THE CHALLENGE OF FAITH
A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell
JOHN 14:6–“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
- “There is a very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” Bertrand Russell, atheist.
- “Hell is God’s great complement to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.” G.K. Chesterton, Christian.
Today we will study . . .
OBJECTION: A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell
These are notes from Lee Strobel’s interview with J.P. Moreland, Ph.D. He wrote Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality.
- Strobel—“How should we even approach the topic of hell?”
- Moreland—“We should distinguish between liking or disliking something and judging whether it is right to do. . .I think people should set aside their feelings. The basis of their evaluation should be whether hell is a morally just or morally right state of affairs, not whether they like or dislike the concept.
- Moreland—“And it’s important to understand that if the God of Christianity is real, He hates hell and He hates people going there. The Bible is very clear: God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”
- Strobel—“The agnostic Charles Templeton asked, ‘How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey Him and do what He wants, torture you forever—not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity? There is no criminal who would do this!’”
- Moreland—“Well for one thing, hell is not a torture chamber. God doesn’t torture people in hell, so Templeton is flat wrong about that. Templeton also makes it sound like God is a spoiled child who says to people, ‘Look, if you’re not willing to obey my arbitrary rules, then I’m going to sentence you for it. . . .’
- “God is the most generous, loving, wonderful, attractive being in the cosmos. He has made us with free will and He has made us for a purpose; to relate lovingly to Him and to others. . . And if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made—a purpose, by the way, which would allow us to flourish more than living any other way—then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from Him.”
- The nature of the punishment is “everlasting destruction.” The noun is used of the destruction of the flesh with a view to the saving of the spirit—1 Cor. 5:5. Paul does not view destruction as annihilation, for there is no likelihood that he thought of such a one as being saved in a disembodied state. “Eternal life” is the life that belongs to the ages to come; therefore it has no end. At the same time “eternal” is a quality of life. It is not only that life in the age to come will be longer than life here; it will also be of a different quality. “Everlasting destruction” is the opposite of eternal life. It is the end of all that is worthwhile in life. As eternal life can be defined in terms of the knowledge of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3), so the eternal destruction that is here in mind is “from the presence of the Lord”; “from” appears to have the meaning “away from” (contrast 1 Thess 4:17). It indicates that separation from the Lord which is the final disaster.
- Yes, that’s hell. One more point: it’s wrong to think God is simply a loving being, especially if you mean ‘loving’ in the sense that most Americans use that word today. Yes, God is a compassionate being, but He’s also a just, moral, and pure being. So God’s decisions are not based on modern American sentimentalism. . . .People today tend to care only for the softer virtues like love and tenderness, while they’ve forgotten the hard virtues of holiness, righteousness, and justice.
- Moreland: “The essence of hell is relational. Christianity says people are the most valuable things in the entire creation. If people matter, then personal relationships matter, and hell is largely relational. In the Bible, hell is separation or banishment from the most beautiful thing in the world—God Himself. It is exclusion from anything that matters, from all value, not only from God but also from those who have come to know and love him.
- Strobel: “Is hell a punishment for having broken God’s standards or is it the natural consequence of people living a life where they say, ‘I don’t care if I’m separate from God, I want to do things my way,’ and then they are given their desire for all eternity by being separated from God forever?”
- Moreland: “It’s both. Make no mistake: hell IS punishment—but it’s not a punishing. It’s not torture. The punishment is hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish, and regret. People in hell will deeply grieve all they’ve lost. Hell is the final sentence that says you refused regularly to live for the purpose for which you were made, and the only alternative is to sentence you away for all eternity. So it is punishment. But it is also the natural consequence of a life that has been lived in a certain direction.
- Moreland: “Hell is something God was forced to make because people chose to rebel against Him and turn against what was best for them and the purpose for which they were created.
- Moreland: “I just want to be biblically accurate. We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up. In addition, we’re told Christ is going to return surrounded by flames and that He’s going to have a big sword coming out of His mouth. But nobody thinks Christ won’t be able to say anything because He’ll be choking on a sword. The figure of the sword stands for the Word of God in judgment. The flames stand for Christ coming in judgment. In Hebrews 12:29, God is called a consuming fire. Yet nobody thinks God is a cosmic Bunsen burner. Using the flame imagery is a way of saying He’s a God of judgment.
- Strobel: “What about hell being a place where worms constantly eat people’s flesh?”
- Moreland: “In Jesus’ day thousands of animals were sacrificed every week in the Temple, and there was a sewage system for the blood and fat to flow outside, where it gathered in a pool. There were worms constantly ingesting that. When Jesus was teaching, He used this metaphor as a way of saying hell is worse than that disgusting place outside the city.”
- Strobel: “There’s also the phrase ‘gnashing of teeth to describe those in hell. Doesn’t that refer to people reacting to the pain of torture?”
- Moreland: “More precisely, this is meant to describe a state of anger or realization of great loss. It’s an expression of rage at realizing that one has made a huge mistake. If you’ve ever been around people who are self-absorbed, self-centered, and highly narcissistic, they get angry when they don’t get their way. I believe the gnashing of teeth is an expression of the type of personality of people who belong in hell.”
- Strobel: “No flames, no worms, no gnashing of teeth from torture—maybe hell isn’t as bad as we thought?”
- Moreland: “It would be a mistake to think that way. