Hell—A Tribute To God’s Love
All who espouse Christianity live in hope of eternal life. Together with God’s promise of eternal life for the faithful (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 2:17; 5:13; John 4:14; 17:3; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Timothy 2:10; Matthew 25:34, 46; Titus 1:2; et al.) is a corresponding promise of eternal destruction and punishment for the rebellious sinner and unfaithful Christian (cf. Isaiah 66:22-24; Matthew 18:6-9; 25:41, 46; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10, 14-15; et al.). It is certainly not pleasant to speak of everlasting punishment (understanding, of course, that this is a reference to timelessness rather than a duration of temporal punishment), however, there are several reasons for us to have such a discussion. If Hell is not eternal, then neither is Heaven, for both are described in the same way (cf. Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46). Furthermore, both spiritual reward and punishment are logical extensions of the principle of sowing and reaping (cf. Galatians 6:7-8). Moreover, we are told that eternal reward was prepared for us from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34), but that the “accursed ones” will depart to a place “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). It is called the “eternal fire” and if it cannot be conceived as eternal, then it would be difficult to conceive of the devil and his angels being punished forever also.
Now, return to the principle of sowing and reaping. The apostle Paul said:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)
This is an inviolable principle of the natural world. If we sow, we shall also reap. We always reap what we sow. We reap longer than what we sow, and we always reap more than what we sow. No one would plant a single seed of corn, expecting only to reap one single seed of corn in the harvest, after making all the necessary preparations both for the planting and the harvesting. This would be incredibly foolish. But, this principle is even more important in spiritual matters. If one sows to the spirit, then he reaps eternal life, but if one sows to the flesh, then the result will be corruption, otherwise described as the eternal fire. The same truths are in force here. We reap what we sow, longer than we sow, and more than we sow. Both Heaven and Hell are extensions of this principle. Not one single person will be in Heaven who does not belong there. Too, not one single person will be in Hell who does not belong there. As finite creatures, we frequently make mistakes. I am thankful that my destiny is in the hands of a righteous judge who does not make the mistakes that we humans make (cf. Genesis 18:25; Romans 3:23-26; 6:16-23). Now, look at those who would oppose the thesis of this article, namely, that “hell is a tribute to God’s love.” In his book, The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins gives us his idea of God. He says:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (31)
It seems Dawkins goes out of his way to pile up negative adjectives in his description of the Lord. I suppose he thinks that his pejorative language will be convincing to those who read the book. Not to be outdone, though, Dan Barker seemingly tried to outdo his colleague in his latest book. The first part has a chapter on each of the words that Dawkins uses and carries the caption, “Dawkins was right.” But the second part of the book has the caption “Dawkins was too kind” followed by a string of adjectives of his own, used as chapter headings for this part of the book. I wonder if Barker is seeking to have as great an influence as the more well-known Dawkins. Perhaps this is his motivation, but no one can really say except for Dan Barker. Now, I could easily extend this discussion, but my point is to show that these individuals want nothing whatever to do with God! More convincingly, I mention two skeptics who were asked what it would take to convince them that God existed. Bertrand Russell addressed this question in his 1953 essay answering the question, “What is an Agnostic?” Russell said:
I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next 24 hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events proceeded to happen, I might perhaps be convinced. . . . But as far as I know no such evidence exists. (203)
As you can probably imagine, Russell would never have received such evidence, nor will anyone else. I insist that the evidence for God is sufficient, but not compelling. What this means is that God is not going to violate our freedom that permits us to learn to love, honor, and obey Him. Along with this, it must also be possible for individuals to despise, dishonor, and disobey Him. Some refer to this as an “epistemic distance.” This means that the evidence is not such that no one could possibly deny it or reject it. At the same time, it is sufficient for one to come to a knowledge of the truth on this subject. Another example of this was recorded by Peter Boghossian in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. He referred to Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who was asked the same question. He had claimed during his presentation that he was open to changing his mind, or to be convinced. However, he also proved that this supposed openness was just an elaborate deception. He opined:
Once they’ve given their response [i.e. the ones Boghossian is counseling], I thank them. If they’ve asked me what it would take for me to believe, I’ll use a variation of American physicist Lawrence Krauss’s example in his debate with William Lane Craig: if I walked outside at night and all of the stars were organized to read, “I am God communicating with you, believe in Me!” And every human being worldwide witnessed this in their native language, this would be suggestive (but far from conclusive as it’s a perception and could be a delusion). (82)
Several problems ought to suggest themselves to you at this point. For one thing, delusions are not shared experiences. In other words, all human beings worldwide would not have precisely the same delusion. Another issue is the fact that such universal evidence would be far greater than either of these men require for almost everything else. For instance, do either of these men deny the existence of electricity, even though we know it essentially through the effects. We do not have an empirical perception of electricity itself, and it will not be a universal experience, because electricity is not available throughout the whole world. No matter; these men do not require any more than their own individual experience, and perhaps a lab experiment or two in order to accept the reality of electricity. When it comes to the question of God, however, our skeptical friends have told us that really no evidence of any sort would convince them that God does, in fact, exist!
