why would a loving God send people to hell?
I know, I said it. There it is.
We don't like to talk about it, but it's vitally important.
As Christians, we need to acknowledge hell as very real.
Without the reality of hell, Jesus' sacrifice was pointless.
If there is no place away from Him, there would be no purpose of salvation. Anywhere away from Him will inherently be hell. The absence of love, joy, and all goodness.
I read The Reason For God by Timothy Keller recently. It's a book that addresses many questions that all people (Christians and people who aren't Christians) have.
One of the chapters answers the question -- "How could a loving God send people to hell? Is that not contradictory? If it's a contradiction, it can't be true." The book has several questions like this that it addresses.
When I read this chapter, I kept thinking about it for days. It honestly changed my perspective on how I live my life, evangelism, and just...everything. It followed my thoughts for so long, that I took the time to type it out below, so you can read it too. It's just an excerpt from the chapter, but it's the meat of the answer. Afterwards, I want to interact with it just a little bit, but I also just think it's an important thing to read alone -- so it's available here on my blog forever if you ever want to share it with anyone.
"A loving God would not allow Hell."
by Timothy Keller
"Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven't made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says "Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!"
This caricature misunderstands the very nature of evil. The Biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God , which is the source of all joy and indeed all of love, wisdom, or good things of any sort. Since we are originally created for God's immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential. If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell -- the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy.
A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates.
We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now we ask the question: "What if when we die we don't end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?" Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.
Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16 supports the view of hell we are presenting here. Lazarus is a poor man who begs at the gate of a cruel rich man. They both die and Lazarus goes to heaven while the rich man goes to hell. There he looks up and sees Lazarus in heaven...
And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’" Luke 16:24-31
What is astonishing is that though their statuses have now been reversed, the rich man seems to be blind to what has happened. He still expects Lazarus to be his servant and treats him as his water boy. He does not ask to get out of hell, yet strongly implies that God never gave him and his family enough information about the afterlife. Commentators have noted the astonishing amount of denial, blame-shifting, and spiritual blindness in this soul in hell. They have also noted that the rich man, unlike Lazarus, is never given a personal name. He is only called a "Rich Man," strongly hinting that since he had built his identity on his wealth rather than on God, once he lost his wealth he lost any sense of self.
In short, hell is simply one's freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.
We see this process on a smaller scale in addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First, there is disintegration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction. Second, there is the isolation, as increasingly you blame others and circumstances in order to justify your behavior. "No one understands! Everyone is against me!" is muttered in greater and greater self-pity and self-absorption. When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing -- though a good thing -- becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy. Personal disintegration happens on a broader scale. In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion, and self-absorption. When you lose all humanity you are out of touch with reality. No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.
In his fantasy The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. There they are urged to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell -- but they refuse. Lewis's descriptions of these people are striking because we recognize in them the self-delusion and self-absorption that are on a smaller scale in our own addictions.
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.” - C.S Lewis
The people in hell are miserable, but Lewis shows us why. We see raging like unchecked flames their pride, their paranoia, their self-pity, their certainty that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is an idiot! All their humanity is gone, and thus so is their sanity. They are utterly, finally locked in a prison of their own self-centeredness, and their pride progressively expands into a bigger and bigger mushroom cloud. They continue to go to pieces forever, blaming everyone but themselves...
That is why it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying "I'm sorry! Let me out!" The people on the bus from hell in Lewis' parable would rather have their "freedom" as they define it, than salvation. Their delusion is that, if they glorified God , they would somehow lose power and freedom, but in a supreme and tragic irony, their choice has ruined their own potential for greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, "the greatest monument to human freedom." As Romans 1:24 says, God "gave them up to...their desires."
All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that?
“There are only two kinds of people – those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.'” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn't be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it."
- CS Lewis"
If you got through all of that, congratulations. It's a lot to take in and process. I've read it through at least five times now.
It hasn't radically changed my view of anything I already believed, but I do believe it shifted my perspective in a very important way. One of the main things I am taking away from this new perspective is taking the gigantic weight off of my shoulders of having to be the giver of salvation. I won't save anyone. Saving people is not my responsibility. You won't be the savior of your family, friends, co-workers, the children in Africa. Jesus is our savior.
Our only responsibility when it comes to the spreading of the Gospel is to proclaim truth with our life. Our only responsibility in this area is to tell people about the Gospel with our words and actions. If a person does not they decide to accept life and follow Jesus, it is not like blood on our hands. If their eyes aren't opened to the Gospel after we tell them, that's not our fault. We can only tell and lead by example, we don't save anyone. It may be a strange thing to clarify, but I have held on to a lot of guilt in my life over feeling like I wasn't working hard enough to make someone a Christian -- which is utterly ridiculous to think about as I type this. Anyone else? Just me?
I'm not claiming to be an expert on hell -- this book just truly impacted me and I couldn't shake it, so I thought it would be a good thing to share.
What did you learn from reading this excerpt by Tim Keller? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
You can buy the book on Amazon here:
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism