Ask most atheists why they don’t believe in the God of the Bible, and their answer will ultimately come back to the character of God. Sure, they might mention the lack of “evidence,” hypocrisy in the church, and so on—but when it comes right down to it, they have a problem with God.
The world is a mess. AIDS, genocide, child slavery, starvation, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and terrorism—where did these evils come from, and how could a loving God allow people to endure so many horrible tragedies? Even many Christians find themselves asking the same piercing question:
The answer is found in the first three chapters of Genesis. In the beginning, God created a perfect world with no death or pain (Genesis 1:31). He entrusted the care of the entire earth to Adam and Eve, the first humans (Genesis 1:28), and gave them only one restriction: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Although they were warned of the consequences, Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God (Genesis 3:6), which brought the Curse on the earth and introduced pain and death into God’s originally perfect creation (Genesis 3:16–19). Scripture tells us that “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), and now the whole creation groans under the Curse (Romans 8:22).
The problem of evil is very real, but it’s not God’s problem. To understand this, consider another common question:
So many people struggle with this question because they don’t correctly understand the fallen nature of humanity and the perfect character of God. Many have a false idea that man is basically good, so the question in their mind is actually, “How could God send good people to hell?” Others have the false idea that God shouldn’t send anyone to hell because of his love for everyone—no matter how sinful—so their question is actually, “How could a loving God send people to hell?”
We have already seen the answer from Genesis: man is not good. As the Scripture states, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). When we correctly understand the nature of humanity, we can see the problem with calling people “good.” In regard to both questions, the problem is that these people don’t understand the perfect character of God, which brings about another question:
God is not simply “good” in the common understanding of the word. God is perfection—the ultimate definition of good. There is nothing else that can even come close to God’s absolute goodness, and nothing to which we can compare him. God is holy, which means he is set apart from all unrighteousness (Isaiah 6:3).
Also, God is not pleased with the effects of sin, pain, and death in the world. Scripture states, “he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), and that he even has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). These evils were brought into the world as a result of human sin. Ultimately, God plans to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5, NKJV), which will remove the effects of the Curse and even destroy death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Even though God loves us, it is because he is completely good and just that he cannot simply overlook or tolerate evil—he hates it!
A look at Psalm 5 will help us to better understand the goodness of God. Look at what God calls evil, and his response to it:
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. . . . For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. (Psalm 5:4–6, 9)
Now think about how many times you have boasted, lied, or been unfaithful to God. These are things God hates, because he is perfectly good and cannot ignore sin. Sin means to “miss the mark,” and Scripture tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). None of us can attain to God’s standard, because he measures us against himself—the ultimate standard of good (1 Peter 1:16).
God does not compromise justice, so he must punish those who do evil.
Every person is a sinner by nature and by choice (Romans 5:12-21; Isaiah 53:6), and we cannot do anything to purify ourselves; no amount of “good” works can cover what we have done wrong. In fact, the Bible says that all of our righteousness is like a pile of “filthy rags” before the holy Creator God (Isaiah 64:6, NKJV).
God is the supreme Judge of all the earth (Psalm 96:13; Genesis 18:25), and a good judge cannot let a guilty criminal go unpunished. God does not compromise justice, so he must punish those who do evil, as we see in the next verse of Psalm 5:
Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you. (Psalm 5:10)
This is justice. Everyone stands guilty before God, and if he were to condemn all of humanity, that would be just—because we all deserve punishment of eternal death in hell.
So rather than asking how a good and loving God could send people to hell, we need to modify the question: “How can a good and loving God not send sinful people to hell?” With this in mind, consider the next verse of Psalm 5:
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. (Psalm 5:11)
Wait—that’s not justice, is it? How can God, the righteous Judge, defend sinners who have violated his law? This question is arguably the greatest in all of Scripture, and may well be called “God’s biggest problem.”
How can a good and loving God not send sinful people to hell?
But because God is loving and mighty to save (Isaiah 63:1), he implemented the perfect solution to the problem of justice. Along with the Curse, God promised in Genesis 3:15 to send a Deliverer, the “Seed of the woman,” who would crush the head of the serpent (i.e., Satan). In the New Testament, we find out the identity of this Deliverer—he is God’s own Son, who gave his life to redeem us!
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Jesus Christ, God incarnate, lived on this earth as a man—but without sin—and died a terrible death under the wrath of God, so that he could take the punishment for our sins (Isaiah 53:5, 8). As the perfect man, Jesus could die for mankind. As God, Jesus could bear the infinite punishment required for man’s sin against an infinitely holy God. Only by coming in the flesh (John 1:14) could God provide a sufficient sacrifice to take away mankind’s sins.
But Jesus is not dead (Matthew 28:5–6). He rose from the grave three days later, triumphing over death and breaking the effect of the Curse (Revelation 1:18)—so that anyone who believes in him and repents of their sin can be set free and live for eternity with their Creator (Acts 3:19; Romans 10:9, 6:23). Truly, God is both loving and good!