How Can God Be Loving and Send Someone to Hell?
Earlier today I noticed this meme on Facebook, posted by a friend of mine. It’s a challenge to the believer that the God he worships is self-contradictory and inconsistent. The meme would seem to say the scripture is at odds with itself. Thus, why believe in a God who contradicts himself like this? However, such a perception is partial and false. Yes, Jesus wants us to love our enemies. Yes, Jesus showed love to his enemies. And yes, Jesus will send his enemies to hell. And there is no contradiction. Here’s why.
The problem being revealed here is not a contradiction in the Bible. It is what theologians refer to as an Apparent Contradiction vs an Actual Contradiction. Apparent Contradictions come when we fail to take into account everything that the Bible might have to say on a subject, instead preferring to cherry-pick a few choice things to make an Apparent Contradiction seem like a real one. Apparent Contradictions can be challenging, like this meme. But they are not Actual. Let’s look at this in the light of what scripture actually teaches.
How can Jesus command love yet create a place like hell for nonbelievers?
Some people argue that hell was made for Satan and his demons and was not intended for humans. Yet this belief fails to take into account that there is no other place God created for non-believing humans to go too after they die without receiving Christ. Some quote Matthew 25:41 where Jesus says to non-believers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” They note that Jesus said hell was made for the devil and his angels but there is no mention of humans. But this doesn’t take into account the full text. Jesus, the passage records, sends these non-believers into hell. He says they must go, “Into the eternal fire.” Jesus also affirmed that God does send some people to hell when he said, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Clearly, hell is designed for all who rebel against God and there is no other place in creation where they are to go.
How could a loving God create such a place as hell? Keep in mind that hell is a place of punishment for sin. In God’s justice, sins against God are eternal since they offend the eternal God. While God’s hand of love and forgiveness is extended to all, there must be a place where those who reject that hand go to have a life apart from God. So, God’s love offers freedom, but the choice of the sinner rejecting God’s love goes to a place where God’s love is not manifested to him. If you object to the existence of hell, where would you suppose you could go? Perhaps a new place where you can live your life in offense to God and never be punished? Is that just? Consider, the person who breaks the law goes to jail. He has opportunities to live a good life without crime but rejects that life in favor of a criminal one. Should we send him to a place where he can commit as much crime as he wants and have us pay for it? Is that just? Moreover, is that loving to his victims? So it is with those who go to hell because of their rejection of Christ’s forgiveness.
Right now, God’s offer of love and our condemnation exist at the same time. We’ll see why, from John 3, in a moment. Some might argue that there is no reason why we can’t keep this arrangement. Why does it have to end? Why can we live in sin as we desire and God just leave us alone?
There is a time for love and forgiveness and a time for wrath and punishment. Jesus doesn’t extend his hand in forgiveness and leave it extended forever. There’s a time limit. When we pass that limit, then only wrath awaits (Hebrews 3:7-15; 9:27).
See what Jesus said about God’s wrath in John 3:17-18. This statement comes right after Jesus’ most famous words in verse 16, “For God so loved the world…” Then look what he says in his next breath. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Here we see that wrath is not necessarily something that will come later (though that is true), but that wrath rests on the non-believer right now. Jesus’ extended hand is the only escape. If we reject that hand we reject our only hope of avoiding God’s wrath. It’s like a man drowning in a pool. The lifeguard tosses out a life preserver, but the drowning man rejects it. He was already drowning. It wasn’t the lifeguard’s fault, he extended the drowning man’s salvation. Rejecting that help means he will only drown, and it will be all his fault.
Even in the Old Testament Jesus revealed the two sides of his nature. Look at how God declared his name to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
So, we see from God’s own mouth that his nature contains both love and wrath. But look closer. God says he will, “Visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children.” Is this just? Yes. This doesn’t mean that God will punish your children for your sin. It means that if you reject the Lord as your fathers did, then you take your father’s sin upon yourself by repeating it, and even magnifying it. This is what is revealed in I Kings when it says that Israel sinned, doing worse than the kings before them (I Kings 14:22; 16:25, 30). They took on their father’s sins and multiplied them. We even have a saying of Jesus to this effect. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees he stated, “The blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation” (Luke 11:50-51).
So, God is not unjust, he is consistent. He loves his people and reaches out in love to all. But his patience has limits. In one way Jesus’ love will be experienced forever by his people. But for those who die in their sin, they experience his wrath forever. One might argue that God should extend his hand of mercy forever even if we reject him, that love would require it. But this is untrue. If God didn’t end up punishing his enemies then he would not be just. Everyone who sins would continue to sin and just get away with it. How is that just? How is that love? Justice and love go hand-in-hand.
Look at this terrifying passage in Deuteronomy 28:63. “As the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” Now, there’s no way around this. I checked the Hebrew. The structure of the text when he says he “Took delight” in blessing them is the same structure as when he said he would, “Take delight” in destroying them. This is frightening. How can God take delight in destruction? This question comes to us because we in the Western church have been brainwashed to think that God is only a God of love. The scripture does say that, “God is love” (I John 4:16). But the scripture never says that God is only love. God is also wrath for those who reject him.
Here’s another interesting point. Believers in heaven will one day ask God when he will judge those that murdered them. Look at this: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). So, even believers who stand in God’s holy presence and experience the presence of his love, acknowledge that there is a time for love, and there is a time for wrath. What is even more interesting is that while the believers in this passage are asking for judgment, God answers them by telling them to wait a little longer. Why? Because God is busy extending his offer of love and salvation to a dying world.
Is there a contradiction between love and wrath? No. Can Jesus both love and have wrath at the same time? Yes. So, while it gives us some perverted sense of pride that we may think we have found a contradiction about Jesus or the scripture, once we dig a little deeper we discover that Jesus isn’t the one with the contradiction problem—we are. We want God to be what we want him to be. We want to enjoy the pleasures of sin and have no consequences. We want to ignore God all our lives and then demand that he let us into his heaven and have run of the place. So, you see, the contradiction is with us, not God. The question is, what will you do with your contradiction? Jesus’ hand of love is still extended. Will you take it?