A Rational and Biblical Approach to the Problem of Hell
(Why Would a Good and Loving God Condemn a Person to Hell Simply for Not Believing?)


Introduction

The question of why a loving God, if He exists, would condemn a person to eternal punishment in hell is no mere academic curiosity. I have seen the revulsion on some non-Christians’ faces when considering this teaching of Christianity, and to be quite honest, I have felt tinges of the same revulsion myself. I suspect most other Christians have as well, at least those who allow themselves to think candidly about such things.

Aside from its rather disturbing emotional impact, this so-called “problem of hell” also forms a seemingly formidable philosophical objection to the existence of the God of the Bible. It is closely related to two other well-known issues, the “problem of evil” and the “problem of pain.” Taken together as a single logical argument, these three objections could be formally stated as follows:

Premise #1:    An all-loving, all-good, (i.e., omnibenevolent) being such as the God of the Bible would ultimately desire to do everything in his power to keep others from being evil and from suffering pain, including (especially!) the torments of eternal hell.
 
Premise #2:    An all-powerful (i.e., omnipotent) being such as the God of the Bible would have the ability to eliminate evil, pain, and hell if He wanted to.
 
Premise #3:    But evil and pain exist, and the God of the Bible does condemn men to hell.
 
Conclusion:    Therefore, an all-loving, all-good, all-powerful being such as the God of the Bible cannot exist.

I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say this is quite probably the strongest and most commonly raised family of objections against Christianity. I have heard or read more than one debate between atheists and Christians in which I frankly thought the atheists made a better case than the Christians on these points. Some Christians will perhaps feel a bit betrayed by this admission, and others will certainly disagree with the very Calvinist approach I take in this paper, but my hope is that my honest attempt to wrestle with these issues will encourage deeper thought on the part of all readers, Christian or not.

The Nature of the Argument

There is no escaping the fact that the conclusion of this triple-pronged argument against God as stated above does indeed follow logically from the given premises. But this is actually no great concession. Logic, by its very nature, cannot prove anything “from scratch.” Rather, a logical conclusion is by definition really nothing more than a restatement of its premises in another (perhaps less obvious) form. So the fundamental issue at hand is whether the premises of the argument are truly valid to begin with.

I point this out first of all in case anyone is tempted to regard this argument as a general proof against the existence of any kind of transcendent Creator God whatsoever. It is absolutely not that, nor does it even claim to be. Rather, it only argues against the existence of a particular concept of God, namely the popular concept of an omnipotent God who is all-good and all-loving in the sense of ultimately wanting to do everything in His power to prevent evil, pain, and hell, and yet not actually doing so.

The fact is, there is no a priori reason whatsoever to assume that God, if He exists, actually fits this concept of Him. On the contrary, if nature reveals anything at all about the character of its Creator, it reveals that He cannot be placed in such a simple box. Nature is incomparably majestic and beautiful, but also undeniably severe and even fierce. (“Red in tooth and claw” is how Tennyson memorably described it.) The regal glory of a lion is certainly not appreciated in that way by an antelope—or by a man alone in the jungle with no defense. The splendor of a lightning bolt is a fearsome, deadly power when it strikes too close to home. The serene cliffs and boulders of a mountain become harsh and unforgiving to a man trying to scramble down in an icy snowstorm. Clearly, if nature is the product of an omnipotent God, it is the product of a God who is not simply to be admired and appreciated, but also to be supremely feared. It is manifestly not the product of a God who ultimately intended for there to be no such uncomfortable things as pain and suffering. This conclusion cannot be used as evidence against the existence of any kind of God whatsoever; it only argues against the particular concept of God that the premises of the argument assume.[1]

The only reason the argument is really worth any consideration at all is that the kind of God it argues against is actually claimed by the premises to be the God of the Bible, in whom Christians believe. Two of the three premises are certainly correct in this claim; I do not think anyone could reasonably deny the Biblical accuracy of Premises #2 or #3. The premise that is suspect is Premise #1. The crux of the issue, then, if we wish to consider the question of the existence of the God of the Bible, is as follows: While the God of the Bible is certainly described as being “good” and “loving,” does this really mean that He must ultimately desire to do everything in His power to keep others from being evil and suffering pain and even undergoing the torments of eternal hell, as Premise #1 assumes? Or, to state it in another way:

Is it reasonable to believe that a God who in a very real sense ultimately wills the existence of evil and pain and to condemn people to hell is actually “good” and “loving” as the Bible says He is?

This is the question to which any honest truth-seeker, Christian or otherwise, engaged in this argument must turn. If it is not reasonable to believe this, then the God of the Bible does not exist. But if it is reasonable to believe this, then it is also reasonable to believe in the God of the Bible (or at least the problems of evil, pain, and hell turn out to be invalid as arguments against Him).

The Nature of the Defense

A rational defense of God’s goodness in light of the problem of evil is called a theodicy. This is also essentially what is called for in response to the broader argument that incorporates the problems of pain and hell. As we have seen, this argument really boils down to the question of whether a God who permits or in the ultimate sense actually wills the existence of evil, pain, and hell could truly be good and loving. Therefore, a defense of the existence of the God of the Bible against this argument fundamentally reduces to a defense of His character (in particular His goodness and love) in light of the Biblical teaching on evil, pain, and hell. Our theodicy must have this issue of the character of God as its primary focus.

Formulating theodicies is dangerous business, however. For one thing, God’s character is (not surprisingly) a complex topic, so we are prone to making logical mistakes in this area. For another thing, as Christians we can easily be so eager to defend God’s honor that we end up denying things about Him that the Bible asserts or implies, in which case our defense is not truly a defense of the God of the Bible at all, but rather a defense of a god of our own imagination.

I believe the most common defense of God’s goodness and love in light of these objections falls rather badly into both of these traps. This is the so-called “free-will theodicy,” which is essentially the idea that God’s love compels Him to give man free will, and that evil, pain, and ultimately even hell can be explained as a necessary result. So while it is true that God ultimately chooses to condemn people to hell, this is actually viewed as a result of His goodness and love in that the only way He could do anything else would be by not giving them free will, which would be unloving. But I do not see any reason to believe that the gift of free will is the most loving thing God could give, nor do I think the existence of evil, pain, and hell can ultimately be explained merely as a consequence of free will. Furthermore, I would argue that the concept of free will that this theodicy relies on is not consistent with what the Bible teaches anyway, so this is ultimately not a true defense of the God of the Bible, but rather only of a popular concept of what many people, Christian and otherwise, merely assume He must be like. (See the appendix for more details on the flaws of this theodicy.)

