A Series of Responses to Jon Steingard’s Declaration of Disbelief in God
How could a God of love possibly consign any person to eternal damnation in hell? Certainly Jon’s issue with this is one that many share. To some, the fact that God would send anyone to hell is incompatible with His being ‘loving,’ and thus gives credence to the belief that He does not exist. People dislike the idea that many people will spend eternity in a place called ‘hell’ and assume God is the one who puts them there. Thus, God becomes the object of disdain, and since they certainly don’t want to worship a God like that, they choose not to believe in Him at all. However, a misunderstanding of God and hell, or even a God they ‘don’t like,’ has nothing to do with whether or not He exists. In the real world, this is not how things work. If someone disappoints us (in our opinion, doing something unexpected and seemingly out of character), we don’t suddenly decide they don’t exist. This is an illogical conclusion. Rather, in the real world, we would either try to distance ourselves from that person, or try to better understand the reasoning behind those actions. As we briefly tackle this issue, let us open our minds to the latter.
What is ‘hell’? If people die and go there, does that necessarily mean that God sent them there? If God acts out of love and justice, both of which are essential facets of his nature, is it possible that both a loving God and this place called ‘hell’ exists? These are all important questions. The most simple definition of ‘hell’ is ‘eternal separation from God the Creator.’ We often attribute flames and torture to ‘hell’, and it is indeed described this way in parts of the Christian Bible, but we must also remember that we are using human language to describe a terrible place of spiritual suffering. It is the soul that goes to hell, not our physical bodies along with its many pain receptors. We don’t know the exact nature of the suffering there. Whether these fiery descriptions be actual or metaphorical, I believe that hell is essentially a place of eternal hopelessness, eternal regret, eternal darkness, and eternal loneliness. This state can be worse for the soul than any flames. On the flip side of the same token, heaven will be a place of light, of eternal fulfillment, eternal fellowship, and eternal excitement. (This would describe our state both in the temporary spiritual heaven and the New Heavens and New Earth where we will have glorified physical bodies, but the specifics of that must wait until another time).
Under the Christian worldview, a good and just God must punish wrong-doing. But let’s back up a moment. We can’t see a need for being saved from hell if we don’t understand why we are destined for hell in the first place. No one looks for a solution until they first recognize the problem. Only the person who is diagnosed with diabetes cares about insulin. It is intuitive to most people that those who commit moral crimes should be punished. We have a basic sense of justice built into us. If someone murdered a member of your family, you would demand that justice be served and the guilty party be punished. In fact, if the justice system chose to ignore the incident or simply let the perpetrator go free, it would be a bad government that could not be trusted. Saying that ‘if God is good, he couldn’t send someone to hell,’ is almost like saying that ‘if the government is good, they can’t give anyone a lifelong prison sentence.’ As author Alan Shlemon puts it, “A person who breaks the law in any given jurisdiction is subject to punishment by the authority in charge of that jurisdiction.” He continues:
“In the same way, we live in God’s jurisdiction. God has given us laws that govern His universe. If someone breaks one of His laws, then they deserve to be punished. That is just and good of God. Failing to punish those who violate His laws is not noble, but negligent. We couldn’t call God good if He didn’t hold people accountable for their crimes. That’s why I don’t think the right question is, if God is good, why would He send people to Hell? The more puzzling question is, how can God be good and just but not send people to Hell? After all, God would be immoral if He ignored injustice.
So it follows then that we must ask, ‘Have I ever committed any moral wrongs?’ If we are honest with ourselves, we must all admit that we are not perfect and that we all have committed numerous wrongs throughout our lives (called ‘sin’). By our own admission, we are guilty and deserving of punishment. We may make excuses, or we may think that the punishment doesn’t match the ‘sin,’ but we also underestimate the significance of sin in the face of a perfectly holy God. God in His perfection and holiness cannot be in the presence of sin in heaven, and thus our sin automatically separates us from Him. It’s where we should expect to go. But there’s Good News! God, in His love, mercy, and grace, offers us a pardon on His terms, and His terms are Jesus. If I know I’m destined for hell, does it matter what the conditions are to escape it? No, whatever they are, I’ll do it! In this case, God came down to Earth as the perfectly moral Jesus Christ. Since Jesus had no sins to pay for Himself, He is able to pay for our sins in our place, should we choose to accept Him. We can escape the punishment that we deserve because He took the punishment on Himself. Buddha didn’t do that. Moses didn’t do that. Muhammad didn’t do that. Jesus was the only sinless sacrifice that God could accept on our behalf (we will go into more detail on how this works when we tackle Jon’s question about ‘substitutionary atonement’). In a way, people send themselves to hell by freely rejecting the salvation that God offers through believing and accepting His Son, Jesus Christ. Again, hell is simply eternal separation from the very God we chose to reject on Earth. Hell is a continuation of the state we chose on Earth, yet without any hope.
Think of the sun as a parallel analogy. The sun is a good thing in and of itself. Life on Earth literally could not exist without it. The sun’s warmth on our faces can be a great source of comfort and exhilaration. Yet this same sun has the potential of severely burning us. It bears down on all people equally. As imperfect, immoral people, we are all subject to a just God’s punishment. The New Testament of the Bible says that “All have fallen short of the glory of God,” and “No man is righteous, no not one.” However, God loved us so much that He provided a shield from the sun, someone to take the ‘heat’ of punishment for us. God provided the sunscreen, should we choose to use it. The sunscreen of salvation through Jesus Christ. Just because we can all be severely burned by the sun doesn’t mean the sun is bad (or doesn’t exist). In fact, we know the sun is good and necessary. When we go out to the beach, forget to wear sunscreen, and get badly sun-burned, we don’t curse the sun. We recognize that we are to blame for neglecting to wear sunscreen. Yes, the sun burned us, but the fault is ours. It is certainly just for us to be punished for our sin, but God in His loving mercy provided a way to protect us from His wrath by coming to Earth as a perfect human and paying the penalty for our sins.
This question understandably holds weight for many people at first glance, but instead of raising our fist to God in anger at the concept of ‘hell’, perhaps we should be on our knees thanking God for His mercy, should we choose to accept it.