John Loftus, a former preacher turned atheist, expressed what most skeptics believe about Hell. In fact, he likely put a voice to what many Christians think as well. He says: “I’ll argue that the whole notion of . . . punishment after the grave is uncharacteristic of a loving God” (447). Loftus asserts that it is incompatible for God (if He is a Being of infinite love) to punish people as is generally held to be the biblical position. A much more assertive (I would even go so far as to say militantly aggressive) posture was taken by Wallace Matson in his 1978 debate with Dr. Warren. He said:
[W]e are talking about something different tonight [than his book entitled The Existence of God]. There is nothing in the book about punishing some individuals eternally in hell. That is what makes all the difference. I assert that that being does not exist. I cannot possibly be mistaken about it. So if that is the kind of dogmatism that Dr. Warren wants me to espouse, well, he is welcome to it. I will do it. On that issue, I am a complete atheist and I am not apologizing, retreating, hedging, bluffing, or anything. Is that perfectly clear? I hope so. . . . That is to say, what I am maintaining is that Dr. Warren’s God is a self-contradictory being like a four-sided triangle and therefore can’t possibly exist. In fact, I shall maintain this God is a doubly self-contradictory being, a really grotesque logical monster. (36-37)
Matson also argues from Matthew 25:41, 46 that both Heaven and Hell are placed on an equal footing in Scripture. This means that they are the same in duration, given biblical teaching (39). In cases like the two I have just mentioned, these persons have defined love differently than the Bible as well. They suggest (by implication) that love means something like, “this action isn’t repugnant to me,” or “I am not comfortable with it,” or “I don’t like this doctrine.” In other words, we are leaning more toward the subjective side of feelings, inclinations, desires, or wishes, rather than an objective correlation to reality.
Not surprisingly, there are a number of theologians and religious groups who have jumped on the same train in order to either deny the reality or Hell, or, in some way, to mitigate its duration. This has long been the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and the like (without mentioning individual theologians from other religious groups), who are called “annihilists” to indicate the position. They argue that the lost (unbelievers) will either be completely destroyed or will suffer only a very minimal punishment, especially in its duration. They sometimes base this position on the “Golden Text” of the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). There is a difference, they say, between “eternal life” and “perish.” Believers inherit “eternal life,” while unbelievers simply “perish.” Obviously, perish is not taken to mean what Scripture says elsewhere, but is taken instead to mean “destroyed” or something closely akin to this. However, as I have argued earlier, both Heaven and Hell are logical outgrowths of the principle of sowing and reaping. And Scripture speaks rather plainly of eternal punishment. As Dr. Matson put it, both Heaven and Hell are put on equal footing in New Testament teaching. If one is not eternal, then neither is the other. If there is such a thing as eternal life, and if eternal punishment is on an equal plane, then there is also such a thing as eternal punishment.
Ironically, though they are poles apart on the question of God’s existence, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and the Deity of Jesus the Christ. Both the skeptics mentioned and the annihilists agree to some extent that eternal punishment in Hell is incompatible with a God of love. They might be willing to say that Hell is an outgrowth of God’s justice, holiness, and righteousness, but they cannot seemingly bring themselves to say that Hell is based upon God’s love. It is this position to which I shall respond in the balance of this article. Not one single person will be in Heaven who does not belong there, nor will one person be in Hell who does not belong there. God does not make mistakes (Romans 2:1-16; etc.). God judges on the basis of His standard of righteousness, without respect of persons being involved at all (cf. Revelation 20:11f.; 2 Corinthians 5:10, etc.). Everyone is on equal footing before God! Now, we argue that Heaven is a tribute to God’s love, mercy, and grace. But, it is also a tribute to His justice, righteousness, and holiness. Hell is a tribute to God’s justice, righteousness, and holiness. But, I maintain that Hell is also a tribute to God’s love, mercy, and grace. You might be thinking to yourself “Sztanyo, you have completely lost your mind. How could it possibly be loving for God to punish anyone in Hell? This makes no sense at all to me.”
