Tag Archives: Justice

Hell vs Love

“Hell”, photograph by Robert Doisneau, 1952

Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.

Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ” [1] Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….” [2] Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” [3] But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.

  • Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
  • Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.

Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.”[5] The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.


[1] David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
[2] Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
[4]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”,  a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.

The Unwanted Cure

“Family Doctor”, by Grant Wood, 1940.

What would you do if you found out you had cancer? You’d probably be in shock first, but as that initial shock wore off, what would be your plan? Would you aggressively fight for your life? Would you follow your doctor’s advice like you never have before? Would you sell all you had to finance treatment? Would you consider experimental medical procedures  if more typical medical solutions didn’t work? Or would you just carry on with life as it was before you got the diagnosis? Would pursuing the cure be too much work to bother with?

We all have a disease – a terminal disease called sin [Rom 6:23].  This disease has a cure, though. That cure is called the Gospel. Gospel literally means “good news”. If you had an advanced stage of cancer, and certain death was fast approaching, and someone told you that there was a treatment regimen that would cure you of the cancer, saying that was “good news” would be an understatement! But getting the benefits of that cure requires something so basic, you might not think about it: it requires admitting that you have cancer. You obviously wouldn’t need a cancer cure if you didn’t have cancer.

But the Gospel is a cure for a problem we don’t want to admit we have. Like an alcoholic or drug addict, admitting we have a problem is the first step. People can see God’s grace as offensive because they don’t think they need it. I’m afraid one reason people in our generation think they don’t need it is because all they’ve heard from Christians is “God loves you.” And while that’s true, they hear that over and over again and think, “Why wouldn’t He? I’m a pretty good person.” I’ve had several friends and family members now that have battled cancer, undergoing surgeries, chemo, radiation, or some combination. Some won that fight, others lost. But chemo and radiation and surgeries are only ever good news when you understand that your sickness is going to kill you. Almost every book in the New Testament warns us that if we choose to follow Christ, we will suffer trials, hardships, mockings, torture, imprisonment, and death. Is that being overly dramatic? Ask the Christians being beheaded in the Middle East, or the Christians imprisoned in North Korea and Iran. Read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Read Paul’s account of his own sufferings. Why go through that? All of those people understood what God saved them from, and just how good the Good News really was. As Peter said when Jesus asked if the 12 disciples would abandon Him like the fickle crowds had, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” [Jn 6:68 NET]

So is there anything that confirms the diagnosis? The Law of God is the test that reveals the need for the cure of the gospel of grace. His Law reveals our inability to keep His perfect standard. It shows us that being “pretty good” doesn’t help. We can win the Nobel Peace Prize, and every humanitarian award there is, and still find ourselves failing to meet God’s perfect standard just like Hitler and all the worst examples of humanity. Talk about a blow to one’s pride! The best we could ever hope to do isn’t enough. That’s the bad news; that’s the cancer diagnosis. We’re going to die without intervention. But it gets worse. We’re going to die as rebels and traitors before a perfectly just God. And He wouldn’t be just if He didn’t punish lawbreakers.  What are we to do? What can we do? Nothing, really. You might wonder, “Are we just ‘dead men walking’ then? Pretty much. “That’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?” Yep….

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Where we are powerless to stop this disease, God provides a cure, as only He can. And notice the design of His cure: both powerful to save, and available to save. God’s salvation is not limited only to the rich who can afford it, or the genius who can comprehend it, or those of some supposedly superior race who deserve it, or of a particular societal class entitled to it, or to those born into the right family to inherit it, or those who have lived long enough and worked hard enough to earn the cure, or to those who showed the most potential. Those are all ways us humans might try to determine who qualifies for something so precious, if we were in charge. Rather, God sent Jesus, his only Son, to live the perfect life we never could, to fulfill the Law in every detail, and to be the only sacrifice that could satisfy what justice demanded. God’s gracious gift of salvation is open to the Wall Street banker and the Main Street beggar, the quantum physicist and the ignorant child, people of all races, the upper crust and poorest of the poor and all the middle class in between, the zealot that has sought after God since he was in a crib and the militant atheist on his deathbed, the sons and daughters of privilege to the loneliest orphan, the child prodigy to the unknown pariah. Maybe you’ve heard Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”, and felt the condemnation there. That’s good, actually, but only as a start! The truth hurts, but nothing like the consequences of ignoring it. Now keep reading to the end of that sentence in verse 24: “… being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” [Rom 3:23-24] We’ve all sinned, but see the unsurpassable love of God!  – that we may be justified before Him simply by trusting in the redeeming work of Jesus. Have you acknowledged the sickness of your sin? Have you laid aside your pride and trusted Jesus alone to cleanse you of the gangrene of your soul? Or will you choose to turn down the free cure?


