How Can a Loving God Allow People to go to Hell?

By Stefanie Boyles
Staff Writer for The Daily Grace Co. 

I recently found myself telling my daughter (age 6), “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” I wanted to encourage and engage her curiosity. Like most families, we strive to protect wonder and curiosity and open communication in our home. We enjoy hearing our kids’ questions, even when the occasional incessant string of “why’s” has the potential to drive a person mad. This is because questions are powerful. They are useful tools to foster engagement and deep learning. But questions also do this: they show us the boundaries of our understanding of a particular topic.   

This is true for the spiritual questions we have. When we find ourselves asking, “How can God be three-in-one?”, we are revealing a gap in our understanding of the Trinity. When we ask ourselves, “Do I have to act a certain way to get to heaven?”, we are revealing an improper understanding of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. It is wise of us to be attuned to the questions brewing in our hearts and minds regarding our faith because they reveal our true beliefs and the soundness of our doctrine. Instead of shying away from these questions, we should use them to our advantage and see them as invitations to grow in our understanding of Scripture. 

This is also true for our culture. The popular questions our culture raises about the Christian faith are more so a reflection of society’s overall beliefs than the Christian faith itself. Many of these questions reveal a widespread lack of understanding of God’s Word. This does not mean believers are to be smug and dismissive. Instead, we should consider these questions and feel the weight of them. After all, these questions are invitations to engage in conversation and a means to better understand and love our neighbors.  

One of the popular questions of our culture that used to make me squirm was this: How can a loving God allow people to go to hell? Have you heard that question before? Have you ever asked yourself that question? It’s a question that I had to personally work through. Actually, I believe it’s a question that all believers should be able to process for themselves and for an asking world. After all, we believe that God is sovereign and all-powerful – hell is not beyond His power. Yet, we believe that God is good, loving, wise, and merciful. This question, at glance, seems to present an irreconcilable tension between perfect love and eternal damnation. But is it really incompatible?  

It’s undoubtedly a weighty question. Rebecca McLaughlin, the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, deems this particular question the hardest of the 12 she carefully examines in her book. In this particular chapter, the author says this: “But just as we cannot absolve people of moral accountability without also erasing their ability to love, so God’s love and God’s judgment cannot be pulled apart.” Think about it: you can feel righteous anger over injustice, and this righteous anger is fueled by love. If your child were being bullied or abused, your love for your child would rightfully lead to indignation over the injustice. Even if this were not your child, the value (love) you have for life and the value (love) you have for a fellow image bearer would cause you to stand up against this injustice. Though this is incredibly simplified, it’s a quick way to see that the tension between love and judgment is expected, not irreconcilable.   

Furthermore, we have to understand who God is in order to answer this question. We have to know He is love before calling Him loving, right? And here’s an essential truth about who God is: He is three in one. Though our finite minds cannot perfectly and fully comprehend it, this means God is three persons (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and One in essence. This is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, and it’s applicable to this question. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, was fully God and fully man. From the beginning of time until the end, Jesus is the only perfect person who ever lived. And in His perfection, He drank the cup of God’s wrath. As McLaughlin put it, Jesus “faced the full force of God’s judgement, drank it down, and threw away the cup. In biblical shorthand, he went to hell.” On the cross, Jesus displayed perfect love as He bore our judgment. 

The weight of the question shifts a bit with those two truths in mind, don’t you think? A holy God, in love, does not forfeit His holiness; instead, He, in love, provides a way for imperfect people to commune with Him. The Bible says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). But the Bible also says this: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23b) because “for our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).   

Friends, though this short piece does not thoroughly answer this deeply emotional (and richly theological) question, my hope is that it will challenge you to dig deeper. Perhaps this is an invitation to examine the question itself and reveal the need for more learning of the God in question. Perhaps it’s the start of reframing what we think about heaven and hell – that instead of streets paved with gold verses fire, we’ll see it as forever with God verses forever apart from Him. Maybe we’ll see this initial question could potentially be more about an individual’s rebellion against God leading to eternity apart from Him (hell) rather than a question of God’s character.   

There are no dumb questions if there is a genuine interest in understanding what is true. But perhaps the better question here is this: How can a holy God allow imperfect people to go to heaven? God is holy, loving, and gracious. He died for sinners. He rescues sinners.

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