How Can A Good God Send Anyone to Hell?
Hard Questions, Honest Answers How Can a Good God Send Anyone to Hell? Pastor Pat Damiani April 22, 2018 Growing up, I wasn’t particularly opposed to God. In fact, as I look back, I certainly believed there was a God, and for much of my early life I just assumed that since I wasn’t an axe murderer or a thief and that I’d done more good things than bad things in my life that one day I’d go to heaven, even though I really wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. As I look back, I also can see that I believed in hell, at least in theory. It seemed logical that God would have a place of punishment for the really evil and bad people on this earth, people like Hitler or Charles Manson, or even someone who is a Sun Devil fan. But I really didn’t think I was in any danger of ending up there myself. But one day I was sitting on the mall at the U of A between classes when a young man asked me if he could share some things from the Bible with me. Although I wasn’t particularly interested in the Bible at that time in my life, I agreed to give him a few minutes of my time. And it wasn’t long until he convinced me that I was a sinner and that if I didn’t pray a prayer and ask Jesus into my life I was going to go to hell. And obviously I must have believed enough in hell to pray that prayer that day. And I went away that day relieved that because I had prayed that prayer, I now had spiritual “fire insurance” that would keep me from going to hell. I later came to realize that becoming a disciple of Jesus requires a lot more than just praying a prayer. As I became more familiar with the Bible, I came to understand that it also required a willingness to give up control of my own life and give that to Jesus – that’s what it means to make Him my Lord. And it also requires being willing to conform my life to what God desires rather than living like I want to live – that’s repentance. As I began to understand the Bible better, I actually began to struggle more and more with the idea of hell. I had no problem with the idea that some of those really wicked people I mentioned earlier would go to hell. But what about some of the other people in my life that I considered to be really good people? How could a loving God send those people to hell just because they didn’t put their faith in Jesus? I think all of us have probably asked some questions like that – especially when a family member, or friend or other loved one dies and we have to consider the possibility that even if that person seemed like a very good moral person to us, that it is possible that they could be facing an eternity of judgment and suffering. So this morning in our third message in this series – Hard Questions, Honest Answers – we’re going to tackle this question: How Can a Good God Send Anyone to Hell? Before we can answer that question, we need to first make sure we understand how the Bible uses the term “hell” since it is actually a much more complicated subject than even most Christians understand. LET’S DEFINE SOME TERMS Old Testament • Sheol = “temporary holding place” for souls of the dead Before Jesus came to earth and began to teach more about the various aspects of life after death, the Jews really didn’t have a very well-developed idea about eternity. What they did understand is that man has both a physical body and an immaterial soul and spirit. For our purposes today I’m just going to refer to that immaterial part as the soul, even though there is some good evidence in the Bible that there are some differences between our spirit and soul. They understood that when a man died the body went into the ground and the immaterial part – the soul - went to a temporary holding place that they called Sheol. That was true for both the righteous and the wicked. So there really was no clear differentiation between heaven and hell. The ESV and some other English translations consistently just transliterate that Hebrew word as Sheol, but unfortunately, the KJV renders it as “hell” and some other modern translations translate it as “grave” or something similar. As we’re going to see, that is unfortunate because it fails to distinguish between different aspects and phases of God’s judgment that usually get grouped together under the term “hell”. New Testament It was not until Jesus shared the account that we find in Luke 16 that we learn that Sheol has two compartments or sections. [Read Luke 16:19-31] This account actually gives us a wealth of information about what we usually refer to as heaven and hell, and I’m going to come back to this passage again, but for now I just want to concentrate on how Jesus explains that what the Jews viewed as one big holding area of the souls of the dead, Sheol, actually consists of two distinct sections. The rich man and Lazarus both die. Lazarus is carried to: o Abraham’s side (bosom) = place for the righteous I would suggest to you that Abraham’s bosom is also the same as what we normally refer to as “heaven”. And it is also likely the same as the “paradise” that Jesus promised to the thief on the cross, when he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. It is the place where the souls of those who are righteous because of their faith in Jesus, go immediately upon their death. At death, the body and the soul are separated - the body goes into the ground or is cremated or is otherwise disposed of and the soul goes to heaven/Abraham’s bosom/paradise. The rich man’s soul goes to the other section of Sheol: o Hades = place for the wicked This word is used 9 other times in the New Testament and it always refers to this temporary holding place for the souls of the wicked. With one exception in Matthew 16:18, where for some reason the ESV translates this word “hell”, the other 8 times it is transliterated as Hades. But the KJV translates it as “hell”. As we’ll see in a moment, the problem with that is that it fails to distinguish it from the other word that it also translates “hell”, but which describes something completely different than this temporary holding place. This other word is consistently translated as “hell” in the ESV, as well as in the KJV: • Gehenna – the place of final judgment for the wicked. This word is used 12 times in the New Testament – 11 of them by Jesus. "Gehenna", was a trash heap outside Jerusalem, where fires would burn and worms would destroy the refuse of the city. It was an actual physical place that Jesus’ followers would have been familiar with so he used that word to help them understand the nature of the eternal judgment that the wicked will experience. While not everyone would agree with me on this, I think that based on the words of Jesus, it is the same as the “lake of fire” in Revelation 19 and 20 that is the final resting place of Satan, his demons and those whose souls are in Hades: And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. (Mark 9:43 ESV) And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13–15 ESV) While Hades is only a temporary holding place for the soul and Gehenna, or the lake of fire is an eternal physical existence, they both have some things in common: 1. They are both real places. Many who are uncomfortable with the idea of a place of eternal punishment have tried to explain away Hades and Gehenna by claiming that this is all just symbolic language. But Jesus certainly described both as being actual places where those who have not put their faith in Him are punished. 