The reality of hell is a problem to many people. That a God of love could condemn anyone to such a fate prevents them (they say) from believing in such a God. Empathy can be given for such a view, but there are a couple of aspects of it of which they clearly have no understanding: the supreme nature of both (1) hell, and (2) God’s love. They are “looking only on the surface of things” (2 Cor. 10:7 NIV) and unable to perceive the ultimate nature of these two extreme and opposite ends: the highest and the lowest extremes of existence, beyond which it is impossible to go and therefore meaningless to speak of going beyond.
We humans are so easily caught up in viewing everything–life, reality, human destiny, God–in terms of that with which we are familiar. And that with which we are familiar is a world of mostly relative things and relationships between those things that are thus relative. The fact that there exist far more powerful and pervasive absolutes they ignore–to their ultimate peril. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet to Horatio)–Shakespeare.
First of all, in one meaningful sense, God does not send people to hell: They send themselves there. Two, such a view as denying that a loving God and a hell can both exist betrays a lack of understanding of what love really is. A key verse in understanding both of these aspects is found Hebrews:
“How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29″ (RSV).
The NIV uses the word insulted rather than outraged, but both give an indication of the true meaning of how serious a thing it is to reject the amazing grace of God given in Jesus Christ his Son. Paul says that he died with Christ on the cross (Gal. 2:20). This also applies to anyone who accepts Christ. Yet none of us feels any pain in this, at having been crucified with Christ; Jesus bore all our pain so that we could have the gift of salvation absolutely free, with no pain on our part. How much easier and simpler could it be? No cost to us, all the cost on Jesus. Is not the rejecting of such a wondrous gift truly both an insult and an outrage?
And what would the rejecter of such an arrangement put in its place–an attitude of not needing any such sacrifice because he is good enough without it? Or that he can earn salvation, without Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, by doing good works on his own? Either demeans the unfathomable sacrifice that Jesus made for sinners on the cross and truly tramples the Son of God under foot and treats the shedding of his blood as an unholy thing. It is to blaspheme the Spirit of love which motivated Jesus to shed his life for that sinner. And blasphemy against this Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven, for it is the sacrifice on the cross by Jesus that is the only way by which it can be forgiven. If that one way is therefore rejected, there is no other way, and the sinner for whom Christ died is lost–by his own action of rejecting that one way.
“A man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the Lord” (Prov. 19:3 NIV).
“Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever” (Jeremiah 17:4 NIV).
Burn forever. That is hell. It is a “land” of eternal and absolute separation from God that they do not know in this world where people seek relative morality so they can indulge in immorality. God is absolutely justified in punishing those who reject this ultimate offer of love by sentencing such to what they want, which is to be apart from that offer of forgiveness and the One who makes it.
As the references say, it is their own choosing and therefore their own fault. Because they want no part of God’s amazing offer to forgive them of their sinfulness, he gives them what they want and what they have chosen: to be apart from him in a land (hell) that they do not know. He is right to be angry that they refuse the ultimate in love, in which he himself bore all the pain of sacrifice to redeem them from such a place, with no cost whatsoever on their part. They have only to acknowledge what he did for them and accept it in Christ.
Now, for those who still find fault with God for such an attitude or response to their rejection of his offering towards them, note that even the unbelieving world in Jesus day found no fault with this. Jesus told a parable illustrating portions of this issue, about a king who was kind and generous towards his tenants who worked his land but who killed his overseers and eventually also the king’s own son. When he had finished the parable, Jesus asked his listeners, “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
And what did those who heard the parable answer? “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons'” (Mt. 21:37-41 RSV).
The people found no injustice or anything worthy of criticism in the way the king and landowner treated those who mistreated and killed his own son. God also defends himself and his ways, though as God he has no need to justify himself before man; it is he who judges man, not man who should judge God. Nevertheless, God, in the humility of wisdom (Js. 3:13), makes allowance for man’s need to see what justification there is for the punishment of hell by pointing out all that he has done before passing that sentence:
“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” (Is. 5:1-6 NIV).
“If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die.
“Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust? Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezk. 18:26-32 NIV).
God is the great King above all. He created mankind for his own purposes and has a right as their creator to expect fruit from their lives that is in accord with the reason for which he created them: that is, good fruit, lives filled with goodness. But since sin prevents man from producing good fruit or deeds that are acceptable to God, God himself provided the sacrifice that cleanses man of the sinfulness that makes his deeds unfit. Through acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, sinful man can produce those good works acceptable to God through his Son Jesus Christ.
“As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Ptr. 2:4,5 NIV).
Rejecting the sacrifice of Jesus as necessary for one’s self displays a horrible lack of understanding of one’s true self, reality, life and God. It shows that the person holding such a view has no understanding of his true nature, that he is in need of a savior. The only way it is possible to hold such a view is if one has never truly examined one’s self, or else is dishonest in that examination. For if this is done honestly, it will become abundantly clear to one honest in such an examination that he or she is indeed in need of a savior. One way to see that one is a sinner is to listen to the law tell him he is. That is why it was given.
“I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet'” ((Rom. 7:7 NIV).
Paul examined himself honestly, and what did he find? What conclusion did he make about himself, his basic human nature? Was he good or evil?
“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom. 7:18 NIV).
Paul is not alone. He is not the only human being who is evil. All mankind stands condemned as sinful and evil when compared to the perfect holiness of God. Jesus called even his own disciples evil in their basic human nature.
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13 NIV).
God gives not only his Holy Spirit to those who want it in union with Christ, but, as was seen previously, he has done everything else to provide the way to escape being sentenced to hell for sinful mankind. He has done it all–and at absolutely no cost to sinful man.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 NIV).
This is the great, unfathomable love God has for us, that he would give up his only Son for us, so that we could be with him in heaven. There is no greater love. To reject this greatest love is truly an outrage against the very goodness of God. It is to spurn goodness and choose evil. It is to scorn and reject God and his love. It is to say that one is greater than God, having no need of him and his salvation. Such profanity deserves the greatest punishment. There is no greater sin and it must be punished according to the greatness of its evil.
“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 he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:16-19 NIV).
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness . . . !” (Is. 5:20 ESV).
“”How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29″ (RSV).
This is the outrage of unbelief.