For further reading, Alexander Maclaren does a beautiful job, far better than I ever could, of explaining the passage from Romans referenced above.
Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scriptures: Romans & Corinthians, Romans3:19-26. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/maclaren/rom_cor.ii.vii.html

 

Highway to Hell

Dante & Virgil in Hell - William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850
“Dante & Virgil in Hell”, witnessing the fierce brutality there – William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850

I met up with an old friend for dinner the other day, and we started talking about objections we’ve heard to God’s existence, or to Christianity specifically. He brought up one he’d been presented with: “If God would send my best friend (or parent/sibling/etc) to Hell, then I don’t want anything to do with that God. I’d rather go to Hell to be with my friend/family.” An implicit assumption there is that where your friends or loved ones are, friendship and love will continue to exist. However, there’s really no reason to think that would be the case. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s not going to be any parties in Hell, regardless of whatever songs, jokes, or movies you’ve heard or seen. Nevertheless, let’s examine the logic of this loyal, but misguided idea,  with 2 analogies related to loved ones still living and those already deceased.

Consider this: if your house is burning down, staying in to try to save your friend is commendable. But the idea is for you both to get out of the danger. Would you run through the burning home, find your friend, and then sit down next to him, a few feet away from an exit door, and wait for the burning roof to collapse on you both? No! If you love your friend, you’ll try to get him to come out of the inferno with you. Or if there is somehow only opportunity for one of you to get out, you might push him out ahead of you in heroic self-sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[1] But to join him in his eventual demise doesn’t help anyone. Instead, seek escape from the impending disaster together. In this case, go on a truth quest together. Or, if your friend refuses to investigate about God, then seek Him out on your own if you have to; save yourself, and then go back in like a firefighter, protected from the blaze and equipped to rescue your friend, if he’ll let you. He may not. After all, God gives us free will to accept or reject the offer of salvation.

But what if that friend or family member has already died in his or her sin, cut off from God? There is no trying to save them in that case; it’s too late for them. While that is truly heartbreaking, should the one who still has a chance to live forfeit it, and choose eternity in Hell with their friend over life with God? This is even more short-sighted than dying with your friend in the burning house, for this is like standing at the doorway, able to step through to safety, but seeing your friend’s charred corpse in the corner, and choosing to stay and burn as well. It only doubles the tragedy.

“But how could God be so cruel as to send my friend, who was a great upstanding guy, to a place of eternal torment?” That’s a fair question, but whether we agree with God’s motivations is really beside the point. It comes back to objective truth. If God exists, and if a realm called Hell exists, and God has provided a means to rescue us from it, then the choice is clear, whether we like it or not. For example, I was practically born with a lead foot, and I find speed limits very annoying. However, the limits still exist, and are still enforced with very real fines. So whether I agree with speed limits or not, obeying them is the only guaranteed way to not get a speeding ticket. Likewise, whether I agree with God’s plan or think He’s cruel, or anything else, obedience to His plan is the only alternative to Hell.

All that aside, what of God’s motivations? Is His plan actually cruel? It’s easy to think that when we judge behavior by our standards. But “nobody’s perfect,” as the old saying goes, and yet perfection is God’s standard. Even “great, upstanding guys” will fail that standard every time. That’s why, as hurtful as it may be to our pride, we need God to provide the solution. And He did, in the form of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. Moreover, if God did “bend the rules” and “let them slide”, He would not be just. Also, what is “hell” anyway? It is, ironically, what many who resent the idea of eternal punishment most desire: separation from God (the source of all goodness) for all eternity. But that desired separation will be the eternal torment they resent.

In closing, I can’t help but notice that we tend to like it when someone in authority lets us go without our due punishment, like a cop giving me a warning instead of a speeding ticket, but we are outraged when others are let off the hook, like a corrupt politician getting away with embezzling. You might say those examples are comparing apples and oranges. But that’s the thing: we don’t like the idea of hell because we have an overly optimistic view of the goodness of mankind, and an inadequate view of what sin is to a perfectly just, holy God. But any sin is rebellion against God. When we calibrate our standards to the one perfect standard of God’s, then we recognize the justice of Hell, but also the amazing grace and love demonstrated at the cross.


[1] John 15:13.