What does the existence of hell tell us about God’s nature? Most of us have difficulty reconciling a loving God with a deity who wants to mete out eternal punishment. Those who reject the notion of hell often put it this way: “I believe in a loving God, and a loving God would never send people to hell.”
This is an important question, and when we look to the Scriptures for an answer, we find that no one wants people to go to heaven more than God does. No one wants people to avoid hell more than God does. This is the heart of the Bible message–God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:17). In 2 Peter, we read that God’s desire is that no one would perish, and in 1 Timothy we are told that God desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. In Ezekiel 18 God asks, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their evil ways and live?”
These are but a few of the Scriptures that must serve as a backdrop for any conversation about hell. God’s desire is that no one goes there.
But this leads to a second question: “If God is all-loving and all-powerful and doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, then why do people end up there? Why does hell even exist?”
The short answer is: God will not force us to love Him. He gave each of us the freedom to choose our destiny. John 3 tells us what most people do with that freedom: “Light has come into the world, but men and women loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”
Romans 1 explains how humankind responded to God’s gifts. In verse 21 we are told that even though people knew that God was the source of their blessings, they refused to honor God or even thank Him. Instead, they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Then, as we continue reading Romans 1, we find the same little phrase recurring. In verse 24 we read, “Therefore God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts…” Verse 26 says, “For this reason God gave them up to their shameful desires…” And in verse 28 we read that, “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.”
The Greek word translated “gave them up” is paredoken, which means “to hand over or relinquish control.” We are being told that each of us has a choice. I can tell God that I want nothing to do with Him and demand to be left alone, and if I ask long enough and sincerely enough, God will honor my desire. He will leave me alone permanently and finally, and this is what the Bible calls hell.
Many people reject the concept of hell because they think it contradicts God’s declaration that He loves humanity and is not willing that any would perish. But hell is not a declaration that God doesn’t love us–hell is a declaration that God will not force us to love Him. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.”
If I don’t want God in my life, He won’t force His way in. Today I can choose to live in the light, or I can choose to live in darkness, but there is coming a day when I will no longer have that choice. “‘Behold,’ says the Lord of hosts. “The day is coming–burning like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that coming day will set them on fire. Not a root or a branch will be left to them'” (Malachi 4:1).
God says that one day all the violence and wickedness will stop. There will be no murders, no rapes, no child abuse, no hate crimes–no evil of any kind. But when that day comes, what will God do with those who want to continue doing evil? Take them to heaven against their will?