How could god send anyone to Hell?
If God is good and loving and values his creation, how can he justify sending anyone there?
I suppose we want to just beg the question a little bit, because God doesn’t really send anyone to Hell. People choose Hell. In fact, in 2 Peter 3:9 we’re told God doesn’t want anyone to go to Hell. His desire is for everyone to experience the free gift of his love, his grace.
Romans 5 tells us that Jesus did everything possible to keep people out of Hell including dying on the cross in our place, becoming sin for us so we would never have to suffer punishment for all the stupid stuff we’ve done.
So, does God send anyone to Hell? No. Emphatically, no. But there is still a Hell and people still end up there. What are we supposed to with that?
It’s all about choice
C. S. Lewis, the philosopher and writer, wrote a fantastic book on this topic called The Great Divorce. In the book Lewis paints a picture that the only people who are ever in Hell are the people who choose to go there. It’s a very biblically consistent picture.
God comes to each of us in the person of Jesus Christ, through the power and presence of His Holy Spirit, and says, “I want you to have the best life imaginable. I created you, I love you, I want you to have:
in this life and in the life to come.”
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.
For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will.
God offers life, but there’s a condition attached: it only comes through Jesus, by the Spirit, submitting to the will of the Father. God says, “You get life by virtue of being connected to me. So choose life, choose me.”
There’s another choice…the choice of saying, “All that sounds cool, but I don’t like the part where I have to get God in order to get all that other stuff. Because I don’t want God, I’m willing to risk having or not having that abundant life on my own.” There are really only two choices. By virtue of not choosing God we choose something else.
So, we might say that Hell is for those who persistently choose not-God, which is the same as persistently choosing other gods or choosing to be your own god.
It’s actually quite difficult to get into Hell if we take the teaching of the Bible seriously. That doesn’t mean that all kinds of people get into heaven by accident. It does mean you have to really choose to walk way from God. As Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9.40). You really have to pick not-him. You have to say “No” to God.
Hell, in many ways, is simply a matter of God giving His creatures what they want. If you don’t want to live with God now, why you would want to live with God for all eternity? Biblically speaking, that’s really what heaven is— it is the place where God is. Hell, in many ways, is the extrapolation of our selfishness, our desire to rule ourselves. It’s that selfishness and that “No” to God extrapolated through all eternity.
God doesn’t just get mad at a bunch of people and send down the holy sledge hammer to squish them and then scrape them off into the fireplace. In fact, Jesus tells this fantastic story about a master giving a banquet. This master puts on a fantastic feast and invites all the special people in the community to come. “Come,” he says, “the feast is ready, prepared especially for you. Time to eat!” Nobody invited to the feast goes—they just don’t show up. That’s the picture Jesus gives about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t.
The of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'
But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.
Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
For many are invited, but few are chosen.
God doesn’t send anyone to Hell. C. S. Lewis also said, “In this life people do not choose God and in the next life they cannot any longer choose God.” They choose something other than God. We find here the spiritual truth that we irreversibly become the decisions that we make. The decisions we make over time add up to something. We get stuck not only in a fate that seems undesirable to us later, but even in this life we get stuck living a life we don’t want because we consistently and persistently choose not-God. We choose Option B. We choose something other than him.
This is what Paul is referring to in Romans 1:18 where he talks about the wrath of God being poured out over all humanity. That sounds a little harsh until we realize that God’s “wrath” is simply God giving people what they want:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts…furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done…although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
So, if you’re selfish, then the wrath of God for you looks like God letting you be as selfish a jerk as possible and suffering the full consequences of your selfishness.
If you’re an adulterer, the wrath of God for you looks like God letting you sleep with whoever you want and suffer the full consequences of the children and the relationships involved.
If you’ve got a little problem with gambling, then the wrath of God for you looks like God letting you lose everything or be corrupted by everything you win.
So, when we talk about the wrath of God and mistakenly think God is out to punish everybody or get everybody, it is actually God no longer protecting everyone from the full measure of their actions. Hell, then, is the place where God no longer offers you protection. He takes his hands off and you suffer the full measure of consequences for your selfishness, your greed, your isolation, your horror, whatever.
Hell on earth
Let me give you an example of what this looks like in real life. We had this old gal a few years ago, she was in her late eighties or nineties, who had been jilted as a young lady by her fiancée. To hear this old lady describe herself in her youth, she was the belle of the ball. She was engaged to this handsome young man and they were all set to be married, but in the process of their courtship her fiancée fell in love with her sister. He decided to break off the engagement to marry the sister instead.
