Search Site

Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

What kind of man is this, with what kind of heart?

Jesus tells his friends how much he has longed for this last Passover supper with them . . . knowing full well what comes after it. With candlelight dancing in his eyes, he surveys a table set with bread and wine, bitters and roasted lamb. Everything has been prepared.

From the available evidence, we can reconstruct at least a partial seating arrangement of the 13 men who gathered around that low wooden table. We find Judas reclining on cushions to Jesus’ immediate left—the place reserved for the intimate friend. There is no distance between them; they even dip their bread into the same sauce dish. This closeness explains the things spoken in the upper room that not all the disciples seem to hear. Not all are privy to the dreadful secrets passing between Jesus and Judas.

“What you are about to do, do quickly.”

The relationship between Jesus and Judas holds moments of warmth—Jesus caresses Judas’ feet in his two hands and washes them—moments of foreshadowing—“you will not always have me”—and moments of complete and awful understanding—“One of you will betray me.” Always, always, the Betrayed reaches for the betrayer, even in the moment of the treachery itself later in the garden. Judas pulls himself away from Jesus and from that famous kiss to hear a word designed to reach out to him and slap him awake: “Friend!”

“Friend, do what you came for.”

What more can Jesus do? There is one last thing . . . in only a few more hours.

No matter how many times I read the story, it always goes the same. Jesus loves Judas. Judas betrays Jesus. Jesus offers his life for Judas. Judas throws his life away. If Judas thought suicide would make his pain go away, the Bible is far too clear on this point.

His pain is just getting warmed up.

And I ask you to consider in the story of Jesus and Judas, who abandons whom? Just who gives up on whom? You want to ask, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” But scan the record again. It doesn’t read like a story of a man being sent anywhere. It’s the story of a man rejecting every possible good, going his own way and destining himself for the dark. Do you see?

The only one trying to stand in his way is the Son of God.

(Please read Matthew chapters 26 and 27.)


How could a loving God send people to hell? First of all, thank you for treating the matter of eternity as if it has some relevance. It does. As I write this chapter, the nation is reeling from the destruction by terrorists of the Twin Towers in New York City. The terrorists, Muslim fundamentalists, certainly had no remorse, no last second, “Lord, what have we done?” Just seconds before their suicide attack killed thousands of people and devastated thousands of families, they were very likely smiling, maybe even laughing, quite possibly cheering. What about a few seconds after? Were they laughing still? or perhaps living in blissful nonexistence? Is that how their stories end? In other words, did they get away with it? Does that sound right to you? Me neither.

You ask, “How can a good God send people to hell?” I ask, “How could a just God tolerate the evil we see in this world?” I think of such things as are said to children, such things as are done to women . . . and I want God to care and want God to be outraged. I want God to remember. I can’t imagine that God, especially our good God, wouldn’t care about the way we are living and the things people do to people.

Fine. You’re with me so far. But hell? My mind too recoils at the thought of an eternal hell for sinners who never repent. Yet I have to ask whether it is to be trusted, that is, this emotional, knee-jerk reaction of a sinner on the topic of what should happen to sinners. Jesus himself—who is, in a gross understatement, to ethics what Einstein is to physics and Michael Jordan is to basketball—saw no problem with the doctrine of hell. Far from it. His life and teachings are incomprehensible apart from the real and awful danger he saw looming in the afterlife for human beings. The ethically brilliant Christ saw clearly the necessity of hell. Do I understand justice better than Jesus? Am I the judge of God?

If you argue against the existence of two eternities—one with God forever and the other without him—if you argue against the patient justice of the one who made us, you are arguing for the utter meaninglessness of all things. You are arguing that finally nothing we do in life matters at all and that you and I, and Judas and Jesus—every pang of every conscience to the contrary—play meaningless games with nothing really at stake.

I’ll admit, it’s difficult even to think about the first moment a soul spends in hell, what the realization that it will never end must be like. But what I cannot at all evict from my mind is the knowledge that our human sense of justice is the echo of something larger than us. For in all the judgments we persist in making—even those that judge judging itself—and in all the stamping of our tiny feet, we speak as if we think we’re saying something true. And we are. For it is written across the cosmos that some things are wrong, dreadfully and unspeakably wrong. There is such a thing as divine, perfect wrath—a necessary corollary of divine goodness. There is a God in heaven whose very nature is, as the Holy One, to oppose every evil with all that he is and to respond with awful justice. Would you ask God not to be God? Have you mistaken his patience regarding the state the world is in for moral apathy? That is a miscalculation. God’s immutable righteousness is just one thing we need to see when we stumble at the question of hell.