For all its problems, however, the free-will defense is not completely on the wrong track, at least not when formulated properly. It is sometimes stated rather poorly, so as to deny (by implication, at least) that God ultimately wills such things as evil, pain, and hell in any sense whatsoever. But more careful free-will apologists will acknowledge that God could eliminate these things if He wanted to, but instead there is ultimately a real sense in which He willingly chooses them (in contrast to what Premise #1 of the original argument assumes), and they attempt to explain why this is so in terms of the greater good of man’s free will. And although I am thoroughly convinced that this particular explanation is wrong, the approach is fundamentally correct. We must frankly face up to the fact that the God of the Bible does indeed ultimately will the existence of evil, pain, and hell, and we must grapple with the question of how (or whether) this is consistent with His goodness and love.

Note that in this paper, as the title suggests, I will attempt to consider this issue more particularly with respect to the problem of hell rather than with respect to the problems of evil and pain, because this seems to me to be the strongest form of the argument, really encompassing the other two forms when considered rightly and fully. Hell is certainly presented in the Bible as a place of pain and as a consequence of evil, so I believe if we can come to grips with the fact that a God of love can ultimately choose to make such a place and send people there, we can also come to grips with the existence of pain and evil generally.

The Meaning of an “All-loving” God

The argument we’ve been discussing refers to a God who is not just “good” and “loving” but “all-good” and “all-loving.” Up to this point I have mentioned the idea of the Biblical God’s goodness and love but have avoided describing Him as “all-good” and “all-loving” because it seems to me that these terms are ambiguous and need further definition. Let us concentrate particularly on the meaning of an “all-loving” God.

Probably the biggest mistake people make in their understanding of God’s love is that they try to understand His love apart from all of His other characteristics, as if His love were always His chief (or even His only) motivation for all of His actions. But if by “all-loving” we mean a God whose actions can be explained purely in terms of love with no reference to any of His other characteristics (including, for example, His wrath), then this clearly is not the God of the Bible. (Nor could such a God logically be viewed as the Creator of the real, pain-filled universe, as I have already pointed out.) The Bible presents God as a God of love, but certainly not only as a God of love, as if all His other attributes were subordinated to that one. The same Bible that says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8)[2] and talks about His love for the whole world (John 3:16) and even His enemies (Matt. 5:44-45) also says He is holy (1 Pet. 1:16) and talks about His vengeance (Rom. 12:19), and about His “fierce wrath” (Rev. 19:15) which abides on those who do not believe (John 3:36). The same Bible that talks about God’s kindness and love for mankind (Tit. 3:4) also says that His soul hates sinners (Ps. 5:5). And notice that this is not a disagreement between Old Testament and New Testament, or between one author and another, for the same New Testament authors speak of both concepts (e.g., Paul and John, cited above). Paul even invites his readers to “consider the goodness and severity of God” in the same sentence (Rom. 11:22, NKJV). Clearly the Bible’s notion of God’s supreme love is not exactly the same notion that we might have of it as an emotion that is incompatible with vengeance and hate, or that motivates Him to always do everything in His power to keep men from suffering the torments of hell.

I am not necessarily arguing against the idea of calling the God of the Bible “all-loving” here. It’s just that if we want to use that term, we have to be careful to define what we mean by it, or at least not to read anything into it that is not ascribed to God in the Bible (which after all does not use that term). Those who accept Premise #1 of the argument we’ve been discussing probably do so more-or-less as a matter of definition. And if we define “all-loving” as something like “always desiring above all else the maximum benefit of all others,” then the premise becomes a tautology. But the God of the Bible is clearly not “all-loving” at all in the sense of that definition. Rather, the way He shows His love is significantly affected by His other (sometimes seemingly contradictory) attributes.

Here is what one thoughtful Christian author observed regarding this topic:

. . . we live in a culture in which many other and complementary truths about God [besides the truth of His love] are widely disbelieved. I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.

The result, of course, is that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything our culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized. This process has been going on for some time. My generation was taught to sing, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” in which we robustly instruct the Almighty that we do not need another mountain (we have enough of them), but we could do with some more love. The hubris is staggering.

– D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway Books, 2000), p. 11

Another said it this way, stressing the fact that many Christians make the same mistake:

We have lost the reality of God’s wrath. We have disregarded His hatred for sin. The God most evangelicals describe is all-loving and not at all angry. We have forgotten that “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). We do not believe in that kind of God anymore.

– John MacArthur, Jr., The Love of God (Word Publishing, 1996), p. 10

It is significant to realize that both of these authors could be described as Calvinists. This means they hold (correctly, by my understanding of the Bible) that God is in sovereign control over all things, including man’s beliefs and choices. So although salvation is by faith which is exercised by man, God is the one who ultimately chooses who will exercise faith (willingly) and who will not (also willingly). In other words, God’s choice of whom to save is not ultimately based on who will autonomously believe in Him (as if such a thing were possible), but rather it determines who will end up willingly believing in Him. Those people whom He chooses to make willing to believe in Him are known as the elect and will spend eternity with Him in heaven. Those whom He does not make willing to believe are known as the non-elect and will spend eternity in hell. (Note: It is beyond the scope of this paper to present a full Biblical defense of the Calvinistic idea that God freely chooses who will believe and who will not. A few relevant Scriptures would be Matt. 11:25-26, John 6:44, Acts 13:48, Rom. 11:7, Eph. 1:4, Phil. 2:13, 2 Thess. 2:13, and 1 Pet. 2:8.)

Given this view of God’s ultimate control over who ends up being saved and who ends up in hell, it is perhaps not surprising that some Calvinists have opted for a rather simplistic way of understanding how God can be both a God of love and a God of wrath at the same time. They view Him simply as loving only the elect and hating all the rest, in the sense of not having any true love for them whatsoever. But while the Bible certainly does speak of God hating sinners in some sense (e.g., Ps. 5:5, already mentioned) it is not the Biblical view of God to see Him as not also having any true love for these people at the same time. Nor is this the view of all Calvinists by any means, including the two authors I have quoted. As John MacArthur points out (p. 103 of the same book cited above), the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ loved everyone, in keeping with what He called the second-greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and with His own explanation of its scope, which includes even your enemies (Matt. 5:44). Had God not taken the form of man in the person of Jesus Christ, it might perhaps be argued that He was exempt from this commandment. But Jesus is said to have fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17), including having loved those who were not His own (Mark 10:21). Both of the above authors also go on to discuss God’s love for the whole world (for which I have also already mentioned a few verses), and how the Bible clearly teaches this.

