The Unbearable Doctrine of Hell
On page 282 of their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli state, “Of all the doctrines in Christianity, hell is probably the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned. The critic’s case against it seems very strong, and the believer’s duty to believe it seems unbearable.”
How can a good God allow people to suffer torment for all eternity? There are two basic ways to approach the unbearable doctrine of hell. We can argue for it based on the Bible’s authority and we can also argue for its rationality in light of some additional truths concerning God and humanity. I will seek to briefly do both.
The Bible on Hell
Biblically, the doctrine of hell’s reality is as clearly established as any central tenet of Christianity. Passages like Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:46, and 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 (look them up!) seem to clearly teach the reality of hell and eternal punishment for those who die without Christ. Perhaps, however, the more traditional and straightforward interpretations of the relevant scriptures are wrong. Perhaps the majority of theologians throughout the centuries somehow misunderstood what the scriptures were really trying to say about hell and eternal punishment. The passages, as one arguments goes, might be better understood to speak of temporally limited punishment, or perhaps the wholesale destruction—that is, annihilation—of the wicked after a finite period of time. A more recent view is that “love wins” and all—even the most hardened and vicious haters of God—will be saved in the end.
Without addressing all of the details of such claims, most, if not all, attempts at reinterpreting the relevant passages in question appear to be consummate failures. The force of the scriptural passages themselves, alongside the broad consensus of church history, seem to necessitate either a dangerous retreat into an accusation of biblical error, or a journey toward a better understanding of the reasons for such a (presumably) hideous doctrine as eternal punishment for all who reject Jesus.
Rejecting Hell on Other Grounds
Because of the biblical clarity on the issue of hell, nearly all who reject the doctrine do so not upon purely biblical grounds, but upon other considerations instead. What are these grounds?
First, personal experience initially suggests that the majority of people on planet earth are fairly moral people, at least as we see them from the outside. Thankfully, truly evil people appear to be exceptions to the rule rather than the norm. Thus, punishing the (seemingly) moral person for an eternity simply because he or she rejected Christ seems unjust in light of those who live morally disgraceful lives and then, like the criminal on the cross, receive Christ’s perfect forgiveness (and eternal life in heaven) just prior to death.
In addition, God’s love and mercy seem incompatible with notions like giving eternal punishments for finite sins and the inflicting of horrendous unending pain for no compelling reason.
What Are Human Beings and God Really Like?
To answer such concerns, let’s reflect first on the nature of humanity. For all our strengths and glories, we humans are not as good as we think we are. Our standards of goodness without reference to God’s biblical norms are almost always measured by our own corrupt and limited understandings of right and wrong. Our sinfulness and finitude skew and distort our ability to clearly judge moral matters as God does.
Unfortunately, most people—Christians included—see their sin and the sin others as far less serious and offensive than God does. And herein lies a great deal of the problem: We see God as far less holy than He really is, and we see ourselves and others as far more holy than we really are.
God, then, the holy, righteous, and just God, takes sin very seriously; so seriously that He sent Jesus Christ into the world to die in our place and take the penalty for sin. His word makes it clear that He will tolerate no imperfections (James 2:10; 1 Peter 1:14-19). A perfect justice requires that sin must be punished, but since we are all imperfect and have all fallen short of God’s righteous standard (Romans 3:23), we all deserve to be punished with death (Romans 6:23a).
This impossibly high standard of perfection levels the playing field when considering who deserves to go to heaven. In fact, no one does! That God saves anyone at all is an act of undeserved kindness on His part. Our offense to the idea that God would allow people to go to hell is better expressed as amazement that He would allow anyone to be with Him in heaven.
Why Is Jesus So Important?
And that is the critical reason why Jesus Christ is so centrally important in the discussion. He is the only one who was perfect and never did anything wrong (Hebrews 4:15). Thus, He is the only one who can take away sin and impart to us the perfection—His perfection—that God requires in order to get into heaven (2 Corinthians 5:21). We miss the point if we think that going to heaven has anything at all to do with what kind of moral life we lived upon this earth. It has nothing to do with that and everything to do with our relationship with Jesus Christ. God’s grace is expressed not in His being impressed with our moral lives. It is expressed in His being impressed by the righteousness of Jesus freely and undeservedly imparted to us, sinners saved only by God’s mercy (Ephesians 2:8-9).
God Has Made Us Free
Some other things can be said about hell at this point. Part of the image of God in human beings includes the freedom to love or reject Him. If this is the case, then there will be people who willingly choose to love and serve God. However, there will also be others who choose to love and serve something or someone other than God, which is, at its core, the sin of idolatry.
Some may ask, why not force everyone go to heaven? Then the dignity of an individual’s freedom is transgressed, and God’s call to live well would be a mockery, for there could be no losers or winners. All would end up in the same place, and all would have to love and serve God whether they chose to or not. And love that is not chosen is not love in any meaningful sense of the word.
As well, why should we assume that people who reject God would really want to be in heaven? If heaven is a place of eternal, praise, worship and service to the almighty God, why do we automatically think that everyone actually wants to go there? It would not be entirely unlike making me sit through Italian opera for all of eternity, or (similarly) making my wife sit through interminable football and basketball games. Even biblically, we see in Revelation 9:20-21 and 16:11 that out of their hatred for God, some people will refuse to repent no matter what He does to get their attention.
What Is the Nature of the Crime?
It could be argued that a sin committed in finite time should not be punished for an infinite time. But if sin is an offense to an eternally holy God, then that offense is an eternal one! The nature of a crime is not measured in terms of minutes but in terms of who was offended and the degree and nature of the offense. Murder may take less time than a robbery, but it is by its nature a more heinous crime. And killing a rat is less of an offense than killing a human being because the type of being matters in moral evaluations. If God is the ultimate being, then an offense against Him is an ultimate offense. How great is our need for Jesus!
We Should Be Moved to Action!
I think the inescapable fact remains that hell is a real threat and danger to all who do not know Christ. As Christians, we should not be embarrassed by or afraid of this reality. Rather, it should motivate us to sensitively but boldly tell all who will listen about Jesus’ unique and loving ability to forgive and rescue us from an eternity in hell and give us eternal life instead.