How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?

By Stephanie Ismer

Nobody likes the idea of suffering. The normal human reaction to suffering is revulsion and a desire to make the pain cease. For most of us, witnessing people or animals in pain, or suffering from illness, hunger or abuse, is profoundly disturbing.

That said, it is not surprising that we have trouble with the idea of Hell. God knows this. He understands how bad we feel about the idea of eternal suffering. Even though we know the Bible says that Hell is a reality, millions of Christians still trust God and love him, without any fear that He is cruel or horrible. Even though I know what the Bible says about Hell, I still believe that God—the God of the Bible—is loving. For me, this is one of the most convincing proofs of God's existence. It is easy enough to doubt a concept when the concept doesn't make sense. It is much harder to doubt a Person whose presence and care you are familiar with, when they don't make sense.

Still, I have to ask the question: can the Bible be serious about eternal suffering? The fire that isn't quenched? The worm that doesn't die? The nightmare that doesn't end? How can these things exist in congruence with the love of God? Is there something we Christians are missing, or what?

Atheists will often reply to that question in the affirmative, asserting that what we're missing is a brain. The existence of Hell is one of the most commonly-used arguments for atheism, and no wonder: our human sensibilities are offended by the notion of eternal punishment. So, what is going on here?

God is Infinite, We are Finite

The other day I was relating all this to my mother. Her answer to me was very wise. She said, "Would you want to worship a God that you could totally understand? If you could grasp everything about him, wouldn't he be just like you?"

I think humility is the first key to understanding any theological dilemma. God created this entire universe. He encoded the DNA, molded the mountains, designed the nebulae, and gave monkeys their funny faces. A Being with a mind that creative, and so powerful that he can speak his thoughts into matter, is quite plausibly too complex for my finite brain to understand. And if I'm honest, I really don't have to know.

One of my favorite movies is La Vita e Bella, which is an Italian film about a Jewish father and his little boy who are captured and placed in a concentration camp during World War II. To keep his little child's spirits up while in the camp, the father lies to him telling him that the whole thing is a game. Because the child believes in the game, he willingly hides, runs and obeys his father in ways that he wouldn't if he was frightened by the reality of their situation. The father protects his child by not giving him all the information. This seems to me a very good picture of what God does for us, his children. Like children, the basis of our relationship is trust and love—not whether or not we have all the information. In the end, when we are finally made to understand everything, it will be in a "safe" environment where our minds will not break under the pressure of reality.

God is a Consuming Fire and Proximity Matters

I've pointed out the infinite power of God and the love of God as explanations for how Hell and God's love can co-exist. There is a verse in Hebrews 12:28-29 that brings out another, awe-inspiring aspect of him that I think is a very good (though very different) sort of argument.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
First, let me say that this idea does not come directly from Scripture, and I can't claim it as truth. I share it because it is something that helps me understand. One of the main descriptions we have of Hell involves fire. We also know that God is omnipresent—that is, his presence is everywhere. In Psalm 139:7-8, Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:18-20, God's presence has even been in Sheol, the place of the dead or the departed spirits—both good and bad.

Fire can both warm us and burn us, depending on our proximity to it. If it is dancing merrily in the hearth, we are cheered by its presence. If it is burning our house down, we are frightened. Without making any theological statements about things that are too high for me, it may be that since God is a consuming fire, our proximity to him makes all the difference.

Image Credit: Bruno Granzotto Cabral; "eyes5"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | Eternity-Forever  | God-Father  | Theological-Beliefs

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Published 5-16-12; Revised on 5-18-15