I can understand a person’s reluctance to accept my position. So, let me tell you why I say that it is true. First, we have looked at a couple of examples of individuals who have made no secret of their avid hatred and opposition to God, and, by extension, all of us who submit to Him. They want nothing to do with Him, nor do they wish to entertain even the possibility of being in His presence. They certainly have no desire to be with any of us who submit to Him. I have read enough of their writings to say that this is what they wish as they have expressed it. We argue that God honors our freedom, and does nothing to violate it. So, would it be gracious and merciful to force those who hate God and His people to have anything to do with them? Can we conceive of it being a loving thing for God to totally overlook and ignore what these people want more than anything else in life? Should God force them to be in His presence? The prophet Ezekiel said of God: “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11). It is clear that God does not want anyone to be lost, but if that is their choice, He will honor that choice!
Second, would anyone think that it would be loving to force bitterest enemies (say, Hitler and the daughter of a Jewish family that he had murdered in front of her eyes) to be married at the point of a gun? Take any illustration you can imagine, and ask yourself, would such behavior be loving at all? Could such be considered merciful or gracious? If not, then how could such behavior be considered loving if God does it? After all, “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). He taught us what (agape) love means, and how it is that we show it to others. To wish the best for all people and to act to help bring that about, is the way one should understand agape love. Sometimes the best thing for a person to do is to change their lives and/or suffer the consequences of their chosen behavior. For instance, think of mass murderers (like the infamous Unabomber). Would it be loving to ignore his behavior or to pretend that it really does not make any difference?
Third, would it be loving on God’s part to force those who hate Him to worship Him for eternity, continually sing His praises? If none of these things can be conceived as loving behavior, then you can understand why I say that Hell is actually a tribute to God’s love, mercy, and grace. He has made it possible to completely honor one’s deepest aspirations and the greatest goals they have for their lives. For those who have ignored Him and any of His overtures toward them, He has made it possible for them to continue to ignore Him. And, while in this life, some feel the need to fight against Him relentlessly, and to repudiate any and all who follow Him, there will be no need for any of this in eternity. Thus, the God of love will not force anyone against his will to do what they simply do not want to do at all!
The God depicted in the Bible is infinite in all His attributes. None of them cancel another one of them out, or somehow war against the others. All of them are in complete and perfect harmony one with the other. As a good example, consider the following passage:
Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. (Romans 11:22-23)
If we conceive of God at one end of the choices of men, and humans at the other, we find that God acts with kindness toward those who are walking in harmony with His will. But, to those who fell from that position, He visits them with severity. And, the promise is to those who do not continue in rebellion against His will, that He will bring them back and once again visit them with kindness rather than severity. It is also possible for those who are walking in harmony with His will to cease doing so, and if that occurs, then they would also fall according to what this passage is teaching. On the line of human behavior with God at one end and all of us at the other, it is crystal clear that the changes take place on the part of men. God is not moving at all! And, His kindness and severity are in perfect harmony with one another.
With respect to the character of God, there are complex issues to be sure, however, these are mainly due to the fact that God is infinite and we are not! He is non-contingent in all respects, and we are contingent beings. That being said, we cannot do away with Hell because some think that such would be beneath or incompatible with the God of love who freely offers us salvation from and freedom from sin and an eternal home with Him. We cannot define love differently from the way that it is defined and described in Scripture. And, nothing that we read suggests that the God Who is love (1 John 4:8) could not send some to Hell because such would be unloving conduct. Instead, He is honoring the strongest aspirations and desires of those who freely reject Him, without in any way compromising His character.
Barker, Dan. God: The Most Unpleasant Character in all of Fiction New York: Sterling, 2016.
Boghossian, Peter. A Manual for Creating Atheists. Durham: Touchstone, 2013.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Loftus, John W. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Amherst: Prometheus, 2012.
Russell, Bertrand. “What is an Agnostic?” Religions in America. 8th ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.
Warren, Thomas B. and Matson, Wallace I. The Warren-Matson Debate on the Existence of God. Jonesboro: National Christian, 1978.