Both authors also point out that it would not be correct to say that God loves all men equally or in exactly the same way, however. Rather, the Bible mentions God “setting His love upon” certain people in a special way, different from how He loves others (Deut. 7:7, 10:15). In particular, it is clear that He sets His love upon the elect in a very special way that is not shown to the non-elect, in that He ultimately chooses to draw the elect to Himself (Jer. 31:3, John 6:44), so that they willingly choose to believe in Him and be saved. It is this special kind of love that God has for the elect that the New Testament is most frequently occupied with, as, for example in Eph. 2:4-5: “Because of His great love with which He loved us, . . . [God] made us alive together with Christ.”

The crucial realization, then, that we must have in trying to understand the meaning of an “all-loving” God in the sense that the Bible portrays Him, is this: The Biblical God shows genuine love to all in some ways, but He does not do so in every way. In particular, we must not equate His general love to all with His special love that He chooses to show to some. Nor can God’s general love for all be understood as an ultimate choice to do everything in His power to keep them from suffering the torments of hell (as Premise #1 of the original argument assumes), although His special love for the elect does indeed involve this choice. God is “good to all” (Ps. 145:9) in the sense of being fair and just and even merciful for a time (as we shall later consider), but He only “causes all things to work together for good” for those whom He chooses (Rom. 8:28). All things most definitely do not work together for good for the non-elect. Understanding this very sobering distinction certainly does not completely remove the difficulty of the problem of hell, but it is nonetheless a very important starting point.

God’s Love for the Non-elect: A Proper Perspective on Who God Is

Admittedly, there is a real difficulty in conceiving how God could accurately be described as having genuine love for all people when He only shows His electing love (i.e., His love that actually saves from hell) to some. This certainly doesn’t seem to be very loving to the rest. Indeed, I believe this is the main reason why many Christians as well as non-Christians reject the Calvinistic idea of God freely choosing to show electing love to some and not others in the first place. It is very difficult to get beyond emotional thinking on this subject. For example, Christian author Dave Hunt chose the title What Love is This? for his popular anti-Calvinist book, clearly showing his revulsion for the idea that the Christian God of love could also be a God who sovereignly elects in the Calvinistic sense. But rejecting the Biblical teaching on election in favor of a free-will defense is not a valid option, nor does it actually remove the difficulty anyway. (Again, see appendix for details.) Rather, I am convinced that the best understanding of this issue is to be arrived at by fully embracing the Biblical teaching on election and taking it wherever the Bible leads us.

In a similar vein, some Christians acknowledge that this is indeed what the Bible teaches about God, but seem almost embarrassed to discuss it openly, at least with non-Christians. But Jesus was not afraid to bring this truth out in the open, even in front of unbelievers.[3] There is nothing to be gained by hiding from the truth, or by hiding the truth from others who may be convicted by it. The fact that the problem of hell is used as an argument against the existence of God shows that many non-Christians do think about such deep questions as why God does not save everyone, and these questions deserve honest and open consideration.

Let us turn, then, squarely to the crux of the difficulty. The Biblical view of God (at least as interpreted by Calvinists and as I have been affirming) is as the ultimate Sovereign who is in control of all things and therefore has in His power the ability to show electing love to all people, which would open their hearts and minds to Himself and thus cause them to be saved from hell, and yet He does not do so. This view is certainly not inconsistent with the nature of His creation, for if He has chosen to allow the existence of pain and evil (a fact so clearly evident that I do not think it can be rationally denied), then there is certainly the very real possibility that He might also choose to condemn some men to a place where pain and evil continue in unabated fury, namely hell. The question is, if this is true, how can the Bible also describe God as having a genuine love for these same non-elect people?

It is easy to see at this point why some view the Biblical God more as a cruel, arbitrary monster than as a God of genuine love. (As already noted, this issue really comes down to a matter of God’s character more than of His existence.) After all, if a human being had the ability to spare others from unspeakable suffering and yet chose not to do so, would not his actions completely repudiate any claim he might make of having genuine love for those people? But we must not be too hasty. The topic we are considering is not just the character of a human being, which is a topic we have some natural familiarity with. Rather, it is the character of the Creator of time and space, the One who must be the ultimate Reality behind all other realities. (Otherwise He would not be God, but simply another created being, in which case we would have to ask who created him in order to finally arrive at the true God.) So if the true God is the incomprehensibly infinite, almighty Being, is there not a very real danger in applying categorical assumptions to such a Being that might be justified in relation to a mere man, but totally unjustified in relation to God? In other words, is there not a danger in evaluating God’s actions in the same way we would evaluate man’s actions, as if He were fundamentally in the same ontological category as man, only more powerful? The Bible warns us of this very thing, for example when God chides Israel because “you thought that I was just like you” (Ps. 50:21).

Given the infinite categorical difference between God and man, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Bible presents God as having the perfect right to do things that are morally very wrong for human beings. For example, He declares that He alone has the right to execute vengeance (Rom. 12:19). He is the one who gives life, and He is ultimately the one who takes it, even though He commands man not to kill.[4] The “acts of God” that would be tokens of the utmost moral reprehensibility were they possible to be caused by the whim of man are not so with God and His perfectly planned precision as their cause. The Bible is completely unabashed in presenting Him as being ultimately responsible for such things, even when they cause death and suffering to others (e.g., Job 1:21, 2:10, Lam. 3:38, Amos 3:6).

If this does not naturally sit well with us, it is probably very simply because we are missing a proper respect and reverence for God’s absolute authority and wisdom as the infinite Creator. How can we, as mere men, even begin to fully comprehend these things? Is it not rather foolish for us to think we can lecture Him on what He ought or ought not to do? Who are we to say our very Creator has not the right or wisdom to determine when and how each of our lives should end? To borrow from the earlier quotation of D. A. Carson, the hubris truly is staggering. Ought we not instead to consider the possibility (unprovable though it may be) that whatever things God does, He does them for perfectly good reasons, and He has a perfect right to do them, even if we do not understand His reasons? That this is a leap of faith I do not deny, but to me it seems like a very reasonable leap of faith, far more sensible than the alternative suggestion that the ultimate Creator of all things could be arbitrary and irrational.

The perspective I have attempted to show here is, I believe, an absolutely crucial point. We cannot hope to make any progress on this issue of understanding God’s love for the non-elect until we first have some respect for who God is and are willing to acknowledge the implications of His infinite superiority to us. But once we have truly come to grips with this, the issue is put in a new light. Simply put, this new light consists in our admission that God might very well have valid reasons for His actions that we do not understand and that would not apply to mere human beings even if we could imagine ourselves in a similar situation. (Actually, this might well seem so obvious that we shouldn’t even have needed to develop it at all, but I am trying to state things as clearly and explicitly as possible.)

