Monday, May 28, 2007

FAQ 3: Would a God of love send people to hell?

This is without a doubt one of the questions I am asked most. It is asked with varying degrees of seriousness by Christians and those who would not call themselves Christians alike. It is asked as a "defeater" - an intellectual objection to Christianity. It is asked as a personal struggle. And it is asked by people who are simply confused about who God is, what love is, what people are like, and what hell is.

And at one level, the answer is extraordinarily simple: yes.

Yes, because he says he will. Yes, because the God of love is also the God of justice and will see justice done. Yes, because we live in a moral universe with a moral Sovereign who will call people to account.

At this level, I think there is something in all of us that feels that this is right. Everyone I know has some sense of justice, and feels outraged when people "get away with" injustice. Most people like to think that somehow people's wrong-doing will catch up with them, in this world or the next. Hell is the final guarantee that this will be so.

But there is another level at which the answer to this question is harder - very much harder. When we think of hell, we naturally think of people who have done what we class as "terrible things" - the Hitlers and Stalins of this world. But the Bible tells us that we should think more broadly; that hell is the default destination of all of us. If we are logical, we may be able to see this - that if wrong-doing is always punished, and if no-one ultimately gets away with it, then our moral and social failings (however small they may be) cannot just be brushed under the carpet. But logic isn't the level at which we operate here. We are emotional creatures, and the thought of hell - of God's final justice - is horrible to us. It should be.

So I can argue fairly easily that hell is real - that one of the two possible outcomes for every human life is punishment by God. But I have to do it with tears in my eyes.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God is real, and therefore he cannot be imagined by you to have only those characteristics that you like. He is as he has revealed himself to be. And he has revealed himself to be just - absolutely just. He is the God who will not let any wrong go unpunished.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God's love does not over-rule his justice; that we cannot take some general idea of love from the world around us and assume that God's love is just like that. God's love is revealed at the cross - and the cross is the display of God's justice as well.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that people are not as you imagine them to be. We are all of us more wicked than we can imagine. Even the nicest of us is inherently rebellious and radically self-centred.

And with tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God's judgement will fall on everyone who doesn't accept the sacrifice of Jesus in their place, without exception. And this will be hell.

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