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If you haven’t been asked this question, you will. It’s the weightiest matter anyone will ever face. The key is to look at the question from a different angle—what kind of God would not condemn His enemies to an eternal hell?
How can you believe in a God who would condemn people to suffer the torments of hell eternally? I have been asked this question many times and, if you are a Christian, you probably have too. If you haven’t, you would do well to get working on an answer because the question may not be too far off. Hell is no laughing matter, despite cartoons and lampoons to the contrary. In all the world, in all eternity, there are few matters weightier than this one, and to every man and woman there is no issue more urgent.
How can you believe in a God who would condemn people to suffer the torments of hell eternally? I reply with a question of my own: “How can you believe in a God who would not?”
To ask the first question is to fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of God; it is to re-form God in the image of man, because here’s the thing: If you want a God who is good—truly good—and if you want a God who is just and holy, then you must have this God, this God who condemns people to suffer the eternal torments of hell. You cannot have the God you want unless there is a hell.
You cannot have a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and so very good. God’s goodness doesn’t negate eternal punishment in hell; it demands it.
If you want a God who is good—truly good—and if you want a God who is just and holy, then you must have this God, this God who condemns people to suffer the eternal torments of hell.
On what basis can I so strongly and confidently assert the necessity and existence of eternal, conscious torment in hell, even if my heart naturally cries out in rebellion against the thought? Only because God’s Word is clear on the matter. The Bible describes hell as a place where God pours out His wrath on people who have been created in His image (Matthew 10:28; 25:46; Revelation 14:10–11; 20:10–15). God the Father has appointed His Son to be the eternal Judge who will condemn people to hell (Matthew 25:31–34, 25:41; Acts 10:42). This is not momentary or temporary torture dispensed by Satan or his demons, but eternal torment poured out by God Himself. This punishment will be inflicted upon conscious human beings, people who know who they are, what they were, what they have done (Luke 16:22–31).
It is truly, literally impossible to imagine a worse reality than this one. Yet the Bible, the best of books by the best of authors, the perfect book by the most trustworthy of authors, tells us it is so. If this is His judgment, then anything less wouldn’t be worthy of an infinitely holy, just, and good God.
Who am I to question God? If this infinitely holy and just God declares that hell exists and asserts that hell must exist, then rebellion against His will reveals a failure in my own understanding of justice and goodness. Do I know better than God? Or is it possible that I am far worse than God, infinitely worse, and that I fall woefully short of a complete understanding of God’s goodness and sin’s wickedness? To ask the question is to answer it.
Why Eternal? The eternal, neverending nature of the sinner’s punishment is directly related to the infinite and eternal nature of God. When you sin against an infinite God—and all sin is primarily oriented toward God—you accrue an infinite debt. This is the only way to explain the Father’s decision not to spare His Son but to deliver Him to suffer in our place (Romans 8:32). An eternal, infinite being was needed to bear the weight of an infinite punishment.
Why Torment? The torments of hell are directly related to the transcendent holiness of God. Those who face that weight of condemnation have sinned against a God who is truly, purely holy. God’s holiness is unable to tolerate anything or anyone that is unholy; His holiness is like a gag reflex that acts out in wrath against all sin (Romans 1:18) so that on the Cross even Christ had to cry out in His forsakenness, cut off from all that was good and pure and holy (Matthew 27:46).
Why Conscious? Those who have sinned consciously must also bear their punishment consciously. The Bible tells us that we have not been passive in our rebellion against God, but have been willing participants, active rebels. In some mysterious way we were even willing participants in the sin of Adam. Justice demands conscious punishment, not mere annihilation of the person or his or her sin. What clearer example do we have than Jesus Christ who consciously bore God’s wrath against sin? If Christ’s suffering for our sin was conscious, so too will be the suffering of those who bear their own sin. God will not ask less of them than He asked of His Son.
The God every person wants is a God who is good, a God who gives good things to the ones He loves. But to have a God who is good, we must first have a God who is holy. God’s goodness flows out of His holiness. The God of the Bible is a holy God. This attribute of God draws attention to His otherness, His set-apartness, the vast gulf between Creator and creature. It tells us that God must be separated from sin, and it says that He is committed to seeking His own honor. God is unimaginably holy, utterly perfect to the greatest degree and the farthest extent. And because He is holy, He is good.
What a stark contrast we make. We human beings are sinful in body, mind, and spirit—no part of us has escaped or remained undefiled. It is only God’s restraining grace that keeps any of us from pursuing our sin to a greater and greater degree, from becoming as utterly and horribly sinful as we could possibly be (James 1:14–15; Romans 1:28–32; 8:2). Only the grace of God stands between any one of us and the vilest of sins. We are not this way because God made us this way, but because this is what we have chosen for ourselves (James 1:13–14). No one has forced us into such unholiness, such moral depravity. This is what we have desired and the path we have taken. Our moral freedom has led us to utter moral corruption.
It is this contrast that makes hell a horrible necessity. The holiness of God demands that He remain separate from sin, that those who commit sin must be kept out of His presence. How could such holiness mingle with such impurity? Holiness flees from sin. They are incompatible, irreconcilable. And so sinners must be cast out, and they must be kept out of God’s presence.
The Bible leaves us no option but to recognize that hell is the punishment due to sinners who have rejected the goodness of an infinitely good God. But there is hope. God has not left us without a means by which any of us can be rescued, by which our sinfulness can be taken from us and exchanged for true goodness. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became man and served as the substitute for sinful humanity, taking upon Himself the guilt of our sin and then facing God’s curse against that sin. Amazingly, astoundingly, the infinite Son of God suffered infinite punishment upon the Cross.
What is so remarkable and so praiseworthy is that He did this for others instead of for Himself. He had no sin but took the punishment for the sin of others; He took that sin upon Himself and now freely offers forgiveness and His righteousness to all who will receive it (2 Corinthians 5:21; John 1:12; Titus 3:5–7). He Himself is the way, He is the door, He is the escape. And all He requires is that we put our faith, our trust, in Him, trusting that He is God, that He has made that way. To these people He now offers all the joy of an eternity of holiness, an eternity basking in His pure and holy presence. This is grace, this is God offering what we so badly need but could never do for ourselves.
When you cry out against a God who punishes people in a place like hell, you cry out against the God who has revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture. You cry out against His goodness, holiness, and justice; and all the while you minimize your own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others. Those who understand hell best, those who grasp it most deeply, are those with the greatest sense that they deserve to be there. They marvel at the grace that has called them from that place to a place that is far, far better—infinitely better!
To wish away eternity in hell is to wish away eternity in heaven. It is not that they exist in some kind of mutual dependence so that one can only exist alongside the other. But sin demands eternal punishment, while grace calls for eternal love and joy, the re-establishment of the good and holy relationship that our Creator intended to enjoy with us forever. How can I believe in a God who condemns people to hell? I must believe in this God, for He poured out the punishment of hell on Jesus Christ through whom I have hope.