“I can’t believe that a loving God would send people to hell.”
“Why did God create some people if He knew they would reject Him and go to hell?”
“If God is all-powerful and all-good, then why doesn’t He just destroy Satan and hell?”
“As long as you’re a decent person then there’s no way you’ll end up in hell.”
“Hell is just something the Church made up to scare people into behaving well.”
“Hell might exist, but there probably isn’t anyone there.”
These are objections that I encounter all the time, and ones that are extremely common among non-Christians and non-believers alike. The objections are honest and fair for the most part, because the Christian concept of hell can be confusing and even seem contradictory to the Gospel message if one doesn’t understand it properly. In this post, I intend to show that the Christian doctrine of hell is:
1. Logically necessary.
2. Consistent with Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and mercy.
3. Widely misunderstood by both Christians and non-Christians today.
Love Requires Freedom
First, what do I mean when I say that the doctrine of hell is necessary? It’s necessary because it is impossible for God to be loving without the existence of hell. Whoa, that sounds like a bold claim – why do you say that? I’ll tell you. Christians believe that God created human beings with free will, meaning that they are free to choose what and who they will love, and what and who they will reject. If you reject someone, do you want to spend time with them or get to know them better? Probably not. This freedom applies to God as well. God will not force anyone to accept and love Him. In fact, He can’t force anyone to love Him, because love has to be a free choice by its very definition. If Heaven is God’s love and presence for eternity, then how could anyone who rejected God be happy there? This is where the issue of free will arises. If a person dies in a state where they completely reject God and want nothing to do with His love or forgiveness, would it be loving for God to bring them to Heaven anyway? God would be effectively saying, “I know you won’t love me but since I’m all-powerful and I know what’s best for you, I’m going to force you to love me.” That isn’t love – that’s tyranny, and God is no tyrant! Demanding that God bring everyone to heaven, with or without their consent, is like a bride reciting her vows because the groom is holding a gun to her head. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis asks a question that penetrates to the heart of this objection:
“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.” (Lewis 128).
The Problem With Universal Salvation
There is a theory with growing popularity known as “universal salvation,” which attempts to avoid the problem of hell by suggesting that upon death, God reveals Himself to the unrepentant sinner, who is so overwhelmed by God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness that he cannot help but to love God and repent of his sins. This idea might sound comforting or reassuring at first, but take a closer look at it. If God were going to overwhelm every hell-destined person at the end of their life, so that they could be forgiven and be with Him in Heaven, then how would that affect the meaning of that person’s life on Earth? It would render it meaningless. Why? Take this example. Let’s say you’ve made no effort during your life to seek God, to know, to love, or to serve Him, but instead you’ve actively rejected Him in all your thoughts, words, and actions. Eventually, one day you die, still obstinately refusing God’s love. If God would, at that moment of your death, reveal Himself in such a way that you literally had no choice but to love Him and beg for forgiveness and mercy, then He would in doing so eliminate the meaning of every choice you ever made. If nothing you think, say, or do can ever override God’s “overwhelming” effect on you at death, then no set of beliefs or way of living can be considered better than any other. This raises another problem, related to the problem of suffering. If God was planning on overwhelming even the most evil people into loving Him at the end of their lives, then why didn’t He reveal himself to them before they hurt, misled, corrupted, and even killed countless innocent people? If God could have simply overwhelmed Hitler into loving Him, then why didn’t He do so before the Holocaust? The truth is, if God could somehow force people to accept Him, then waiting to do so until after those people spend their entire lives inflicting pain and suffering on others would at best be heartless indifference, and at worst cruelty.
The Hard Way and the Narrow Gate
I said that the doctrine of hell is perfectly consistent with Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and mercy. Many people who are not familiar with the Bible assume that most of the “hell stuff” must come from the Old Testament, which was of course all about the God of Divine wrath and justice, right? Wrong! In fact, the vast majority of what we know about hell comes from Jesus Christ himself! If hell does not exist, or is at least nothing for us to worry about, then Jesus was either seriously confused or purposely trying to deceive people. Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate by the hard way and that “the way is easy that leads to destruction” (Mt 7:13-14). If everyone is eventually saved, regardless of whether they want to be or not, then Jesus’ analogy of the “narrow gate” is a completely unnecessary warning. How could the gate that everyone passes through be described as “narrow,” and the way that leads to it as “hard”? (doesn’t sound so hard to me!) Just a couple of paragraphs later in Matthew’s gospel, we hear what Jesus’ response will be to those who plead with him during their judgement, after never trying to do his Father’s will during their lives:
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’ (Mt 7:21-23).
