How can a loving God send people to hell?
The text comes from John 3:16-21: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
Before we get to unpacking the text, let me say right up front that the question, “how does a loving God send people to hell?” is not about hell. So in this sermon we are not going to decide if hell is hot or hell is cold.
What I want you to know is that this is not a sermon about hell or the existence of it. To even ask the question, “how does a loving God send people to hell?” makes two assumptions if only for the sake of argument—there is a hell and hot, cold whatever—it is a bad place. And there is a distinction I would like to make about hell that is important for our question today: hell is a Godless place. God is not there. That is the only thing about hell relevant to our question today, because the question, “how could a loving God send people to hell?” is a question about the character of God.
We could assert that there is no hell. The Bible and certainly Jesus himself points at the existence of hell repeatedly; so if you are a believer, to say that there is no hell is simply an act of denial.
We could assert that there is a hell but that no one goes there. But Jesus repeatedly points out those people that are in danger of hell or certain ways of living which are leading people toward hell. In Matthew 5:30 Jesus says, “…if your hand—even your strong hand—causes you to sin, cut if off 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.” That points at the reality of hell, that some people will go there and the seriousness with which we are to deal with choices that are leading us down that path.
So if we assent that there is a hell and people do go there we are only left with one question. What is the character of a God who would send people to hell?
Well the Bible provides God’s revealing of himself. It points out that God is:
- Loving (1 John 4:8) (We also have John 3:16 – for God so loved the world.)
- Good (Psalm 145:9)
- Merciful (Ephesians 2:4)
- Patient (2 Peter 3:9) for our good
- Redemptive (Romans 6:23)
This does not negate that God is also:
- Holy—the Triune God can’t tolerate sin (1 Peter 1:16)
- Righteous—or our sinful actions and attitudes (Psalm 145:17)
- Just—that there are consequences of both that God cannot ignore (Psalm 36:5-6)
These are reasons that someone might point to as to why God sends people to hell. But God has satisfied the demands of his holiness, righteousness and justness by his loving, good, patient, redemptive plan. To satisfy the price of humanity’s unholiness, unrighteousness and lawlessness—God who is loving, good, merciful and patient paid the price for us.
There is one other action of God that points to his character that must be highlighted—the Incarnation. God’s desire to be near us was so great he came to be with us. When we could not go to him, he came to us…and he came to us to give his life for us.
If this is the nature and character of God why create hell in the first place?
Because even though God’s great love and desire is to be near us, and even though we were created to be near God, God does not force us or make us love him back or even force us to be near him.
So hell exists because just as some choose to be with God some will choose to be without God.
God does not want it. In fact, because we were created to be with God, hell wasn’t even created for us. In Matthew 25:41 Jesus says that hell was created for the devil and his angels—those who wanted to be without God.
Do you know what this means? A loving, good, merciful, patient, redeeming God never meant for anyone to go to hell—it is not his desire or design. So why do people go to hell?
God’s light came into the world, but the people loved the darkness more than the light for their actions were evil.A loving, good, merciful, patient, redemptive God makes a way for people to come to him and find life—but some prefer death. Some prefer darkness. Hell is not a place God sends us to. Hell is something we choose and God in his judgment lets us have what we choose.
One of the simplest ways to understand this that I know is this: every thought, every action, every attitude of the heart that we experience is either life-giving or life-taking. God’s way is life-giving. The world’s way, our way, is life-taking. There really are no neutral thoughts, actions, attitudes. They are either life-giving or life-taking.
At birth I am predisposed to life-taking decisions. But God is already at work in my life from the moment of conception, calling me, loving me, caring for me, and providing for me, standing in the path of my life-taking decisions.
- At some point I come face to face with him and I am, by his grace, reoriented and changed toward life-giving (God’s way) and I begin to choose life-giving. He becomes the center of my life, he is the priority, he is the King. It doesn’t mean that I never choose life-taking—but my life has been transformed by God and I desire and pursue life-giving.
- Or I decide I don’t want to be near God, to walk with God, walking in life-giving ways…I want to be life-taking. I want it to be about me. I want a life with me as the center, with me as the priority, and with me as the king. When we do this God says, “have it your way.” But you need to understand you get all that comes with “having it your way.”
And that choice is choosing hell.
The hit TV show “Breaking Bad” follows the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, turns to cooking crystal meth to provide for his family. As he develops a taste for the trade, Walt slowly turns into a bold but degenerate thug. But the show doesn’t soft-peddle the consequences of sin. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, said, “If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something.”
In one of the most memorable scenes of season four, the biblical implications of Gilligan’s vision become clear. Walt’s younger accomplice Jesse Pinkman commits murder and then attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in hopes of finding relief. After Jesse shares a thinly veiled version of his crime, the group leader counsels self-acceptance. “We’re not here to sit in judgment,” he says, to which Jesse explodes: “Why not? Why not? If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point? So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just—what, do an inventory, and accept?”
It’s not surprising that Vince Gilligan believes in hell and judgment for human sin. He said, “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
Be assured that hell does not exist because God is stomping his feet like a little child saying, “do it my way or else!” God is the most generous, loving, wonderful being in the cosmos. He has made us for a purpose: to relate to him and others lovingly. We are not accidents, we are not random mistakes. If we have a relationship with him and choose over and over again to live for the purposes for which we were created—a purpose by the way which would allow us to flourish more than any other way of living—then we get heaven now and eternally. But if we reject a loving God’s offer of relationship and choose over and over again to reject the purposes for which we were created—then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives: separation from him. And that is hell.
God hates hell and he hates that people are going there. When people go there it is because they choose too.
There are only two kinds of people – those who say “thy will be done” to God or those to whom God, in the end, says “thy will be done.” All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it (see The Reason for God by Timothy Keller).
How can a loving God send people to hell? The answer is simply…God is honoring their decision.
A decision to live a life separate from Him—the loving, good, merciful, patient, redemptive God—who wants to be have a relationship with them.
Maybe that is you today…