Summary: Does the doctrine of Hell deny a loving God? If Hell is real what should our response be?
This is a series based on and heavily dependent on Timothy Keller’s Best Seller "The Reason For God" for which I’m deeply grateful. It uses much of his argument though with various additions by myself or the other preachers of the series.
A lake of fire, of unquenchable fire, chains of deepest darkness, wrath and fury, anguish and distress; the language used in the Bible for hell is overwhelming isn’t it? Not to mention the popular images of pitchforks and horned demons. It’s the sort of distressing picture that we shy away from. It’s the sort of idea that’s so easy to make into a stereotype: preachers thumping the pulpit, spouting hellfire and damnation; men on street corners with big black bibles warning people to turn away from the wrath to come.
It’s no wonder people ask how could we believe in that sort of a God. How could a God of love possibly condemn anyone to that sort of suffering? Surely if God is the sort of God that Christians mostly talk about, he could never consign people to an eternity of suffering, could he?
The question becomes more pointed when it becomes personal. How can we look at someone who’s a leader in humanitarian work but who isn’t a Christian and suggest that that person is going to hell because they’re not saved? Can’t we think of lots of people who are really kind, who are loving and caring, who do all sorts of things for others out of the goodness of their hearts? What about them? Isn’t it a contradiction that a God of love would consign them to eternal suffering?
What do you think? Is it a contradiction? Well let’s think about the thinking that lies behind these questions. What do the people who ask them believe deep down.
A God of Judgement can’t Exist?
There’s a given in our modern western culture that goes something like this: I’m an autonomous individual and I have the right to come to my own conclusions about what’s right and wrong without a church or religious group telling me what to think. In other words, moral truth is completely relative - relative to what I’m thinking at the moment that is.
That means I’m very happy with a God of love who treats me like a kindly grandfather, supporting me no matter how I live. But the idea that God would punish me for my sincerely held beliefs is quite offensive. If we were in the US, it’d be even worse because it’d imply that my freedom of speech, freedom of expression was limited somehow.
Since the advent of the industrial revolution and the development of modern science we’ve become so used to the notion that humans are the masters of their own universe that we think that applies to every aspect of life. C.S. Lewis points out that in ancient times people understood there was a transcendent moral order to the universe that required us to shape our character to meet it’s demands. So if we were to live in conformity with the reality of the universe we needed to develop humility, compassion, courage, integrity. Now, though, we see the world only as a material reality and we think we can shape it to our desires. So the wrongdoer is no longer evil, just psychologically damaged, in need of therapy. If we find ourselves stressed by living in the tension of the age we’re prescribed drugs to relax us, or are taught stress-management techniques.
This view of our ability to shape the physical world spills over into a belief that we can shape the metaphysical world as well. The result of this way of looking at the world is that we simply change the rules. We say, if it feels good, do it. It’s your life. You only live once, so why not enjoy yourself? It’s your right.
And when we discover that there’s a God who wants to punish us for disobeying his laws we feel cheated, offended that he’d ignore our rights like that. No-one thinks there’s anything wrong with sex outside of marriage so why would God care?
A God who Forgives?
The corollary of this being offended by a God who judges is the idea of a God who forgives. Why are we offended by a God who judges but not offended by the idea that God would forgive us? Why do we think it’s OK that someone who does something wrong could get off Scot free? You may have heard of a group called Vocal, Victims of Crime Assistance League. It’s a support group for victims of crime whose aim is to get justice for those who’ve been victims of crime. They want to see criminals stopped from committing crimes and if not stopped then punished. And they want victims to have a say in the proceedings against the perpetrators.