did it through Jesus, his Son. Jesus will return to this world to judge and punish; but first, he came to this world to serve and to save. He said about himself: “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [ie: go to hell] but have eternal life [in God’s kingdom]” (John 3:16).
Jesus made it possible for people to have life with God instead of the hell we deserve by taking the punishment of separation from his Father God’s love and all good things. That’s what he did on the cross, where he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
On the cross, Jesus God’s Son was cut off from the love of his Father for the first time in eternity. As he died, Jesus experienced hell. And he did that in our place, so we wouldn’t have to.
The Bible puts it this way: “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:6).
Because of Jesus’ death, hell is now avoidable, rather than inevitable.
As Abi said, God loves the world he made enough to punish wrongdoing in hell. And he loves people like us enough to offer to take the punishment for our wrongdoing on himself.
Which leaves us with a choice. We can avoid hell and enjoy life in God’s kingdom, and all we have to do is turn back to God and ask Jesus to die instead of us. And that’s it! As Jesus himself put it: “whoever hears my word and believes… has passed over from death [in hell] to life [in God’s kingdom]” (John 5:24).
But, tragically, many people choose not to accept Jesus’ offer of undeserved kingdom life, and so choose to face his punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:8). They choose to have life without God now, enjoying his gifts but ignoring him. And beyond death, God will give them exactly what they have chosen: life without him, but without any of his gifts.
Christians, like Jesus, don’t talk about hell to scare people. But they do talk about it to warn people, just as Jesus did. The reason Abi said what she did on the video, and the reason this Go Deeper section exists, is because we believe that what Jesus said is true: that hell exists, that hell is truly awful, and that because of his death you don’t need to endure it. The reason we talk about hell is because we want you to enjoy life with God forever.
But as Abi said, this is a very tricky question. You may well have more questions about what you’ve heard and read. Why not:
GO ON a Christianity Explored course, where you can ask any and every question you have.
READ chapter four of If you could ask God one question by Paul Williams and Barry Cooper (buy a copy here
); or for a more in-depth answer, read chapter five of The Reason for God by Timothy Keller (get a copy here