Let us apply this perspective to the issue at hand. Clearly, if a mere man had the power to show “electing love” to all and thereby save them from hell, and yet he chose not to use that power, we would certainly be justified in concluding that this man was not acting righteously, and in fact that he did not have any true love for these people at all. For if his heart were genuinely inclined towards them in love, what possible reason could he have for not saving them that was more important than doing what his heart was rightfully inclined to do (i.e., save them)? None whatsoever! But what I have been attempting to show in the preceding discussion is that this kind of reasoning does not necessarily apply when we are talking about the infinite God. Quite simply, we cannot assert that God could not possibly have any valid reason to not save all people. We may not understand His reason (or reasons) for not saving them, but to assert that He does not have any is, once again, sheer and staggering hubris on our part. Who are we to make such a claim? Can we possibly understand all the reasons God has for the things He does? We absolutely cannot.

Similarly, who are we to assert that God’s heart is not truly inclined to all people in genuine love, just because He does not choose to save them all? It is true enough, as has already been discussed, that His love for the non-elect is not identical to His love for the elect. But this does not mean that His love for the non-elect is not real. The fact that God may (in fact, apparently does) have reasons for not saving them that are actually more important than His desire to save them, even though we admittedly may not be able to understand fully what those reasons are, absolutely precludes us from making the brash assertion that He does not have any true love for them whatsoever.

As a simple illustration, take the case of a human judge who for some reason is put in a situation where he has to render a judgment against his own son for some serious crime. Suppose furthermore that the judge knows beyond all doubt that his son has reformed and that therefore any punishment rendered would only be for the cause of pure justice, or for the peace of mind of others, and not in any way needed for his son’s “own good.” On this basis would we be justified in questioning the judge’s love for his son just because he goes through with the sentence instead of letting him off the hook with no suffering? Of course not! In this case we can clearly understand that the judge might indeed have a very deep love for his son, and a very real desire not to see him suffer, and yet also a very real reason to go ahead with the punishment (i.e., not to pervert justice). And we can understand that this reason is more important than the judge’s very real inclination of heart to avoid the suffering of his son.

This illustration is certainly not an exact parallel to the situation of God and hell. In the illustration, there was no way for the judge to avoid punishing his son without also perverting justice. (For example, as a mere human the judge was clearly powerless to prevent the son from committing the crime in the first place.) But the God of the Bible is not powerless to save people without perverting justice—indeed He does save the elect, and the Bible asserts that the cross enables Him to do so justly (Rom. 3:26). So while the immediate reason for hell certainly has to do with righteous judgment, we cannot understand God’s ultimate choice not to save all men completely as a requirement of justice. The point of the illustration is not to try to explain God’s reason for not saving all men, but rather to show that if there is the possibility that God has a valid reason for his actions, then we cannot make the claim that He does not love the non-elect, even if we do not understand His reason.

God’s Reasons for Election

It is one thing to realize that the infinite God of the Bible might have His good reasons for doing what He does, particularly with respect to His choices to permit evil, pain, and even hell, in spite of having a genuine love for all people. Logically, this realization completely removes the difficulty of the problem of hell. But practically it does not. God evidently made us naturally curious, and so it is not surprising that we do not find this approach completely satisfactory. Even with the realization that we will probably never be able to understand God’s reasons fully (His ways being infinitely higher than our own), we still crave some insight, at least, into what they might be.

Thankfully, the Bible does not ignore this difficulty. One of the main Scripture passages where this topic is discussed is as follows:

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

– Rom. 9:14-24 (NKJV)

The passage starts by affirming the view of God that I have been describing: He is not a God who shows equal love to all, but rather He is, as the Calvinists claim, a God who is free to show electing love and mercy to some and withhold it from others, so that they are rendered in a hardened and evil condition. Furthermore, the passage plainly views this freedom as being fully compatible with the assertion that God is still absolutely righteous, in spite of the objections this freedom might raise in our minds. There is even a tone of mild rebuke (to say the least) to the one who would “reply against God” and argue against the idea that He could withhold electing love and mercy from some, and yet still be righteous in finding fault with them (and ultimately even condemning them to hell). In response to this hypothetical argument, the passage asserts that this freedom of God to show mercy to some but not others is grounded in the fact that God is the Almighty Creator, again as I have already argued. Whether we agree with this view of God or not, it is the view of God presented by the Bible, and thus the view of God we must have in mind if we want to consider the existence of the Christian God.

It is the last sentence of the passage (actually phrased as a question) that goes on to give us some insight into God’s purposes for election. The question is certainly rhetorical; it assumes that the proposal it is making is the correct one, even if it is only sketched out in summary form. In other words, the clear implication is that God has His own good purpose in choosing to “show His wrath and to make His power known” in this particular way, and that this good purpose is “that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy” (i.e., the elect).

I say this is only sketched out in summary form because it clearly does not explain the purpose in the kind of detail we would like to understand. How exactly does God’s choice to withhold mercy from some contribute to the display of His glory to the others? And how exactly does this display of His glory form an adequate ultimate purpose or justification for something as horrible as hell (which is, after all, the ultimate consequence of His withholding of electing mercy)? We are not told these details, and it bothers us.

What we are told, however, is not completely unhelpful. The God of the Bible is apparently very interested in this purpose of displaying His glory. This is so important to Him that it somehow forms the basis of His reason for election, and therefore we may logically say for His permitting of evil, pain, and hell. In fact, it can be argued both rationally and from the Bible, as Jonathan Edwards has done,[5] that God’s desire to display His glory is the ultimate purpose for all of His actions in creation, including why He created in the first place. Briefly, although God’s immediate reason for many of His actions are certainly for the benefit of His creatures, His ultimate reason for His actions cannot logically be for any other being than Himself, since a consideration of His ultimate purpose has to include the reason for His choosing to create all other beings to begin with. And yet His purpose for Himself cannot be to enrich or benefit Himself in any way, since He is already infinite. Rather, His ultimate purpose must be for Himself in the sense of His name, the emanation and proclamation of what He Himself already is, not the accrual to Himself of anything more. In other words, it is for the display of His glory, exactly as Rom. 9:24 suggests.

Again, I do not claim that this answer fully satisfies our curiosity on this subject. I would certainly like to understand more of how God’s election contributes to the display of His glory. But I do not think it is the least bit unreasonable to acknowledge that it could, in ways we do not yet fully understand, and I think it is helpful (and accurate) to think of God’s purpose in these terms.