2. They are both places of torment and suffering. The rich man in Luke 16 said that he was “in anguish”. And elsewhere Jesus described the lake of fire as a place where there will be darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. 3. They are both a place of conscious existence. There are some who believe in something called “soul sleep” and they claim that after death the soul just sleeps until the final resurrection and that the person is not aware on conscious. Others teach annihilation, which means that a person ceases to exist after they die. But neither of those ideas is supported by the Scriptures. The soul of the rich man in Luke 16 certainly survived his death and he was certainly aware of his torment. 4. They are both inescapable. In Luke 16, we see that there is a great chasm between Hades and Abraham’s bosom and that it is not possible to cross between the two. This makes it clear that once a person dies and their eternal destiny has been determined based on whether they put their faith in Jesus here in this life, that destiny cannot be changed. So once a person’s soul is in Hades, there is no way out and they will eventually end up in the lake of fire for eternity. The writer of Hebrews confirms this fact: And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, (Hebrews 9:27 ESV) With all of this in mind, let’s return to our question: How Can a Good God Send Anyone to Hell? When someone asks this question, they are essentially saying that it’s not fair for God to send anyone to hell. And from our human perspective, I would agree - it just doesn’t seem fair that God would send nice, moral people to a place of eternal torment just because they didn’t trust in Jesus. But the problem is that we need to approach this idea not from our own idea of fairness, but rather from God’s perspective. So let’s take a look at… A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE “FAIRNESS” OF HELL 1. God is love, but He doesn’t love everything It is true that the Bible teaches that God is love. But that doesn’t mean that He loves everything. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that there are some things that God hates: There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16–19 ESV) I don’t think anyone, even someone who thinks that the idea of someone going to hell is unfair, would want a God who didn’t hate these things. In fact, I would go so far to say that a God who didn’t hate pride, murder, lying, wickedness, evil, and sowing discord really wouldn’t be a very loving God. Those of you who are parents can certainly understand this idea. You love your children, but you don’t love some of the things they do. And because you love your children, you don’t allow those things to go unchecked in their lives, both for their sakes and for the sake of others. 2. God is love, but He is also just Humans have a tendency to pick and choose the parts of God’s character that they like and to ignore the others with which they might not be quite as comfortable. Taken to an extreme, you end up with a church like one here in Tucson whose motto is “Love. Period”. But as God made clear to Moses when he met with God on Mount Sinai, the same God who is love is also just: The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “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, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 ESV) God is merciful and gracious and abounding in love, and He delights in forgiving our sins. But He is also a just God who will not let the guilty go unpunished because He is just. 3. God’s perfect justice demands punishment for our sin I’ve heard some people ask something like this: “Why can’t God just forgive our sin? Why does there have to be some kind of penalty or punishment for that sin?” But that question really flies in the face of what we expect here on earth doesn’t it? When someone commits murder, or rape or some other crime, our first thought isn’t why don’t we just forgive that person and let him go? We want justice. We want that person to serve an appropriate sentence based on what they have done. And when justice isn’t carried out because of some loophole in our justice system, we immediately cry out “That’s not fair!” Even in situations where the victim of a crime is willing to forgive the person who committed the crime, that doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t still have to face punishment for that wrongdoing. So we really shouldn’t be surprised that like we just saw in Exodus 34 that God will not clear the guilty and that His justice demands that there be an appropriate punishment for our sin. 4. Because He is a perfect judge, God’s justice is perfect One of the objections that people raise against hell is that it is overkill. They will claim that someone sins for 80 or 90 years here on earth and then they get punished for eternity? That doesn’t seem fair. And it also doesn’t seem fair to us that the punishment should involve the kind of torment and suffering that we talked about earlier. But God is a perfect judge and that means that His justice is perfect. As the Psalmist reminds us, God judges us with equity and uprightness: He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:9 ESV) But the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness. (Psalm 9:7–8 ESV) That means that even if we regard hell as being unfair, from God’s perspective it is exactly what every person who rejects Him deserves. And if we consider the nature of our rebellion against God the punishment does fit the crime. As David reminds us in Psalm 51, when we sin, we don’t just sin against someone else, we sin against an eternal, perfect God of infinite worth: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:4 ESV) So what is an appropriate punishment for robbing God of His glory by sinning against Him? When we consider our sin in that light, how could we possibly claim that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Not only that, nothing we see in the Bible leads us to believe that people cease from their sinful thinking and actions once their souls end up in Hades. In the passage we looked at earlier in Luke 16, the rich man begs Abraham to send someone to his family to warn them so that they don’t end up where he is. But there is no indication whatsoever that he is willing to repent himself even after the torment he is going through. And that is not an isolated incident. The Bible is full of examples of people who experienced the wrath of God, knew it was from His hand and still refused to acknowledge Him or to repent. 