Big Idea: Why should be believe in hell? Understand that the Bible teaches it, deals with our objections, and calls us to respond.
We’re in a series on the difficult questions that people ask about Christianity, and today we’re at one of the toughest. Today’s question: How could a loving God send people to hell? It’s a great question, and it’s one that’s even being asked by Christians. Francis Chan, a pastor and author, wrote a book on hell and began by confessing: “Part of me doesn’t want to believe in hell.” Around the same time, another pastor came out and implied that he actually doesn’t believe in hell. I spoke to someone last year who told me that if Christianity is true, then it’s a tragedy, because Christianity teaches hell. Some people think that it reflects a primitive view of God who must be appeased by pain and suffering. It is, I think, one of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines.
I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said of the doctrine of hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.”
So we need to look at this question: how can a good and loving God send people to hell? Before we go on, I have to admit that I approach this topic with some trepidation. I don’t like talking about this topic. Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist, said:
[Hell] is sobering. When I was asked by Dr. Billy Graham to deal on this theme, I was not sure I was qualified. It is one of the most solemn truths in all of the Word of God. As I prayed and studied, I was reminded of what Robert W. Dale once said: "The only man I can listen to preaching on hell is D. L. Moody, because I have never heard him talk of it without breaking down and weeping."
I am not sure I’m qualified to teach on this topic. It is a solemn one. It is an emotional one. But we have to face the questions honestly, including the difficult ones. So let’s do that as simply as possible. Here’s what I want to cover with you today:
- First, that the Bible clearly teaches that hell is real.
- Second, that the Bible deals with our intellectual challenges to hell.
- Third, that the Bible calls us to respond to its clear teaching on hell.
Let’s look at the first point as we consider this difficult question:
First, the Bible clearly teaches that hell is real.
I’ve already mentioned Francis Chan. In his book on hell, he wrote this:
Part of me doesn’t want to believe in hell. And I’ll admit that I have a tendency to read into Scripture what I want to find—maybe you do too. Knowing this, I’ve spent many hours fasting and praying that God would prevent my desires from twisting Scripture to gratify my personal preferences. And I encourage you to do the same. Don’t believe something just because you want to, and don’t embrace an idea just because you’ve always believed it. Believe what is biblical. Test all your assumptions against the precious words God gave us in the Bible.
Good advice. If we had a sermon on what we wanted to believe, it would be a very short sermon. There’s probably nobody here who enjoys the thought of hell. If you do, then maybe there are other problems! Hell is terrifying and upsetting. I can certainly see why people struggle over the idea of hell, and try to find a way to believe that it’s not true.
The main problem is that we’re not at liberty to decide whether hell exists based on whether we like it or not. We need to look at what the Bible teaches, and according to Scripture, hell is real. Jesus himself is clear about hell. Jesus is the embodiment of love, and yet he mentions it again and again. Hell is mentioned twelve times in the gospels, and that’s not including the references to “eternal punishment,” “the fiery furnace,” and the place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus talked about the day of judgment (Matthew 10:15). He said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). He spoke clearly and often about judgment and hell, including these passages:
[Explaining a parable] The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:39-43)
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31-32)
It’s not just Jesus, either. Paul never used the word hell, but he spoke of the fate of the wicked more than any other New Testament writer, saying that the wicked would perish and be destroyed when they face the wrath of God. One author says, “Paul made reference to the fate of the wicked more times in his letters than he mentioned God’s forgiveness, mercy, or heaven combined” (Francis Chan). One of Paul’s clearest passages is when he describes:
…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9)
It’s not just Jesus and Paul. It’s also Peter, Jude, John, and the writer to the Hebrews. Every New Testament author makes reference to judgment. Whatever you and I think about hell, there is no question that the Bible teaches about it over and over again. There have been attempts to soften the teaching, but the teaching is so clear that it’s difficult to do so. Again, Francis Chan says:
I would love to think, as some have suggested, that the Bible doesn’t actually say a whole lot about hell. I would love to stare at my friend’s face when he asked that question we all fear— “Do you think I’m going to hell?”—and say “No! There is no such place! Jesus loves you and wants to heal your pain and turn your sorrows into gladness!”