Next, we need to see ourselves. Do not get the idea that hell is a reality only for the Osama bin Ladens of the world. We need to think again about the distinction we try to draw between the “really bad people” and ourselves. We need to take a deeper look into the nature of our own sin. There is plenty of badness within us.

Deep down we like to think of ourselves as strugglers— “if anyone knew what I go through, they wouldn’t blame me for the things I do.” A little wound is all we need to justify any thought or any act. Yet in our own private shames and personal vices, we see that same damning quality as is found in the worst things humans have done. Surely, when people reject God—reject God!—it is more serious than words can say, and God cannot be blamed for leaving them to the natural consequences of that rejection.

But you see, this is the nature of every sin, even the very smallest act in which we do what the God of our existence says we must not. All sin is a rejection of God himself, an act of insane defiance, and a basic denial of his goodness.

Human iniquity is a desperate and feverish sawing on the very branch we sit on. I see in my own unlovely life something in me that is always saying to God: “Leave me alone. I don’t need you. I don’t want you. Don’t tell me how I should be. I don’t belong to you.”

And because I discover that meaning in my own sin, I couldn’t hold it against him if I were to go to hell, if after a lifetime of sun and rain, endless grace and endless chances, he should say: “All right then. Have it your way. I leave you alone.” This, expressed in the dark and in the fire, is hell. It doesn’t come for those who merely fail to believe the right things. Hell is what sin and sinners deserve. It is the right place for God to send those who despise the One they know is real by creation and through their own conscience. They know. The consequences are somehow even worse for those who have heard and have refused the call of Christ. In the words of C. S. Lewis, people get to hell “on their own steam.” To reject God’s good and holy will, then reject his free salvation, then reject his right to condemn the contemptible or to be God at all . . . well, what is he to do? Hell is filled with people who still want nothing to do with him. In fact, God did not create hell in the sense of making something new. He merely removes his love and all his life-giving blessings. What is left for the damned to experience, God’s unending wrath that punishes every sin—this is hell’s essence.

Someone observed that when a fig tree outside Jerusalem withered away, it was not because of something Jesus did but because of something he stopped doing. He stopped sustaining, holding, looking on in silent benediction. And the fig tree withered away. So it is for the soul in hell—the one that didn’t want to be disturbed—when God finally, fully withdraws his love and blessings.

If we were not sinners ourselves, if thinking itself had not been damaged in the fall, we would see all of these things completely. In fact, the Scriptures do not only say that justice will be accomplished at the end of the world but also that justice will be seen to be done, so that every mouth will be shut.

I take no pleasure in this chapter, but I cannot apologize for echoing the message of Christ: Meet me as Savior or prepare to meet me as Judge. Hell is not a doctrine gleefully pronounced on other people over whom I feel morally superior. I also deserve to go to hell because of all my sin. This is not something I want to be true, but Christian beliefs, unlike so many others, aren’t formed by mere preference. More than anything else, what keeps this one awful thing on the list of all the beautiful things I believe through Christ . . . is Christ. I fear that if you deny hell because you don’t like to think about it (a luxury Jesus didn’t have), you can never really see him. Until you see that something in you saying, “Leave me alone,” you catch no glimpse of that something in him saying, “Over my dead body. I won’t let you go.” Deny hell and you can never see very far into the heart of Christ, who walked up a hill under a threatening sky and called your disaster on himself. Deny hell and nothing Jesus did will make any sense. Especially, you will miss how intense, how passionate, how personal everything is that we read in his deeds and in his face those final hours. The message of his anguish is meant for you: “I don’t want you to go to hell! I don’t want you to go to hell! I won’t let you go to hell!”

Just what did you think his crucifixion was for?

I don’t write of hell to keep you afraid. The dominant note is not fear but unspeakable relief, gratitude that takes your breath away, to think of the horror you never need to know and what it cost for you to be rescued. I write so that you might be bonded to Christ, inseparably connected to him forever. You must go deeper than your sentimental thoughts of Jesus as your best friend and kindly helper in tough times. He is those things. But meet him first as Rescuer. Deliverer. I want you to experience that walk toward heaven that begins just outside the gates of hell, where he walked through fire for you. All I want is for you to never, never forget what he did for you.

All God asks is that you let a little of the sorrow in—the sorrow about your own life—and that you trust the One who died for you. Then Jesus will come at last and gather you to your home, where you will always have him.

***

When we talk about the tragedy of hell, it’s important to keep the story of Judas in the front. It’s one time we get to see the look on God’s face as the unthinkable happens. He reaches for someone. His hand comes back empty. Sorrow opens up at his feet. This is the betrayal, the disbelief, the devastation that is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus looks at his betrayer and calls him friend . . . as Judas wrestles himself away.


From More Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Stairs" by Hans Braxmeier is licensed under CC0 1.0.

More Prepared to Answer Image Map