One of the most elusive and difficult beliefs that orthodox Christians must deal with is the belief in Hell. Hell is not a popular belief and for good reason; who wants to believe that God would send someone to an eternal, never-ended separation from Himself? What kind of loving God would do such a thing?
Christians have attempted to offer up arguments for why Hell is there (e.g. “God doesn’t send people to Hell, they choose to go”), but all of these arguments seem to be a bit weak. After all, even if people choose to go to Hell, why would God even create it in the first place, subsequently allowing such a choice? Likewise, it is just playing with words – God still condemns the people to Hell, He sends them there.
What, then, should Christians think about Hell? How should Christians approach this issue? Should we abandon this belief as a misreading of the New Testament, as something that was added on after the fact? Should we deemphasize Hell and act as though it’s not as important as we make it out to be? Or should we follow the orthodox belief that Hell is a real place and, regardless of how our culture views the belief, stick with it as an absolute?
I would advocate that we continue with the orthodox acceptance of Hell as a literal place that is eternal and I would accept this for various reasons. I want to offer some of these reasons below:
1) Hell is a common belief among most spiritual people, including inclusivitsts. A few years ago a clip was released of Oprah debating with one of her audience members on who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Oprah, not surprisingly, took the position that all good people went to Heaven and, according to her almost all humans were good. I would like to ask Oprah, and those who follow such a belief, if everyone actually goes to Heaven. What about the famous characters such as Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, or other brutal dictators? What about the man who rapes and murders a little girl? What about a man who beats his wife throughout their entire marriage? Do these people also go to Heaven? The most common belief is that no, they don’t go to Heaven; most people often say, “If there is a Hell, these people are going there.” In other words, we have no problem condemning the most hardened of criminals to jail, but they decide to stop there.
I would argue that this shows that almost everyone, to a certain extent, believes in some form of Hell (if they believe in the afterlife). Whether this is through annihilation of the spirit, imprisonment of the soul, or a literal Hell, most people believe in some type of justice post-mortem. This means there really are few true Universalists as most people place limits on who can and cannot go to Heaven.
2) The human sense of morality is fallen and infinitely lower than God’s sense of morality and justice.
One perplexing and almost paradoxical fact about Christianity is that humans are made in the image of God, but also fallen. This means we can and do understand morality, but that our understanding can often times be fallen. It means that we can hand out justice this side of eternity, but that our sense of justice is highly imperfect and flawed. Since morality and justice are transcendent (exist outside of humanity and are imparted onto humans) it means that humans can and do misunderstand these concepts.
God, on the other hand, is absolutely perfect; truth and justice exude from His character and personality. Truth exists outside of humans, but comes from God. In other words, truth is contingent upon God’s existence, whereas it exists regardless of human existence. The same is true for justice.
Generally when people deny a belief in Hell, they say they don’t see the justice or love in the issue. This view, however, is flawed because it is taking an imperfect understanding of truth and justice and attempting to apply it to a perfect understanding of truth and justice. Thus, we can only rely on Scripture (God’s revealed Word to humans) in attempting to understand Hell; human understanding falls severely short on this issue.
3) Without Hell there is no such thing as God’s love.
Without Hell it would be difficult for humans to understand the love of God and why He sent His Son to die on the cross. Christ came to die for His elect so that they could escape the wrath of God and the judgment of God – both of which culminate in Hell. Everyone can admit that the ills of this world pale in comparison to what Hell is like, but Hell is the consequence of violating the morality that God has established. God established this moral law for humans to follow because we are in His image and, subsequently, are called to be perfect like He is. When we fail at living His image, we are acting in an autonomous manner (saying, “We don’t need God”), which requires the justice of God.
We all fail and sin, meaning we violate and mock the holiness and image of God on a daily basis. We all deserve to go to Hell, but God – in His love – has given His only Son as a sacrifice, as a substitution. How can we possibly begin to understand this level of love until we understand why He did it? If a man pushes a lady out of the way of a speeding bus and instead allows himself to get hit in her place, what sense does it make for her to deny that there was a speeding bus in the first place? The man’s death looks vain and pointless if she was never truly in any danger of being hit by the bus. Likewise, if humans were never in any danger of Hell, then Christ’s death was useless and, if we are honest, idiotic. For Christ’s death (and God’s love) to have any meaning, there must be a Hell, something humans are saved from.
4) God’s justice is perfect and He is fully justified in sending people to Hell.
Many Christians try to say that God doesn’t send people to Hell, but this view unwittingly denies the justice of God. God most certainly sends people to Hell; simply read the various New Testament parables where the person representing God in the parable casts the people into the streets, or darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus even says that God will separate the sheep from the goats and will tell those on His left that He never knew them, shortly before casting them into the lake of fire. God most certainly sends people to Hell.
A good way of looking at this is to envision a judge here on earth. Though a criminal chooses to commit a crime, the judge likewise chooses to inflict a punishment on that crime. The judge has free reign over what that punishment will be, but it is his choice. Likewise, people might choose to rebel against God, but it is God who chooses to punish people for this rebellion. God could choose not to send people to Hell, He could choose another consequence, but He doesn’t and therefore does send people to Hell.
This belief does not make God unloving or evil, but instead shows Him to be just. Though God is loving – as love comes from Him – He is also just and therefore must punish people when they violate His holiness. God is justified in sending people to Hell because they are violating the Law He has established; for God to not send people to Hell means God is not just, which means He really is not God.
5) Good works cannot get humans to Heaven because “good works” technically don’t exist.
Another perplexing problem in Christianity is that we believe the lost can do good works, yet can’t do good works. The reason this is perplexing is that Christians have two definitions of what is ‘good.’ There is altruistic good and then Godly good. In truth, altruism does exist among the lost as they can perform a good deed out of self-sacrifice, never hoping that they will get credit for it. The lost are fully capable of doing this type of good. They cannot, however, perform Godly goodness.
Godly goodness is goodness that is performed on behalf of the Father in order to please Him. Whereas the lost are acting in goodness autonomously from God, Godly goodness is done with reliance upon the Father. This means that the first type of goodness, though beneficial, is ultimately sinful in that it is attempting to perform a positive action outside of the Father’s help; any action performed outside of God’s aid or blessing is sin, as the root of all sin is the desire to be autonomous from God.
This means that no one can work his or her way to Heaven. All good deeds, outside of the Holy Spirit’s aid, are done independent of God and are therefore evil in His sight. This is why Christ died; to bring people into a relationship with the Father. If one does not accept this relationship, then one cannot be saved because his work is never redeemed.
I hope that all of this makes sense as it was thrown together quite quickly. Ultimately, Hell is a necessity if we are to believe that a loving and just God exists. Though this is a bitter pill to swallow, its bitterness doesn’t make it any less true.