Hell is Ultimately a Choice
“I never knew you.” These are the words that some people describe as “the saddest words in the bible.” They give me the chills, because they capture that horrifying moment when a person finally realizes that the time for turning back is over, and that death has transformed their temporary response of “Maybe God” or “Not yet God” into a permanent “No God.” So, how is all of this exclusion and damnation consistent with Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and mercy? All three of these Divine gifts have to be accepted. Loving God is meaningless without the option of hating him, receiving forgiveness is meaningless without the option of refusing it, and God’s mercy is meaningless without his justice. Without the freedom to be a Hitler, there is nothing great or admirable about being a Mother Teresa. This fact, that going to hell is ultimately a free choice, is why C.S. Lewis was correct when he described hell as “a door locked from the inside.” While the people in hell are certainly not happy to be there, and obviously can’t enjoy the suffering of being eternally separated from God, they would be even more miserable to be in God’s presence in Heaven. This is difficult to understand, like trying to understand a person’s decision to end their own life – it breaks our heart. However, the difficulty we have in trying to understand it and the heartbreak that it makes us feel is surely a positive sign, one that shows we are still striving to know and love God more ourselves. Some people reject the idea that going to hell is ultimately a choice, and instead insist on the idea that hell is some kind of eternal torture chamber where people are sent against their will. This mentality seems to arise from an emotional or even revengeful response to the sin and injustice in the world. However, we cannot possibly know the dispositions or motivations of other people, regardless of how immoral their conduct may seem, and it is certainly neither our right nor to our benefit to fantasize about what punishment we feel must be necessary to satisfy God’s justice.
Why the Downplaying of Hell?
The abundance of Christians today who either seriously downplay or even deny the doctrine of hell is evidence that the doctrine is greatly misunderstood. I believe that the three greatest contributors to this widespread misunderstanding are:
1. An overly literal interpretation of the imagery of hell found in Scripture.
2. The comical or childish portrayal of hell and final judgement in modern literature, television shows, and film.
3. A lack of good catechesis and preaching on the doctrine of hell during the last fifty or sixty years.
Who is Satan?
I won’t go into depth on each of these issues now, because a book could probably be written on each, and I suspect (and hope) that most people are probably already aware of their influence to some extent. I will mention one especially common misunderstanding though, the identity of Satan. Many people seem to understand Satan as being God’s arch nemesis, as Lex Luthor is to Superman. This is totally inaccurate, because is gives the impression that Satan is in some way on the same level as God, which is absurd. Satan is an angel, a spiritual being created by God, who rejected God because of his pride and so was cast out of God’s presence. He was once known as Lucifer, and was the greatest among the Seraphim, the highest choir in the hierarchy of angels. The Hebrew word “Seraphim” literally translates to “burning ones,” because the Seraphs are so close to God that they are constantly on fire with His love. Since Lucifer was the highest in heaven (of the created beings), and chose to turn away from God, his fall from Grace was the greatest fall possible. Satan is therefore not some creepy guy in red tights with horns and a trident whom God has raised to the rank of “torture master.” He does not “reign” in hell – he is the lowest, most pitiable, and most miserable one, because he has lost more than anyone else who may be there. At best one could say that he is the chief rebel. As the saying goes, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” God is uncreated and infinite and Satan created and finite. To God, Satan is like a three year-old having a tantrum and hitting Daddy, except Satan is even less of a threat. Of course, I use this analogy to describe the relationship between God and Satan – not the relationship between Satan and other created beings, among whom he has great power and influence.
In conclusion, I hope my thoughts on this crucial doctrine have shed some light on it and sparked interest for further reading. Speaking of further reading, it would be a great disservice to the reader if I did not recommend reading C.S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain, or at least the eighth chapter, which is on hell. Also, I highly, highly recommend The Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, written by Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., not only for its chapter on hell (Chapter 12), but because it is in my opinion a must-have for all Catholics. God Bless you and thanks for reading!
Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. 1940.
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