God’s Justice

At this point we have probably reached essentially as far as our finite minds can take us in understanding God’s ultimate reasons for what He does, including His decision to go through with a creation in which there would exist evil, pain, and even eternal judgment for the non-elect in hell. Both Biblically and rationally, there is really no other option but to conclude that this was a deliberate choice on His part, and one which was designed to display His glory, even if in ways that we cannot fully understand. What we can understand is that given this ultimate picture of who God is and how little of His glory and of His ways we can even comprehend, we certainly are not in any place to reject the idea of His goodness and love simply because of the problem of hell. There is still much more to be discussed on the topic of God’s immediate reasons for what He does, however, including His choice to judge the non-elect in hell.

I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves we would have to admit that this issue of God’s immediate reasons for judging people in hell is really more at the forefront of our difficulty with the problem of hell than the issue of God’s ultimate reasons for creating a system that included evil and hell in the first place. It is generally not the mere existence of evil and hell that cause us the most concern about God’s character. For example, it is usually not the idea that He would create a being who would embody evil in its most heinous form, namely the Devil, and that He would commit that being to eternal judgment in hell, that we find so hard to accept (though we do find it puzzling). Nor do we usually have any tremendous difficulty accepting the fact that God would cast an unusually heinous person like a Hitler or a Stalin into hell. (We may not understand why an infinite God would create such a person in the first place, but we can accept that He might have His ultimate reasons.) Rather, it is the idea that He would consider relatively ordinary people like ourselves so evil as to merit eternal punishment in hell that we find so difficult to accept. Our humanity recoils at such a thought. It doesn’t seem to us that God could possibly have a very good reason for considering our comparatively slight imperfections worthy of such an awful punishment. Simply put, we question God’s sense of justice. It seems like He might be more cruel and vindictive than fair and righteous.

The Bible does not present a God who is naive regarding this natural tendency in our thinking. In Ezekiel 18:25, for example, God says the following: “You say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right?” This is a bold statement, but one that deserves consideration. Could it be that our idea of justice is the one that is in error on this point rather than God’s?

At the root of the issue is the question of just how evil “ordinary man” really is. We have a mistaken tendency to think of evil mainly in terms of distinct actions. And since it is obviously true that nobody can commit an infinite number of evil actions in a finite lifetime, we have a hard time understanding how God could possibly regard anyone as deserving an infinitely-long punishment in hell. The God that the Bible presents, however, does not seem to share this simplistic view of evil. Rather than focusing only on the evil acts that we commit, the Bible has a lot to say about the intrinsic evil of our very natures. Even before we commit one evil act, we are viewed as being evil by nature. For example, in Ps. 51:5, David confesses to being sinful from conception. The heart of man is described as being “evil” and “desperately sick” (Jer. 3:17, 17:9), so much so that its intentions can be described as “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). And it is from this evil heart that the Bible views man’s evil actions as springing forth (Luke 6:45). In other words, the evil acts that we commit are not things that accrue to our account and make us evil; they are rather evidences of the evil that we already inherently are.

Admittedly, these statements from the Bible about the evil of our natures seem rather extreme, to put it mildly. Even if our consciences force us to admit that we all have some evil within our hearts, we know from experience that humans are capable of a doing lot of good things as well as committing evil acts. And at a surface level, the Bible does not disagree with this. But at the same time, it also says the good and righteous deeds that man does are like “a filthy garment” (Is. 64:6) and not pleasing to God at all (Rom. 8:8). The question is, does this not seem like a rather unfair assessment? I do not for one moment pretend that this is not a real difficulty. But before jumping to the conclusion that the Bible’s assessment of the intensity of the evil of our natures is incorrect simply because it seems incorrect, we must once again consider the possibility that God may have valid reasons for what He says and does. Specifically, it may well be that we have a tendency to evaluate ourselves more highly than God does because we “compare ourselves with ourselves” (2 Cor. 10:12), all the while simply not knowing or recognizing all the facts of the situation.

Of particular relevance to this issue, I believe there is at least one very important possible factor that we often fail to consider, which is the hidden influence God may exert on human beings even when they do not acknowledge Him. According to Prov. 21:1, king’s hearts (and, by implication, all of our hearts) are like channels of water in God’s hands, and He turns them wherever He wishes. The Bible is full of examples of this very thing, where a king or other person does a good thing because God “put it into his heart” to do that good thing (E.g., Ezra 7:27). The point is, when a person does something that is outwardly good, we cannot assume that this is a sign of some intrinsic goodness in that person’s nature. It may be (if the Bible is correct), that man’s nature is actually quite thoroughly evil, and that man would do absolutely no good thing if it were not for God silently exerting His sovereign influence on man to sometimes think and do good things even though his nature is inherently corrupt. At the same time, God allows man’s evil nature to reveal itself in enough evil thoughts and actions to give adequate evidence that human nature at its real core might well be truly evil rather than good, as the Bible clearly teaches.

If this is true, then it is very sobering indeed to think of how evil all human beings would be if God were ever to withdraw His hidden good influence upon them. And this is exactly what the Bible views as happening in hell, a place “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9). Here the accuracy of God’s assessment of man’s character as being totally and thoroughly evil will be seen in full, unimaginable force. It is important to realize that hell is never presented in the Bible as a place where men ever reform. The Biblical view of our human nature is that no one can even desire God apart from God exerting His good influence upon them (John 6:44). We should therefore not think of hell as a place where men spend eternity regretting that they were not one of the elect and wishing that they had gotten saved so that they could be in the presence of a loving God. Rather, it is a place where souls continue eternally, in spite of their misery, in a state of pure evil and open hostility toward God (Rom. 8:7). This fact goes a long way toward showing why in reality any duration of judgment less than eternal would be a perversion of true justice.

In summary, then, as mere humans we really do not have any standing on which to doubt God’s justice in sending men to eternal judgment in hell, because we really cannot grasp the fullness of human depravity outside of God. We deny the depths of the evil of our own human natures, because we know from experience that humans are often “nice,” and we understand this is a good thing; it certainly makes our world a much more tolerable and even enjoyable place in which to live. But what we do not understand is that this “niceness” of humans is really ultimately an evidence of God showing His love for mankind and graciously and mercifully giving us that “niceness” in spite of our intrinsically evil natures. This is something we ought to be very thankful for. Outside of God, if the Bible is correct, human beings are unspeakably evil, and there is not one of us who rightfully deserves anything other than eternal judgment in hell, and so we cannot logically accuse God of any injustice in carrying out that exact sentence. (We can flat-out disagree with the Bible on this subject if we want to, but we can’t say its view of God’s justice is logically inconsistent.)