Sixty-five years later this old lady is living alone in a musty old apartment with a bunch of cats. There are pictures of herself in her beauty days all over the place. She’s bitter and angry because she refuses to forgive her sister. She says, “For six decades they’ve been calling and asking for forgiveness and I won’t give it to them. I won’t even pick up the phone. I won’t see them at Christmas. I won’t see them at New Year’s. I’m going to make them suffer for what they did to me.”
Who do you think is really suffering in that instance?
The people who ended up together, who admittedly maybe didn’t get off to the best start, but who have had children and a life and Christmas and Thanksgiving and feast days and presents and memories and home movies and Polaroid’s together . . .are they suffering? Or was the old lady with her cats, surrounded by pictures of how beautiful she used to be, refusing to let go of her hatred and her bitterness?
That old lady is in Hell.
We’ve seen how the First Testament of the Bible used the word Sheol to describe Hell. It literally means “the grave” and the way you ended your life is the way you would spend eternity. So, if you ended your life on a trajectory of bitterness and misery and unforgiveness, then Hell for you was an eternity of bitterness and misery and unforgiveness.
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis talks famously about the example of Napoleon Bonaparte being in the furthest, most remote region of Hell where no one can bother him. He doesn’t have to see anyone else because the furthest most remote region of Hell is where Napoleon is unquestionably the emperor of everything. Everyone around him, which is to say no one, does exactly what he says. That’s Hell—this phantom-like, spectral, empty existence where you get what you want for eternity. How very different is that to the picture Jesus gives in the Gospel of Matthew of a feast and a banquet where everybody is ready, where everyone is excited, where everyone is welcome, where everyone gets to eat their fill and be in the presence of God, in the presence of life.
Deuteronomy talks about choosing life, Jesus talks about the opportunity to have life and to have life more abundantly, God extends to us the promise of once again being unified with our creator and join the fullness of life. What a huge contrast to the other alternative, which is getting what we want so long as we don’t have to be with God.
But Hell is not merely a place of rejecting God, and this is where Lewis gets it wrong. This is where I’m ashamed to say for most of my life I’ve been getting it wrong. Hell will hurt. There are two kinds of pain in Hell. There is the pain of loss, meaning at some point you’re going to wake up to the fact that you’ve made a bad choice, or maybe a hundred and fifty thousand bad choices. There’s the pain of sense, meaning everyone gets resurrected (John 5), both the just and the unjust, both the righteous and the wicked. There will be physical pain in Hell.
The pain of loss
The pain of loss is like when you do something that hurts someone and you can’t take it back. I had this girlfriend in eighth grade and, like most eighth grade boys, I was insensitive. I made a joke about her weight and when I saw her after we graduated high school, she reminded me about that comment and how it stayed with her. She had wrestled for years with low self-esteem and battled bulimia because of her inability to cope with the pressures that I (and others) had placed on her to be thin and pretty. It was then that I realized the things we say actually hurt people for a long time and there’s no way to make it right.
In the movie Crash there’s this terrifying situation in which an angry elderly gentleman goes to shoot a Hispanic deliveryman. He’s mad at this guy because he thinks he broke into his store and stole a bunch of stuff. He didn’t, but the elderly shopkeeper thinks he did. He drives up to this Hispanic deliveryman’s house, takes out a pistol, and pulls the trigger just as the deliveryman’s beautiful little daughter jumps into her daddy’s arms and holds onto his neck to protect him. Thankfully, the shopkeeper didn’t know the gun was full of blanks.
That feeling of finally getting revenge on the person who screwed you over, doing everything to spray his brains all over the lawn only to realize you just shot a kid—that’s going to be Hell.
When you realize that when you told her she was fat, when you told him he was a bad father, when you said, “I’m not your son anymore,” and you realize how much damage you did—that’s Hell. That’s the pain of loss.
The pain of sense
The pain of sense, on the other hand, is physical pain. Hell in the Bible is described as being:
Fire (Mt 13.42)
Darkness (Mt 25.30)
Punishment (Rev 14.10-11)
Exclusion from God’s presence (Mt 7.23)
Restlessness (Rev 14.11)
Second death (Rev 2.1)
Weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 13.42)
All of those things, by the way, are just metaphors and they’re acknowledged as such, but because they’re metaphors that doesn’t mean they’re not describing something horrible. People don’t use metaphors when they could use just use plain language to describe something. The fact is we don’t have language for how bad Hell is.
