Theres no question skeptical people, particularly religious pluralists, have a problem with hell. But pin-pointing the precise problem can be difficult. In the following series I ask questions to probe at what the real problem might be regarding the fate of those who stand outside of a saving relationship with Christ, and provide responses that should alleviate any outstanding difficulties.
Is the problem that a loving God would not send people to hell?
1. The bible teaches that God is not willing that any should go to hell.
The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 2 Peter 3:9
[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4
And through the prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 18, you can hear the heart of God pleading that turn from their wickedness and live.
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”… Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
2. God does not send people to hell.
Because God loves, he grants to everyone the freedom to choose him and be saved, and the freedom to reject him and be lost. So, in a way, God doesn’t send anyone to hell. If we make a free and well-informed decision to reject Christ and the free and atoning sacrifice he offers, we are the ones responsible for our separation from God and our own eternal destiny. It is we who send ourselves to hell. In the end, we can either choose between us saying to God “Thy will be done,” or letting God say to us, “Thy will be done.”
Is the problem that God would not send people to hell forever?
The criticism here is that the punishment does not fit the crime. Even the worst of human beings only commit a finite amount of sins during their short lifetime. And yet according to traditional Christian teaching the inhabitants of hell are condemned to be there forever. How is this fair for God? The charge here is that God is not unloving, but God is unjust.
1. The criticism equivocates between every individual sin we commit and all the sins we commit.
Every individual sin may require only a finite punishment, but that does mean that all the sum total of all the sins we commit require finite punishment. This is because everybody in hell could well continue to reject and hate God, thus acquiring to themselves more guilt and requiring more punishment. Hell could be self-perpetuating. With Jean Paul Satre’s analogy C. S. Lewis described this truth in The Problem of Pain by saying
“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Dante, the medieval Italian poet, pictured in his allegorical poem Inferno Satan encased chest-high in ice. The ice was there because of the freezing effects of the endless flapping from his bat-like wings this. Each flap expressed his will “I shall fly to the heavens and be equal to God on my own terms.” If he were to humble himself and stop flapping, the ice would melt and he would be free. But he never does.
2. Why should we think that every sin does require only a finite punishment?
We can be forgiven of everything, from theft, adultery and murder, but there is one thing that we can never be forgiven of. There is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion that can not be forgiven, and this is the rejection of the provision that Christ has provided. This is a sin of an altogether different order, for it reject God himself, a person of infinite value and dignity, and spurns the gift of salvation that was so costly fought for.
Is the problem that there is a lack of information?
This would be that it is unloving for God to allow someone to go to hell for being uninformed or misinformed about Christ and his gift of salvation.
1. God doesn’t judge people on the basis of information that they have not received, but on the basis of what information they do have.
Those who have heard of Christ are judged on their response to the gospel. For Old Testament saints that never heard of Christ, those were judged on the basis of their response to the law and the hope that God would one day provide a means of salvation. For those without any knowledge of Christ or the law, then these are judged on the basis of their response to the revelation of God in nature and their response the moral law written in their hearts (Rom 2:12-16). Romans 2:7 seems to be genuine offer of salvation “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life.” This is not to say they are saved apart from Christ, but to say that the benefits of Christ’s atoning death can be applied to them without their conscious knowledge of Christ.
Job and Melchizadek were like such people. Although they had never heard of Christ, and were not even under the covenant of Israel, they clearly enjoyed a relationship with God. Paul in Romans 4 makes Abraham an important illustration as one who believed in God through faith and because of this faith was accredited righteousness. Abraham is important because he was the Father the entire Jewish nation, yet he was called out from among the gentiles and received his righteousness before God even before he was circumcised – the sign of the covenant. There could be modern day Jobs, Melchizadeks and Abrahams living in the 15-25% of the worlds population that have never heard the gospel.
However, the New Testament does not provide much grounds for hope that there will be many that will respond to the light that have been given through nature and conscience, and one could argue that for theological reasons it is necessary that the proclamation of the gospel of Christ be more effective in winning people over the truth of the gospel of salvation. Still, the point remains that none are lost because they did not have the information they needed to be saved. All who are condemned are condemned justly on the basis of what they did know.
This leads us to ask the next question, which seems to be at the root of the religious pluralists objection to Christian particularism, namely, that God did not bring the gospel to those whom he knew would freely accept it if they heard it, but were lost in their sin solely because they never did. This I will answer in the next post, A hell of Problem? Part 2.