Why the Emphasis on Belief?

The Calvinistic perspective that I have advocated also gives us significant insight on another potential difficulty with the subject we’ve been discussing, which has to do with the emphasis in Christianity on belief. Simply put, why should an infinite God care what we mere humans believe or do not believe? Does it not seem rather arbitrary and capricious of Him to make the matter of our eternal destiny hinge on something so seemingly insignificant as what we believe?

I believe the starting point for answering this difficulty lies in the realization that God is ultimately in control of all things, including what man thinks and believes. As I have already pointed out, I am convinced the Bible teaches that whether or not we believe in God depends upon God’s sovereign choice, not the other way around. This is not to say that God coerces us to believe or not believe contrary to our wills. Rather, it simply acknowledges God as the ultimate cause for what we are willing or not willing to believe in the first place. Also, this does not in any way deny that the Bible speaks of our eternal salvation as hinging upon our belief, or faith. It simply recognizes that when the Bible speaks in this way it is referring to the immediate basis for our salvation, rather than the ultimate basis. The ultimate basis can only be God’s sovereign election, but the Bible presents God as working out this sovereign election to effect the salvation of His chosen people through their belief. So faith, properly understood, is merely the instrument by which the elect actually receive gift of salvation in God’s sovereign plan; it is not ultimately the cause or basis for salvation.

It is instructive to consider the wisdom of this feature of God’s plan. Clearly, God was under no external obligation to make salvation depend on something as simple and basically invisible as faith. He could have made it depend on works. That is, He could have distinguished the elect from the non-elect by working great humanitarian or other achievements only through the elect, and never working through the non-elect to accomplish anything good at all. The Bible’s answer as to why He did not choose to do it this way is very simple: Salvation is based on faith rather than works so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:9). Biblical faith should never be construed as anything that man could possibly have any reason to boast in (see Rom. 3:27). For example, it is not the result of intelligence. This is not to say that faith is irrational or unintelligent, or that it requires any suspension of rationality and intelligence to have faith (as I have been attempting to show), but neither does it require a certain amount of intelligence to have faith. We cannot rationally argue that it was our intelligence that led us to believe. Rather, we can only humbly acknowledge our faith as a gift from God (see Eph. 2:8, 2 Pet. 1:1). God’s choice to make faith the instrument of our salvation therefore highlights and continually reminds us of the fact that salvation is totally to His glory, not man’s.  It goes back to the display of God’s glory being the ultimate purpose for which He created in the first place.

On the other side of the coin, we may also very well consider the question of why God would bother giving even the simple gift of faith to the elect. Certainly He could save them without any regard whatsoever for what they believed, if He so chose. He could have left the distinction between the elect and the non-elect completely invisible in this life, only to be revealed in the final judgment.

But here is where we are drawn to consider the riches of God’s electing love upon those to whom He has chosen to show it. The God that the Bible portrays is not content merely to show His love to the elect in the next life, by letting them live in heaven instead of hell. He also shows it in the current life. This is a clear theme throughout the Bible, for example in the following passage:

The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. . . . And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.

– 1 John 5:10-11

Again, the gift of eternal life that God bestows upon the elect is not merely a future salvation from hell. Rather, those who believe are said to be “born again” (John 3:3, 1 Pet. 1:3) because they already possess the gift of eternal life, and this life is in His Son (Jesus Christ). In other words, it is a personal relationship with Himself.[6] At the most fundamental level, eternal life consists in knowing God personally (John 17:3). This point cannot be overemphasized: A personal relationship with God is what salvation and eternal life (both present and future) are all about. And it is therefore what faith is all about as well.

The kind of belief or faith that the Bible asserts is necessary for salvation and eternal life should therefore not be thought of merely in terms of mental assent to certain propositional statements. This is a mistake about Christianity that is often made by Christians and non-Christians alike. It is true that one of the distinguishing features of Christianity is that it includes many propositional doctrines, such as the propositions that God exists, that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that He died for our sins, that He rose again, and that He promises salvation to all who will believe in Him. And it is true that these propositions are very important. But it is not as though God’s chief interest is merely that His chosen people believe the right facts about Him. Rather, His interest is in their personal relationship with Him. In fact, belief in the right facts without having any desire for a personal relationship with God is not Biblical faith and does not save at all (James 2:19).

On the other hand, it is clearly impossible to have a personal relationship with someone (including God) without having at least some knowledge of who that person is, as Heb. 11:6 points out: “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Those who believe that God exists and that He is truly worth seeking (i.e., they truly desire to do His will, and to have a personal relationship with Him) show evidence that God has in fact chosen them as one of His elect. Furthermore, John 7:17 assures us that this true desire on their part leads to God revealing Himself to them more fully, so that they will also know and believe further important truths about God, including the truth of who Jesus Christ is.

I do not pretend to be able to fully explain the epistemology behind this promised revelation of God to His elect. Some would dismiss any thought of revelation as groundless mysticism. But whether or not we call it a form of mysticism, I do not think it is groundless. This is not to say that Christianity can be logically proven. As I have already noted, logic never proves anything “from scratch,” but is really only a way of restating already-assumed premises. But it seems to me that if the Bible portrays a picture of God that is logically coherent and stands up to the scrutiny of major arguments such as the problem of hell, that in itself is amazing enough to warrant a consideration of the possibility of Divine revelation. And I do not know where that consideration will lead anyone else, but I know where it has led me.

Conclusion: Can We Worship this Kind of God?

The strongly Calvinistic view of God and of His sovereign choices of whom to reveal Himself to that I have presented in this paper is admittedly not a popular one. I can well imagine the howls of protest on the minds of some readers, including some of my closest Christian friends. Some may dismiss my view of God as simply being sadly inaccurate, in which case I can only hope that there are no hard feelings between us. Others may take the position that if God is really as this view describes Him, then He is a hideous monster and certainly not the kind of Being that they would have any interest in personally knowing and loving and worshiping. To this latter group I can say that I think their reaction is understandable. Even though I know of no logical reason to say that God could not fit the description of Him presented in the Bible, and even if the possibility exists that He might have His good reasons for electing some and not others, and that His punishment of the non-elect is completely just and proportionate to their evil, it is still not an easy thing to accept.

It may be helpful to consider an example of a similar reaction recorded in John 6, after Jesus claimed to be the “bread of life” (v. 35), that no one could come to Him unless drawn by the Father (v. 44), and that no one could have eternal life without coming to Him and partaking of Him (v. 53). The narrative continues as follows:

Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?”

