"By 'hell,' what do you mean?"-- this is the kind of question that you are likely to be asked anytime you bring up this subject in conversation. For our purposes here, I'm going to assume the traditional notion of hell which includes a place of eternal punishment where God's wrath is poured out on those who have chosen to rebel against Him (including Satan, demons, and unrepentant sinners). Frankly, this is a troubling issue for many, including myself. Before trying to dive into this weighty question, I want to mention a few observations that will help us in handling this:
Your conclusions shouldn’t be made because you simply don’t like the alternatives.
- Our thinking and dialogue about this should not be flippantly casual. The stakes about this could not be any higher as we are talking about friends’ and family members’ eternal fate. So, cartoonish descriptions of devils in capes, the use of the language of damnation in cursing others, and imprudent accusations that others should “go to hell” are not appropriate in any context as this subject must evoke a real sense of solemnity when Christians speak of it.
- How you handle this will depend greatly on your theology. How one views the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and divine election will absolutely shape your thinking. So, study biblical Anthropology, Theology Proper, and Soteriology before and during your study of “the problem of hell.”
- Do not base your conclusions about this doctrine on an emotional appeal. Your conclusions shouldn’t be made because you simply don’t like the alternatives. In other words, you shouldn’t settle on a belief that hell doesn’t exist because “If it does, then my mom, who wasn’t a Christian, must be there.” There are plenty of things that are true regardless of whether we like that reality or not. I would humbly ask the readers of this post to base your position, for good or for bad, on Scripture and the logical implications that we can draw from Scripture. Address the arguments, not the emotional appeals!
Put the Question in Its Theological Context
When thinking this through, we should paint the picture that the overarching story of Scripture does. When God creates man, He gives him freedom of choice. Adam and Eve chose to sin. Accordingly, all of mankind has been shaped by sin and still has a choice, but still chooses sin. In fact, it is this utter disregard for God’s Law due to moral corruption that characterizes man in his natural state. This is not to say that unbelievers can’t live an ethical life according to certain (worldly) standards, but rather that the very heart of a man (his intentions and his nature) has been corrupted and remains evil. God, the holy judge, in His grace provides an offer of salvation in light of mankind’s awful predicament; yet, most reject it. On one hand, it is this choice to sin and refuse the Gospel that leads to the consequences of punishment. So we would be right to say that people choose separation from God and this results in eternal damnation.
God, the holy judge, in His grace provides an offer of salvation in light of mankind’s awful predicament; yet, most reject it.
Does this mean that all people who choose to sin have this punishment on their minds when they sin? In other words, is the criminal always thinking about being put in jail when he commits the crime? No, not usually. People likewise are not necessarily “choosing” hell in the sense that they really want to go. No one really wants to go to hell if they have an inkling of what hell really is. The true weight and dreadfulness of damnation precludes us from saying that the people who are in hell are there because they wanted to be. Scripture does seem to say, however, that God “throws” the condemned into the lake of fire. God “sends” in that He punishes those who have chosen to commit the crime and refused His offer of salvation. People's moral decision-making has been so skewed that they choose to sin in spite of the consequences or they choose to sin because they have suppressed the truth of the reality of God's holy reign.
Another Angle of Response
recognize even here on earth how utterly wrong it would be to have a court
system that has imperfect justice. The wickedness of man would be unchecked and
unhindered if there wasn’t some system of fair justice. So, too, God ensures
this justice on a cosmic and eternal scale and God never does something
begrudgingly or that’s not in accordance with His will. So, while God may be
grieved at the sinner’s refusal to obey the Law and to accept the Gospel, when
He charges the sinner as guilty and condemns him, He does so
because He wants to display His justice. This is more than simply God saying “You don't want to follow me? Fine,
go do your own thing!" It is also God’s exercising divine
judgment on those that refuse, over and over again, to bow the knee to
the rightful ruler of creation.
What can we draw from this?
What can we draw from this? In part, it makes the grace and love that God’s elect receives all the more profound and deep. God does not owe us anything, especially salvation! We have no entitlement! No hope is afforded to us that is apart from that offered in Christ. It is only in Christ that we can be called children of God and not children of wrath. In Christ, we find an amazing grace given to undeserved sinners who truly deserve damnation. Oh, how sweet to trust in Jesus! Amen.
*I realize this issue is much more complicated than discussed here. My intention in this article is not to provide a nuanced summation of all the intricacies surrounding the problem of hell, but rather to introduce a quick response to the question as it would be necessary "on the street," as it were.