But the New Testament writers didn’t have the same allergic reaction to hell as I do. Perhaps they had a view of God that is much bigger than mine. A view of God that takes Him at His word and doesn’t try to make Him fit our own moral standards and human sentimentality. A view of God that believes what He says, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense to us.
So the Bible is pretty consistent and clear in what it says. But what about our objections to hell? As we think about this, we’re going to see:
Second, the Bible deals with our intellectual challenges to hell.
In my experience, most people don’t really dispute that the Bible teaches that hell is real. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. But we don’t like it. We have our objections to the idea of hell. Specifically, there are three common objections: hell is an overreaction; hell is unloving; and hell is unfair. Let’s look at each of these.
The first objection is that hell is an overreaction. Why can’t God simply forgive? How can any sin deserve everlasting destruction? If God is just, how can he punish like this? The problem with this view is that it underestimates the severity of sin and the holiness of God. As someone put it:
Hell only seems harsh when we don’t see how infinitely serious it is to rebel against God. And it only seems harsh when we don’t realize how infinitely holy God is; in other words, how entirely perfect, how completely true, how utterly good and how profoundly beautiful God is. He is infinitely worthy of our love; and we love anyone, anything, but him. (If You Could Ask God One Question)
Sin is far more serious than we realize. We get glimpses of this as we see the consequences of sin — as we watch relationships destroyed, lives taken, and bystanders devastated. We know this when we hear about a teenager killed for a cell phone, an employee killed at an espresso bar, or a marriage broken apart by infidelity. We see the severity of sin, and we’re nowhere as holy as God. Theologian Wayne Grudem explains why it’s an even bigger deal to God than it is to us:
We realize from experience that sin is harmful to our lives, that it brings pain and destructive consequences to us and to others affected by it. But to define sin as failure to conform to the moral law of God, is to say that sin is more than simply painful and destructive—it is also wrong in the deepest sense of the word. In a universe created by God, sin ought not to be. Sin is directly opposite to all that is good in the character of God, and just as God necessarily and eternally delights in himself and in all that he is, so God necessarily and eternally hates sin. It is, in essence, the contradiction of the excellence of his moral character. It contradicts his holiness, and he must hate it.
You see, our sin is ultimately an affront to God, and therefore a very big deal. A middle school pastor once explained how this works. Suppose a middle school student punches another student in class. What happens? The student is given a detention. But suppose during the detention, this boy punches the teacher. What happens? The student gets suspended from school. Suppose on the way home, the same boy punches a policeman on the nose. What happens? He finds himself in jail. Suppose some years later, the very same boy is in a crowd waiting to see the President of the United States. As the President passes by, the boy lunges forward to punch the President. What happens? He is shot dead by the secret service. In every case the crime is precisely the same, but the severity of the crime is measured by the one against whom it is committed. What comes from sinning against God? Answer: everlasting destruction. Hell is not an overreaction. Hell makes perfect sense when we realize how infinitely serious it is to rebel against a perfectly holy God. The Psalmist writes:
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
The second objection is that hell is unloving. How could a loving God send people to hell? Here we have to realize that the “statement – ‘God is love’ – doesn’t mean that God loves everything” (If You Could Ask God One Question) For instance: God doesn’t love cruelty. He doesn’t love injustice or murder. He doesn’t love lying. He hates these things. It would be unloving for God to love sex trafficking or genocide. God’s judgment of evil isn’t incompatible with his love; it is an expression of his love. Becky Pippert puts it this way:
Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…. Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference…. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer… which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being. (Hope Has Its Reasons)
Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God's wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. But then his country experienced a brutal war. People committed terrible atrocities against their neighbors and countrymen. The following reflections, from Volf's book Free of Charge, show that we actually need God's wrath:
My last resistance to the idea of God's wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry.
Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators' basic goodness? Wasn't God fiercely angry with them?
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God's wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn't wrathful at the sight of the world's evil. God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.
There’s a danger in overemphasizing the love of God at the expense of his other attributes. God is love, but he is also holy and just. These attributes don’t contradict each other; they are part of the same being. Don’t domesticate God or sentimentalize him. Timothy Stoner writes:
What we need to make clear with our bumper stickers and culture-current writings is that the love that wins is a holy love. The love that won on the cross and wins the world is a love that is driven, determined, and defined by holiness. It is a love that flows out of the heart of a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness, who loves justice as much as He does mercy; who hates wickedness as much as He loves goodness; who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for Himself above all things. He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End. He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that
He’s that kind of God. It’s why God could say of himself:
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… (Exodus 34:6-7)
One of the biggest ways that hell reveals the love of God is that it helps us understand what Jesus offers us. Now you know how much God desires you. “If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never know what Jesus did for you. If you don’t believe in hell, you have a sentimental God at best” (Tim Keller). It’s only when you understand hell that you understand the love of God as well: that Jesus was willing to bear your sins, to go to the cross, to save you from what you deserve. It’s only when we see hell that we see the magnitude of the cross. “it is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding” (Keller).
So hell is not an overreaction once we see the seriousness of sin and the holiness of God. And it’s not unloving; in fact, it’s part of his nature. It’s an expression of the God who “burns—and yes, smokes in the ferocity of His infinite, holy love” (Stoner). The question shouldn’t be if a loving God would send people to hell; it should be how a loving and just God could allow any sinful person into heaven.
There’s one more objection, and it’s that hell is unfair. Even if hell isn’t an overreaction, and even if hell isn’t unloving, isn’t it unfair that people suffer for eternity for the wrong that they have done? The picture is of people trapped in hell for eternity trying to get out, and God ignoring their cries. But that’s not the picture that the Bible presents at all. Jesus told a parable, a story, about a rich man in hell in Luke 16. Commenting on this story, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson notes that as far as he could see, in Scripture “there is no hint anywhere that people in hell genuinely repent.” In other words, there is nobody in hell trying to get out. Carson says:
Hell is not filled with people who are deeply sorry for their sins. It is filled with people who for all eternity still shake their puny fist in the face of God almighty in an endless existence of evil, and corruption, and shame, and the wrath of God.
C.S. Lewis challenges us in our objections to hell. “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start …? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.”
In the end, most of our objections to hell are not based on any intellectual contradictions, but rather our distaste for the idea of hell. I get that. Hell is not something that we enjoy thinking about. But distaste does not mean that something is untrue. There are plenty of things that I find distasteful, that are nevertheless true. Hell is a hard reality, but it is not an overreaction. It is not unloving. It is not unfair. It’s just hard.
There’s one more thing we need to see today. We’ve seen that the Bible teaches hell, and that the Bible deals with the intellectual challenges that we have to hell. But there’s one more thing we need to see, and it’s perhaps the most important:
Third, that the Bible calls us to respond to its clear teaching on hell.
We are not talking today about an abstract concept, or an interesting debate topic. We are talking about something that the Bible takes seriously, and we’re asked to take it seriously as well. The reason that Jesus spoke so often about hell is that he wanted to warn us. He is warning people of a clear and present danger. He speaks clearly and bluntly, but it’s because he wants us to hear him. When the danger is a life or death one, that’s what we do. And it’s what Jesus does when he speaks on this topic. He wants us to understand, and he wants us to respond.
British evangelist Rico Tice says, "Loving people means warning people." He illustrates with the following personal story:
I was once in Australia visiting a friend. He took me to a beach on Botany Bay, so I decided I had to go for a swim. I was just taking off my shirt when he said: "What are you doing." I said: "I'm going for a swim." He said: "What about those signs?" And he pointed me to some signs I'd not really noticed— Danger: Sharks! With all the confidence of an Englishman abroad, I said: "Don't be ridiculous— I'll be fine." He said: "Listen mate, 200 Australians have died in shark attacks— you've got to decide whether those shark signs are there to save you or to ruin your fun. You're of age—you decide." I decided not to go for a swim.
