Lunchbar: How can a good God send people to hell?

Lunchbar this week was on the topic “How can a good God send people to hell?“. It’s a big question for a lot of people – as we saw from the good discussion that followed in the question time. Lots of people – and lots of non-Christians in particular – are asking this question. In fact, I’ve been asked this or a similar question twice this week by two different people in general conversation when they found out that I was a Christian.

The speaker started off by explaining that a good God is also a just God. Deep down we all suspect that God must be fair, which is in fact one of the presuppositions behind the question about how God can send people to hell. The question is whether God is just: does the punishment fit the crime?

God is love – as the Bible tells us – but that doesn’t mean that God loves everything. God does not love evil – and so there is no contradiction (in fact, it may even be necessary) for a God of love to punish evil. Hell is a place where evil is punished – and because of God’s love he will not overlook or ignore evil. A few examples were given of how most of us agree that evil should be appropriately punished – for example, few people would say that sending a criminal to prison is unjust (and those who do, often say prison is unjust because they would suggest a harsher punishment!)

So the question is whether the punishment fits the crime. Is hell an appropriate punishment for sin? Often we think of sin as being trivial – something “naughty but nice”, or as only being committed against other people rather than God; or that there is a hierarchy of really bad and not-so-bad sins (the ones we commit being towards the less serious end of the scale!) and we ignore sin as rebellion against God; as treason. If we think hell is harsh it is because we do not think sin is really that big a deal. But it is!

Hell is not arbitrary or unjust, and it does not make God unloving. The most loving person who ever walked the earth was Jesus of Nazareth; and yet it is he who speaks the most often and the most graphically about hell in the Bible. Yet he did not just talk about it, but offered himself as the way of escape from hell. Jesus offers more than religious teaching – he offers himself as the way of salvation from hell: as God’s rescuer. He offers himself, and experiences the full punishment for sin, in order that we may not. The one offers himself as a sacrifice for many – and for Christians there is no need to fear going to hell, because Jesus has completely rescued them from it. So the question then becomes, why do people who have heard about Jesus Christ refuse to be rescued by him?

 

This all provoked some good questions – one of the things that was raised is whether it was indeed just for Jesus to take the punishment on our behalf – is that fair? I think one of the things that could have been said in response to this is to emphasise that Jesus was not a “third party” in all of this – a victim with no choice in the matter – but that he willingly became incarnate and went to the cross. Maybe Christians need to explain about the Trinity in answering this question – otherwise it becomes possible to misunderstand substitutionary atonement as unjust or arbitrary.

All in all though, a really good, faithful and thought-provoking Lunchbar!

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4 Responses to “Lunchbar: How can a good God send people to hell?”

  1. PG Says:

    Do we really have to explain the trinity so it doesn’t seem like subs atnment becomes unjust? Is not emphasizing the willingness of Christ enough as you mentioned earlier?

    Or perhaps I am missing out on not explaining the trinity when I norm ans that q. What would the benefits be of including it, please?
    Cheers

    • agyapw Says:

      Hi Peter,
      Good question. If it’s just an off-the-cuff question that requires a one-line answer then the willingness of Christ is definitely the place to start. But that will usually imply things that lead to more questions being asked, which are only answerable in a Trinitarian framework. In fact, the speaker at LB on Friday did make a nod in that direction by explaining that Jesus was fully God and fully man, and so the only one qualified to take our place on the cross. It might have been good for him to expand a little on this!
      If we get our ideas about the relationship between the Father and the Son wrong, substitutionary atonement becomes open to all kinds of misinterpretations, even if we still see Jesus as a willing sacrifice. For example, have you ever heard a gospel presentation that presents the Father as wrathful and only persuaded to love us by Jesus’ self-sacrifice? That’s essentially heretical, and it rests on some kind of division of purpose within the Trinity, but it’s a really common misconception (or so I’ve found when talking to Christian theology students about substitutionary atonement… so who knows what non-Christians think when they hear bad presentations of the cross…)

  2. cosmicdolphin Says:

    oh deah! i seem to appear on your blog roll! what is it and how to you get there? I seem to be getting traffic on my site from people who have clicked on your blogroll! Is PG Peter Grier at all?

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