Why send anyone to hell?
Rev’d Paul Williams became a Christian after his brother invited him to an event his church was running, where he heard the good news about Jesus. He worked in the newspaper industry before studying theology at Oak Hill College, London, and becoming a church leader. He is currently senior pastor at Christ Church Fulwood, Sheffield.
Barry Cooper studied English at Oxford and became a Christian at Easter in his first year at university after reading through a Gospel. He then trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He now writes material for the Christianity Explored course.
It seems there are certain things you just can’t say. For example, in one school I read about recently, a story entitled The Friendly Dolphin was rejected because it “discriminates against pupils who do not live near the sea”. Another story, the subversive-sounding A Perfect Day for Ice Cream, apparently had to be re-written without any mention of ice cream because certain schools had banned junk food. As if that were not enough, Mickey Mouse is no longer popular with authorities because he is a “scary rodent who might upset pupils”, and Harry Potter has fallen out of favour because he’s an orphan (“potentially upsetting”).
I suspect that Jesus’ words about hell would also be absent from the school reading list. And although some have tried, it would be very hard to rewrite the Gospels without any mention of hell because Jesus, whose life was nothing if not loving, mentions it again and again. In fact, the word is mentioned twelve times in the Gospels, and that doesn’t take into account the uncomfortable references to “eternal punishment,” “eternal fire,” “the fiery furnace” and “the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But although these words were on the lips of Jesus frequently, he did not take them lightly. When he spoke of hell, he spoke of it in earnest as a real place; a place to be avoided at all costs; a place set aside for those who have lived their lives in rebellion against their Creator. And when Jesus talks about judgement, his words are not sneering, malicious or bloodthirsty. They are choked with tears.
I remember one occasion when I was watching the news with some friends. During one of the reports, a senior churchman from another country said, “Margaret Thatcher can go to hell.” I don’t think I’d have remembered his comment were it not for the reaction of one of my friends. Looking sad and deeply troubled, he said in a softly-spoken voice, “No Christian should ever wish that upon anyone.”
A story told by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel helps to explain why.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores:’ Luke 16:19—21
It’s a distressing contrast: the rich man lives in luxury while the beggar sits in squalor. The dogs get more from Lazarus than he does from the rich man. But that’s not the most distressing part of what Jesus says.
We learn that the two men die, and while Lazarus goes to heaven, the rich man’s destination is very different. And, if we have even an ounce of sensitivity, what Jesus says next will profoundly disturb us. According to Jesus, the rich man is now “in torment”. The man himself says, “I am in agony in this fire.”
We’re also told that there is no escape from this desperate place: “those who want to go from here... cannot”. Unsurprisingly, the rich man pleads for his family who are still alive, that someone would “warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
One of my biggest fears is that something terrible might happen to my children. I guess all parents feel the same, because no parent — however vigilant and however loving — can be certain of keeping their children absolutely safe at all times. There’ll be times I won’t be there, times when even if I were there I’d be powerless to protect them, and times when the tireless ingenuity of children’s minds will still manage to invent some way of hurting themselves regardless of my being there.
But there is one loving thing I can do: I can warn them. Tell them the truth about playing in the road, or sticking forks in the toaster, or drinking disinfectant. I can warn them; you’d think I was uncaring if I didn’t. And I hope with all my heart that they’ll listen.
That’s why Jesus speaks as he does about hell. He is warning people of a clear and present danger. The language he uses is uncompromising and sometimes graphic, but isn’t that often how we speak when we really want our children to hear us? I don’t want to make the dangers of life sound worse than they really are — believe me I take no pleasure in scaring small children — but when the danger is serious, when it is a matter of life or death, I will speak plainly. That’s how Jesus speaks when he speaks of hell.
For example, listen to his words in Matthew chapter 5:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell’ Matthew5:29—30
It is love that prompts Jesus to talk like this, not madness, or malice. In fact, it would be unloving if he did not speak like this — if, as Jesus says, hell is a reality. And by using these provocative, shocking words, Jesus intends us to listen, and take decisive measures to avoid it.
But why would a God of love send anyone to hell?
Most people like to think that “God is love”. Even if they’ve never read the Bible before, they are able to quote those three words. It is a wonderful truth, full of reassurance and comfort.
But that statement — “God is love” — doesn’t mean that God loves everything.
For example, God doesn’t love pride. He doesn’t love cruelty. He doesn’t love injustice or murder. He doesn’t love lying. In fact, he hates these things:
You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil;
with you the wicked cannot dwell.
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence;
you hate all who do wrong.
You destroy those who tell lies;
bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.
So, strange though it may sound, hell is a loving necessity. It is the place in which evil will be locked up, once and for all. In the Gospel of
Matthew, for example, Jesus describes hell as the place “prepared for the devil and his angels.”
In other words, God created hell to deal with evil. He made it to be the final, inescapable prison in which all evil, all rebellion against God, will be confined, never again to exert its poisonous influence. Given all the evil in the world, isn’t it a tremendous reassurance to know that it does not go unnoticed by God? It is precisely because he’s a God of love that there is a place called hell. Because of his love, he will not ignore or overlook evil. And the Bible assures us that all human sin — however trifling it may seem to us — will ultimately be judged by a God who will perfectly weigh the motives of every single human heart, and then punish accordingly, with unquestionably perfect justice. That means that we can trust God to make a fair judgement.
Even with our imperfect sense of justice, we still understand this: the greater the crime, the greater the punishment. A crime that is infinitely great deserves an infinite punishment. And even a great crime such as murder can be made even greater depending on the victim: killing a citizen is bad enough, but killing the king? We call that high treason, and reserve an even greater punishment for it. It’s even more despicable if we see that that the murder weapon was a gift given by the king himself.
Hell only seems harsh when we don’t see how infinitely serious it is to rebel against God. And it only seems harsh when we don’t realise how infinitely holy God is; in other words, how entirely perfect, how completely true, how utterly good and how profoundly beautiful God is. He is infinitely worthy of our love; and we love anyone, anything, but him. He gives and sustains life; and we spend it trying to wish him out of existence.
The way Jesus describes hell — and the excruciating lengths to which he went in order that people might be kept from it — should prove one thing, if nothing else: God’s holiness and our sin must both be infinitely great.
In fact, once we glimpse the infinite depths of human sin, and the infinite heights of God’s holiness, our question may well change. Rather than demanding, “Why send anyone to hell?”, we may well ask, “How can you admit anyone to heaven?”
1 The four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
2 It’s important to realise that Jesus is not arguing for literal self-mutilation here. He is using strong language in order to stress the need to deal drastically with sin.
3 You can find the phrase twice in 1 John 4.
4 Matthew 25:41.
© Paul Williams & Barry Cooper 2007
Source: ch4 ‘If You’re A God Of Love, Why Send Anyone To Hell?’ from Paul Williams & Barry Cooper, If You Could Ask God One Question, Christianity Explored books (2007) pp41-46 is used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the author.