5. God has provided a way for every man to avoid hell God’s perfect love and justice came together perfectly at the cross of Jesus. It was on that cross that Jesus demonstrated His love for us by taking upon Himself the punishment that every single one of us deserve because of our sin. Peter described that perfect union of love and justice like this: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 ESV) On the cross Jesus demonstrated just how much He loves us by willingly laying down His life for our sake. And He also paid, on our behalf, the penalty that our sin demands. And as Jesus confirmed to Nicodemus, by that act Jesus has made it possible for every single person to avoid hell and instead have eternal life in His presence: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV) Jesus died to make it possible for everyone who is willing to believe in Him and yield their life to Him to avoid hell and spend eternity in His presence instead. Therefore… 6. Everyone who ends up in hell is there as a result of their choice Because by nature we are selfish people who want to live our lives on our terms rather than God’s terms, hell is actually the default destination for all of us. What would be “fair” is for everyone of us to end up there. When we essentially say to God, “I want to live life on my terms”, then God allows us to do that not just in this life here on earth, but for eternity. So God never really “sends” anyone to hell. Those who end up there are there because of their own choice to reject the gift of eternal life that God offers through faith in His Son, Jesus. So really even the question that we’re answering this morning is flawed itself when we ask “How can a good God send anyone to hell?” I really like how C.S. Lewis sums up this idea in The Problem of Pain 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, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? 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. And God certainly doesn’t take any delight at all in handing out the just punishment for those who rebel against Him. In fact, the only reason that Jesus hasn’t returned to this earth is because God is patient, giving every person a chance to repent and take advantage of the provision He has made for us in Jesus: The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV) So what does all this mean for my life? Let me just quickly share two important implications. IMPLICATIONS FOR MY LIFE 1. I need to make sure that I’ve personally accepted God’s way of avoiding hell. We’re going to talk about this some more next week, but there is only one way for me to avoid hell – putting my faith in Jesus alone. There is no way that I can ever do anything on my own to satisfy the sentence that has been given to me for all the times in my life that I have rejected a loving, holy, just God and chosen to live life on my own terms. So if you have never done that, we invite you to do that this morning. I’m not going to do what that young man did with me that day at the U of A and tell you all you have to do is to repeat a prayer after me. As I mentioned earlier there is more to making Jesus your Lord and Savior than just praying a prayer. So because that is such an important decision, we want to make sure you understand it completely before you make it. So we’ll spend as much time with you as you need to make sure that you’re making that decision appropriately. At the end of the service, I’ll be at the back of the sanctuary along with some of our Elders and if you’d like to talk about that some more, we invite you to come talk to one of us. Or if that’s too intimidating, you can contact any of us using the contact information you’ll find on the back of your bulletin. Although I don’t ever want to take for granted that anyone has made that decision just because you’re here at church every week, I believe that most of you here today have already done that. So for you, here is what I hope you’ll take away from the message today: 2. Sharing the gospel with others needs to be an urgent priority for me If Hades and the lake of fire are the horrible places that we’ve seen described in the Bible this morning, and I completely believe that they are, then none of us would want anyone, not even our worst enemies, to have to ever experience that. So that means that sharing with them the only possible remedy to hell – the gospel – must be an urgent priority in our lives. Over the years, I’ve had some people who are very close to me die and I didn’t really know whether they had put their faith in Jesus before they died. And for a long time after they died I really worried a lot about that. But I remember that one day as I was thinking about one particular person, God really impressed on my heart that I wasn’t doing anyone any good by worrying about something that I couldn’t change, but that I still had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those who are still alive by bringing God’s kingdom near to them. I haven’t always done that perfectly by any means. But that is where my heart is and with God’s help I do that the very best I can each day. Hell, and all that encompasses, is a horrible, scary place. But the good news is that the one who trusts in Jesus can be completely confident that he or she will never have to experience that. Discussion Questions for the Bible Roundtable 1. What does the question we’re exploring today – How can a good God send anyone to hell? – tell us about how the person that would ask that question views both God and man? 2. Where do we find most of the teaching in the Bible on hell (both Hades and Gehenna)? Why is that significant? 3. How has your understanding of heaven and hell changed as a result of what you’ve learned this morning? 4. What are some common objections to the idea of hell? How would you answer them in light of today’s message?