[Many of the words about hell found in the Bible] are all straight from Jesus' lips. And they're a loving warning to us. The reason Jesus talked about hell is because he does not want people to go there. The reason Jesus died was so that people wouldn't have to go there. The only way to get to hell is to trample over the cross of Jesus. That is a great motivator for our evangelism.
There are actually three ways that we can apply the Bible’s teaching on hell.
First, we can let go of our need for revenge. Because there is a hell, we can know that the universe is just, that God keeps accurate records, and that he will render just judgment. A friend of mine says, “A soft view of hell makes hard people” (Chris Brauns). This is what helps us switch from being angry at our enemies, to actually praying for them. I mentioned Miroslav Volf earlier. After witnessing the atrocities in Croatia, he said:
My thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.
This is amazing. The only way, he says, to not pursue revenge is to trust that there is a God who will judge justly in the end. Paul wrote to slaves who were being mistreated and said, “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:25). Paul wrote: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).
Second, we can live our lives with urgency and holiness. The reality of hell and judgment should change how we live. Paul said that “knowing the fear of the Lord” he persuaded others (2 Corinthians 5:11). Peter said, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…” (2 Peter 3:11). Francis Chan writes, “We have become dangerously comfortable—believers ooze with wealth and let their addictions to comfort and security numb the radical urgency of the gospel,” he writes. “In light of this truth and for the sake of people’s eternal destiny, our lives and our churches should be—no, they must be!—free from the bondage of sin, full of selfless love that overflows for neighbors, the downcast, and the outsiders among us. In other words, we need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it.”
Preparing this message reminded me why we’re here as a church. What we do matters. Penn Jillette of Pen and Teller fame is an atheist, but he said this about evangelism:
I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life. … How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? … If I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was going to hit you, and you didn’t believe it and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point at which I tackle you.
Finally, we can run to Jesus and worship him for what he’s done for us. The Bible teaches that everyone will live forever in one of two places: with Jesus on the New Earth, or cut off from God in hell. Scripture says that hell is horrible, a place of eternal punishment, destruction, banishment, and suffering. The Bible uses figures of speech like fire and worms, which are figurative. John Calvin noted that Scripture can only use things from our experience to communicate something we’ve never seen or heard. “So as bad as fire, worms, and gnashing teeth seem, the reality of hell is much worse” (Mike Wittmer).
Most people think they’re not bad enough to deserve hell. But we’re like the drunks who are surprised when we’re pulled over by the police officer. We are all natural-born sinners in rebellion against God. But God has not left us to stumble on our way to hell. He sent his Son Jesus to live without sin, obeying where we did not. He offered his perfect life in our place at the cross. If we confess our sins and put our faith in Christ, then God credits his righteousness to us, and we are received righteous because of his Son. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In other words: “Jesus went to hell so we don’t have to” (Michael Wittmer).
Respond to this today. Repent and turn to Jesus. It’s the best and most important thing you could ever do.
Earlier on I quoted C.S. Lewis, who said this about the doctrine of hell: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” But here’s the rest of what he said: “But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.” Dorothy Sayers, another famous Christian, claimed, “We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”
We began by asking how a loving God could send people to hell. If there is no hell, then it cost nothing for God to forgive you. But because there is a God who is both holy and loving, it cost him everything to save you. It shows the extent of the love of God — that God is not just a sentimental being who loves everyone without cost and overlooks sin, but a God who sent his Son to pay the ultimate price, so that he could be both loving and just, and so that we could be forgiven.
Father, this is a hard topic. It should be hard. But it’s an important topic. I pray that we would push through the discomfort and see the clear teaching of Jesus and Scripture on this topic. I pray that it would drive us to live with urgency and holiness, and to run to Christ who experienced hell so that we don’t have to. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.