When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you?” . . . And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”

But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

– John 6:60-61, 65-68 (NKJV)

We tend to be somewhat disturbed by the fact that the Biblical concept of God is not always “comfortable.” At some level, we would rather God was more like how we would choose to invent Him if such a thing were possible. This sentiment is clearly evident, for example, in what are reported to be the last words of German poet Heinrich Heine: “God will forgive me. It’s His job.” This may seem like a comforting thought, but the sobering fact is that there is no reason whatsoever to believe it to be true. The Bible certainly gives us no indication that it is God’s obligation to forgive all sinners. Nor do I find any logical reason outside of the Bible to assume such a thing. Who are we to tell the Almighty God what He must or must not do? Once again, it is the height of hubris, and of foolishness. It makes no sense whatsoever to worship a God of our own invention. We must seek to discover the true God, no matter how uncomfortable His ways (including the realities of evil, pain, and hell) may seem.

But it is also patently ridiculous to imagine that a god of our own invention would be an in any sense an improvement on the true God, even though he might seem more “comfortable.” How could we even think there was the slightest possibility that we were wiser or better in any way than the infinite Creator of the Universe? If there are some things about God that we find disturbing, we should not let that persuade us that He is a disappointment to some degree. Rather, I am convinced that the attitude of Peter is the way to discover the true greatness and glory of God. Peter did not turn away from the difficult statements that Jesus made about God and His ways; He embraced them. He recognized that this was the true God, the only source of eternal life, and that “he who believes in Him will not be disappointed” (1 Pet. 2:6).

Will we have difficulties understanding God? Of course we will! His ways are higher than our ways (Is. 55:9). I do not claim to have answered the difficulty of the problem of hell to a level where we can feel completely at ease with it. In effect, all I have attempted to do is put the difficulty into proper perspective, so that we have a better understanding of what it is we do not know. We do not fully understand how God’s love and His justice fit together. We do not fully understand God’s purpose for hell and how it contributes to the display of His glory. These are difficult things. But it is not as though they do not have answers just because we do not fully understand their answers. They are only difficulties, not logical contradictions. The thing that makes them seem so powerful is not their logical force but rather their emotional force.

We will never be able to escape these difficulties by turning away from the Biblical God because of them. There are no real answers to be found anywhere else, as far as I can tell. If this is indeed the true God (and I think it is most reasonable to believe He is), then ultimately there is no rational alternative other than to turn to Him in faith and experience the words of eternal life that He has to offer, just as Peter did. We must be content to leave the parts we do not fully understand where they belong, in His infinite hands.

The testimony of millions of Christians who have done this very thing is that even though God is not always “comfortable,” He is far from being a disappointment. We have tasted the love that He has shown to us through the cross of Jesus Christ, and have savored it deeply. We have understood that He is not only a God of love, but also a God of holy justice, and that we have rightly deserved the eternal punishment in hell that He will one day mete out to those who have not believed. Yet we have shaken our heads not just in discomfort and confusion over this, but more importantly in awe and amazement that for some unknown reason apart from us, He has freely chosen to spare us this punishment and has instead lavished His love upon us in a personal relationship with Himself. We cannot explain why He should have chosen us for this totally undeserved and unsought favor, but we know that He has because He has also given us the gift of faith in Himself, the desire to come to Him and rejoice in who He is, the Lord of all to whom we wish to be subject and to glorify in all things. We ache for those who have not come to know Him in this way, but we know that if they ever choose to do so, that will be evidence that they are among His elect as well. We do not know how God will ultimately answer all of our difficulties that this topic naturally raises, but we know we can trust Him to do so in a way that will finally and completely satisfy (Ps. 17:15). In the meantime, we are in awe of His glory, in worship of His character, and in eternal debt to His love and grace, and we hunger to know Him better.

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

– Rom. 11:33, John 3:16


Appendix: Failure of the Free-will Theodicy

Probably the most popular defense of the God of the Bible against the family of objections considered in this paper is the free-will theodicy, also known as the argument from free will. Some Christians have actually formulated this defense as a denial of Premise #2, that the God of the Bible has the ability to eliminate such things as evil, pain, and ultimately hell. They say that these things are a logically necessary consequence of free will, and therefore that not even an all-powerful God can do anything about it.

The problem with this formulation, of course, is that it makes no sense whatsoever to imagine a God who has the ability to create man, the devil, and every other being, and yet is powerless to create them in such a way as to not have free will, so that evil, pain, and hell could be eliminated. More careful proponents of the free-will defense will therefore say that it is not that God does not have the ability to do these things, but rather that in the ultimate analysis He is not willing to do them. So in their improved formulation, the free-will defense actually amounts (correctly) to a denial of Premise #1, that God ultimately wants to eliminate these things. They would say God is indeed all-loving and all-good, but that does not mean He is willing to do absolutely everything in His power to eliminate these things. Rather, they hold that the most good and loving thing for God to do is to grant man free will, even if that logically means some men will end up choosing evil, thereby introducing pain for themselves and others, and ultimately resulting in their own suffering in hell. They do not see God as deliberately choosing who will be saved and who will not. Rather, they see Him as doing almost everything in His power to prevent man from ending up in hell—everything, in fact, except for the option of overriding or sovereignly controlling his free will.

The first problem with this defense, I would argue, is that it is not consistent with the Biblical view of God to begin with, so that the god it ends up defending is not the Christian God anyway. This is admittedly a controversial point among Christians, lying at the heart of the debate over Calvinism, but it seems pretty clear to me that the Bible does not teach that man has free will in the absolute sense where not even God is ultimately in control of his choices. Rather, the God of the Bible “opens men’s hearts” to respond to the gospel and believe in Him as He chooses (e.g., Acts 16:14), so that His choice to show mercy on some ultimately does not depend on their own free will (Rom. 9:16). But since a proper understanding of man’s free will is not really the subject of this paper, I will concentrate instead on the other failures of the free-will defense, which even those who do not accept what I say about the Bible’s view of man’s free will are forced to grapple with.