Somebody once said to me, “Yes, but God wouldn’t just create a big torture chamber in Hell and torture people.” I said, “No, I don’t think he would. It seems like he’s strongly opposed to violence. It seems very strange to me that God would set up a torture chamber and be after everybody.” If it’s true we all get resurrected, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting judgment, what do you think happens when all the bad people who have been resurrected live together? What kind of neighborhood will it be where Stalin, Hitler, and Napoleon get to play cards together after work?
Let’s look at Matthew 25:31-46. This is Jesus describing the final judgment about who gets in and who gets out to heaven. The recognition of loss, the anguish and torment I’ve been talking about is best represented in this Scripture:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
I want to stop there for just a moment. Notice, in contrast to what many of us loosely believe, that at the final judgment we are judged on our works, on the way we live, and by what we actually do. Remember that the outcome of our judgment according the Book of Romans and to Jesus’ teaching later on in the Gospels, particularly in Luke 12, is based on God’s grace and whether or not we are associated with Jesus. It’s Jesus’ grace that “gets us in” to heaven. But when the time comes for judgment, we are judged by what we do.
The purpose of that judgment is for us to show what it looks to be filled with the Spirit of Jesus. The way you treat your husband, the way you are at work, the way you treat your friends, the way you treat your children, is all going to matter and most of the time most of us don’t think our little mistakes really add up to much.
So then, the question about whether or not God sends people to Hell is answered.
No, he doesn’t send them to Hell. We choose Hell.
I’m saying this again here because nearly everyone’s impression of how people end up in Hell is all wrong and I want to drive this point home. We choose Hell by choosing our selves over God. We choose Hell by choosing false gods over the True One. We choose Hell by choosing not to be with God. Hell is the extrapolation of our selfishness, our sin, our pride, our violence, and that extrapolation of who we really are is bad, causing incredible emotional and physical suffering.
Judgment of sin
Some might say, “This all sounds a little impish or vindictive on God’s part, like he’s bloodthirsty and just itching for us to finally get what we deserve. Is this God’s bloody judgment on humanity?” No, it’s his bloody judgment on sin. God, in his justice and in his holiness and his righteousness, cannot abide sin at all.
We have the same sense of justice inside of us. If somebody told you a serial rapist was about to go free and move next door to your house, how would you feel? You would be infuriated because of your sense of justice. But because of the Fall and our own sin, our sense of justice is cracked up a bit; it’s not quite as properly put together as with Him.
God cannot abide our sin so he has to judge it. In order for the world to be the way God wants it be, in order for you to have the best life possible, to have life and life more abundantly, God has to get rid of sin. He has to judge it.
The only time we suffer God’s judgment of sin is when we refuse to let go of our sin. If we let go of our sin and take hold of the life God offers us in Christ Jesus through his Spirit, then we have nothing to be afraid of.
Recall that Jesus paints the picture of Hell as being like a burning garbage dump and his intends for sin to get tossed out and burned up with the trash. People worry: “Will I be burned up in judgment?” Only if you refuse to let go of your sin.
Just so you have something to hold onto, something to pull out of all of this, what I really want you to know about is not Hell, but life. I want you to believe that Jesus did not design you for Hell. He did not design you to be burned up, to be tormented, to be tortured now nor later. He designed you for life. He designed you for goodness. He designed you for relationship. He designed you for peace. He designed you for harmony. All the crap you go through right now in this life—the Hell on earth, the way you feel like Hell, when everything’s shot to Hell—all of that is going to be fixed.
According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:15 and Romans 8, according to Isaiah 65 and 66, all the stuff that is wrong is going to be set right in the new creation, what we commonly refer to as heaven. I want you to know that there’s something better in store. So, please:
Trust in Jesus.
Hold onto Jesus.
Pick the team of Jesus.
Accept the way of life Jesus taught us.
Study the Bible.
Listen to teachings.
Fill yourself full of the teachings of the way of Jesus.
Even though it’s going to be mean sacrifices, even though it’s going to hard, even though it’s going to be counter-cultural in ways, you’re never going to have to worry about Hell. Just live the way Jesus tells you to live.
Lastly, and most importantly, accept the help of Jesus, the guidance of Spirit of Jesus, and submit to the will of the Father. That’s maybe a bunch of gobbledygook, and I don’t have time to explain it here, but it just means that in every moment of every day say, “Lord, I want your will to be done in me now, so my will doesn’t screw it up and I have to suffer consequences later.”