A friend wrote the following question to me,
If God loves all his people, and Hell is a punishment, does he punish them for eternity, showing an unmerciful nature, which is in direct contrast of love, or is it like prison, where you do your penance, then you go home? (Click below to read the rest, or listen to an MP3 reading of the article here)
Many people have debated the subject of whether or not hell is for eternity. However, most serious Bible scholars do believe that it is. And, while I do not consider myself an expert, after several readings of the Word of God (and accepting it as written), I tend to agree with them. For a more detailed breakdown of what the Bible say about this subject, check out this link at CARM. However, don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. I always encourage people to study God’s Word for themselves.
So, with that being said, the next natural question would be, “How can that be loving?” While my friend’s question above does not ask that question directly, it does lead in that direction.
If some describes God as loving and forgiving, and they stop there, they provide you an incomplete picture. It would be like a blind man who describes an elephant as “stringy” because he’s holding onto the tail. You might say that he is missing the forest for the trees.
While the Bible does describe God has loving and merciful, it also shows Him as holy, righteous and a perfect in judgment.
The Bible makes it clear… we have all sinned and therefore, we all deserve hell. All of us have broken God’s laws, hurt our creator and hurt each other, too many times to count. We have all walked away from God, shook our fist in the air, and said, “God, we don’t need you, we will live life our way.” We do not deserve to spend eternity in Heaven with a perfect God, but deserve to be separated from Him. That place is Hell.
Yet, there are many who would seek to be with Him. His Holy justice can’t be turned by a promise to do better in the future. The law of punishment must still be satisfied. As a Holy God, He must judge fairly, and cannot simply change those laws based on a whim or love. The law must be satisfied. What does a Holy God who is also loving do? He provides a way for those who DO want to spend eternity with Him by sending His Son to die in their place.
That can be a bit hard to swallow all at once, so here’s a story I made up to help illustrate these points (and more) all at once.
A man, let’s called him Henry… was known in his home city for his acts of kindness. A successful businessman of repute, journalists often wrote about how he donated a good portion of his earnings to helping those around him.
One morning, before work, he had an argument with his wife. He had to rush to work, so he jumped his car, still a bit miffed about the dispute with his significant other. And, that’s why he forgot to slow down in the school zone he drove through on the way to work. Unfortunately, he hit a small girl, fatally wounding her.
The police brought him in, and he was quickly thrust in front of a judge. No one doubted Henry’s culpability in the actual act, so the defense attorney focused on Henry’s reputation in hopes that the judge would lift the sentence. He pointed out that Henry was beloved not only by his family, but his entire community because of his many great deeds and caring spirit. Even the judge could not help but be moved as person after person testified what a great life Henry lived up to that day. Nearly no one wanted to see Henry pay the high price prescribed by the law for the crime he committed, most of all the judge as they enjoyed a close friendship.
Yet, on the other side of the courtroom, next to prosecuting attorney, sat a man and a woman, with tear stained faces, who wanted exactly that. The parents of the girl killed sat silently as the case played out. While character witness after witness spoke for hours about how they felt Henry should not pay a price for his actions, they looked at the judge for justice. After all, the law also prevented them from seeking justice for their daughter’s death outside of the courtroom. They had to look to the judge for that.
The loving judge wanted to save Henry from his fate, and even felt pressured by the others in the courtroom. Yet, he swore to uphold the law without bias. How many times had he heard his own friends criticize in anger when a judge gave a lesser sentence than normal to a celebrity or friend? If he did not sentence Henry according to the law, he would be bad as those judges, no matter how he or anyone else in that community felt about Henry.
It seemed hopeless. If he condemned Henry, his friend whom he loved would have to pay a price greater than he could bear. If he waived the sentence, justice would be slighted and he would break the law he swore to uphold. The law was clearly violated and a debt to society was owed, as a result. The judge could think of only one solution that would satisfy the justice of the law and yet demonstrate the love he had for Henry at the same time.
The judge handed down the sentence, as his oath and justice demanded, causing great cries of sorrow from those who loved Henry. Then, the judge raised his hand to quiet everyone, and stated that Henry would not have to pay the debt back to society. Instead, the judge himself would do so on Henry’s behalf. Justice and the law would be satisfied. Henry would be set free. The judge would pay the price on his behalf. You can imagine the emotions that resulted from that ruling and decision.
My story ends there, but our story only begins. This is how God satisfied His law, which as a Holy God he could not simply hand-wave, and demonstrated His love at the same time. He sent His Son to die for us, on the cross, in our place. The Bible says, “For God so love the world that He gave His only Son that whosoever believes on Him will not parish, but have everlasting life.”
For that substitution to work, my must accept it. To accept it, we must put our faith in Jesus and lay down everything to follow Him. To simply believe falls short here, for even Satan believes in God. If God allowed Satan (and all who hate God and His justice) into heaven, then you could expect for heaven to look a lot like earth. After all, many people here live their lives in defiance of God. Sin, murder, rape, etc., are all results of us living our lives in defiance of the one who made us. To allow all into heaven (as some suggest that a loving God would do), invites the chaos and destruction that you see around you today.
For those who truly repent of their selfishness, and lay down their lives to follow Jesus, He not only offers a way to salvation, but promises us a new body without a sinful nature, in eternity. There, we will live together, in His Holiness, without pain and suffering. Sin will not exist in the presence of our Holy Father.
Now, imagine that the judge did all of that, and Henry said, “Judge, I appreciate your offer, but I do not need it. Yeah, I did what I did, but I don’t need your help. I’ll continue to live my life my way. Yeah, I’m sorry for what I did, but that’s my problem, not yours. Just stay out of it.” What could the judge do at the point BUT condemn Henry in accordance with the law? None of us would blame the judge for carrying out his duty at that point. Yet, people wish to judge God, our creator, when He judges us similarly, even as we say “God, we don’t need you.” People deny that such of God, who judges people, could ever exist.
I hope this helps some understand how a loving God can judge us to hell. Whether hell is temporary or eternity, there’s little doubt that it is a place you do not want to be. The New Testament gives us more warning and detail about hell than heaven. So, we should take it seriously and insure we follow the one true and living God, lest we face Him in judgment with no defense for the crimes, sin and pain we inflicted on Him and others.