One of the most disturbing truths of the Christian faith is the doctrine of hell. Atheists use it to deny the existence of a loving God. And Christians find themselves squeamishly defending the notion that a good God sends some people to a place of everlasting torment.
“Hell is of course the greatest evil of all, the realm of the greatest conceivable suffering,” writes Christian author Dinesh D’Souza in God Forsaken. “Consequently, hell poses perhaps the deepest difficulty for Christian theodicy [an attempt to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of evil]. Far from resolving the theodicy problem, hell seems to make it even worse.”
Atheist Robert Ingersoll asserted that hell “makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend.”
Anglican cleric John Stott, who wrote the influential book Basic Christianity, found the idea of eternal suffering so repugnant he rejected it in favor of annihilation.
Even C.S. Lewis shuttered at the concept of hell. “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power,” he wrote.
The goodness of hell
But let’s consider for a moment that the notion of a loving God and the doctrine of hell are perfectly compatible. There is nothing of one that cancels out the other.
Jesus spoke frequently on hell and alluded to it in parables. He used the word gehenna, derived from the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where apostate Israelites in Old Testament times sacrificed their children to false gods. By Jesus’ day it had become a fiery trash heap where unclaimed corpses were dumped. A nasty, unclean place that nevertheless served a utilitarian purpose.
Jesus told some religious leaders they were headed for hell. He warned his listeners against this place where the worm does not die and the fires are not quenched. He referred to hell as “outer darkness.” And He said hell was created for Satan and demons, yet made it clear that many people will spend eternity there.
So in what possible way is hell good?
First, hell is good because it affirms God’s justice. If God only had the qualities of benevolence and mercy, hell would be an unreasonable place. But God is infinitely holy and perfectly just. To sin against Him offends His very nature.
Human beasts like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot are responsible for the slaughter of millions of people whose lives ended in starvation, torture, human experimentation, or execution. How can the mere death of these tyrants by any means satisfy justice?
If we accept the doctrine of universalism, we must admit that Osama bin Laden and Mother Teresa are feasting at the same banquet table. Without the existence of hell, life indeed is cruel and life’s Creator is eternally unjust.
Second, hell is good because it affirms free will. While we may debate whether humans truly have free will, or simply make decisions within pre-determined boundaries, there is little question that God allows us to make choices for which we are held accountable. In a world where God refuses to grant humans real choices, there is no freedom to love God.
If we view life fatalistically, God is a cruel puppet master who manipulates us before discarding us like broken toys. But the biblical concept of hell carries with it the clear teaching that people choose to spend eternity apart from Christ. C.S. Lewis once wrote that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Without hell, our choices have no real meaning or lasting consequences.
Third, hell is good because it implies heaven. Many atheists attack the idea that a good God would send people to hell for eternity as payment for temporal sins. But they don’t criticize the idea of a God who welcomes people into eternal bliss for being the recipients of His grace.
Freud argued that heaven is a product of wishful thinking. But if that’s so, how does one explain the fact that religions embracing heaven also have clear doctrines of hell?
We are invited to join God in this life and the life to come by His grace through faith. We may reject Him and enter eternity on our own terms, but we cannot take God with us or it would cease to be hell.
While it is troubling to consider eternity in “outer darkness,” the Bible is clear that hell is a place people choose to live independently of God – forever.
We do not see the rich man repent of his sin in Luke 16, nor do we see those before the great white throne asking to be near Jesus; indeed, the blasphemers and unrepentant in Revelation hide themselves from the presence of God, preferring death under a rock to life in the light of Christ.
A final caution: When we say hell is good, we do not mean to gloat over those who enter eternity without Christ, no matter how wicked they may be. The Lord Himself does not delight in the judgment of the ungodly but took the human condition so seriously He sent His Son to save us from ourselves.
This column originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2012, issue of The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.