The second problem with the free-will defense is its premise that to grant man free will (in the absolute sense where not even God is in control of man’s choices) is the most good and loving thing God could do, as though the gift of free will is the most precious thing a man could possibly have. Ignoring the lack of any Biblical support for this view of the supreme value of free will, it may perhaps seem reasonable to believe that free will is a precious gift for those who ultimately end up being saved, since the free-will defense views their choice to receive salvation and their love for God as somehow more “genuine” because of their free will. But for those who end up in hell, free will does not seem like the most precious gift at all. Loving parents may hope their child makes good choices of his own free will, and rejoice when the child does so. But there are some choices that are so bad that it would not be loving at all for the parents to leave the child to his own free will. For example, it is absolutely unthinkable to imagine a parent saying something like this: “Son, I see you wish to play with lighter fluid and matches in the house, and so I must warn you that if you go through with this choice it will almost certainly lead to unspeakable disaster, and I plead with you from the bottom of my heart not to do so. But if you insist, because I love you so much, I am going to let you have your free will.” So the free-will defense by itself does not really offer any true explanation for why God does not save everyone. Those who hold that the reason Premise #1 is invalid is simply that God out of love grants man free will to choose hell if he wants to have not really escaped any of the difficulty of the problem whatsoever.

The third problem with the free-will defense is that even if it were true that granting man free will were the most loving thing God could possibly do, so that the option of God controlling man’s will was off the table, it still does not seem reasonable to assume that God could not do anything more short of controlling man’s will to keep more people away from the torments of hell. Should we really believe that God provides just as much opportunity to believe in Him for a child born to a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia (for example) as for a child born to Christian parents in the United States? If it was purely a matter of free will who would or would not end up believing in the God of the Bible, and if God truly gave everyone the most opportunity possible to accept Christ, then there would not seem to be any reasonable explanation for why so many more people from one background than another end up becoming Christians. If God can arrange circumstances such that more people from one background end up believing, could He not also arrange them so that just as many people from the other background end up believing?

This observation that God gives some people more opportunity to believe than others is also strongly implied in the Bible, by the way. For example, in Matt. 11:21, Jesus said that if the miracles that had been done in Chorazin and Bethsaida had also been done in Tyre and Sidon, the people of those cities would have repented. And God certainly could have done the same miracles in those cities, but He did not. And yet the people of Tyre and Sidon will still be judged for their hardness of heart even though they would have repented under different circumstances. So the idea that the God of the Bible does everything in His power (short of violating free will) to give everyone the maximum opportunity to repent and believe is just not true. (See 1 Cor. 1:26-31 for some other examples where God deliberately chooses to save more people from one group than another.)

Another aspect of this third problem with the free-will defense is that even if we could grant that God does everything in His power to keep men out of hell to begin with, we still have to face up to the fact that He does not do everything in His power to keep men from suffering once they are there, but rather in fact actually inflicts wrath upon them there. In an effort to avoid this conclusion, it seems to me that some proponents of the free-will defense end up trying to soften the severity of God’s active judgment of sin in hell, contrary to the Bible. For example, I’ve heard the idea expressed that hell is actually a great mercy, in that sinners would be absolutely miserable in the presence of God, so God simply “grants them their wish” to be removed from His presence. There is admittedly a grain of truth in this idea. The Bible does indicate that sinners cannot stand the presence of God (e.g., Rev. 6:16), and that hell is a place “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” in some sense (2 Thess. 1:9). But even though hell might ultimately be less miserable for unbelievers than heaven would be (where God’s judgment on their sin might theoretically be even more intense), hell is still viewed as a place of extreme judgment by God. Sinners do not take refuge in hell, they are forcibly cast there. As Jesus put it, “I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5).

The point of all this is that the Biblical view of hell is not just as a place of “less blessing” than heaven. It is a place of extreme torment, pictured (symbolically at least) by unquenchable fire. It is far worse than simply lack of anything good. Speaking of Judas Iscariot, Jesus said, “Woe to that man . . . it would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). And this brings up a third aspect of this same problem with the free-will defense, which is if God really wants to keep even unbelievers from suffering, why does He even create them or allow them to be born in the first place? The free-will defense attempts to explain hell as an unavoidable consequence of free will, but the fact that God chooses to create people whom He knows[7] will end up in hell cannot be explained as an unavoidable consequence of free will. Nor can this explain why God chooses to give these people immortal souls, rather than allowing them to be forever annihilated upon their deaths if they do not believe. A few Christians have actually argued for the mortality or annihilation of the souls of unbelievers in hell in order to escape this objection, but this line of argument is just not supported by the Bible. For example, Rev. 20:10 speaks of those in hell being “tormented day and night forever and ever.” If this were not the case, then the warnings of Jesus about the terrors of hell would have a fairly hollow ring—what’s ultimately to be afraid of, if in the end the soul simply ceases to exist? The fact is, just as the God of the Bible clearly does not choose to do everything in His power (short of overriding free will) to keep men out of hell, so He does not by any means choose to do everything in His power (short of overriding their free will) to eliminate their eternal torment once they are there. The truth is closer to quite the opposite. God does choose to condemn people to hell and judgment, and the free-will defense does not offer any real explanation for that.


Update [3/5/2011]: My own further reflections on the nature of hell have suggested the possibility of a “progressive annihilation,” or eternal decay of consciousness, which answers the objection that the total amount of evil and suffering in the universe seemingly ought to be finite if God is good. See A Progressive Annihilation Concept of Hell for details.


Endnotes

[1]   Biblical scholars differ on how the current characteristics of nature reflect the character of God. The popular view held by young-earth creationists that God’s original creation was entirely devoid of all its present ferocity and carnivorism is decidedly rejected by many, including myself. In any case, all students of the Bible are compelled to acknowledge God as a God of “fierce wrath” (Rev. 19:15) as well as tender love, regardless of whether or not the ferocity of nature is intended to be a demonstration of this fact.
 
[2]   All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), except where otherwise noted.
 
[3]   For example, Jesus told the Jews who wanted to argue with Him, “You do not believe, because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:26). His meaning was clear: Their unbelief was an indication that they were not among the elect. Of course, we do not have the Divine knowledge that He did to declare whether a person in a state of unbelief is actually among the elect or not, but we can certainly warn such persons that they may not be among the elect, and that if they continue in their unbelief it is a sure proof that they are in fact not among the elect. (See John 6:36-37 and 43-45 for a similar example.)
 
[4]   I am speaking in general terms here, not arguing against such things as war and capital punishment.
 
[5]   See God’s Passion for His Glory by John Piper (Crossway Books, 1998), which contains the complete text of The End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards.
 
[6]   I am assuming doctrine of the Trinity here, in which God is one in essence but exists in three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus a relationship with Jesus Christ (the Son) is a relationship with God.
 
[7]   I am assuming the traditional Christian understanding of God’s omniscience here, i.e., that He knows every detail about all things, including the future.

This page copyright © 2008 Edward A. Morris.  Created May 10, 2008.  Last updated March 5, 2011.

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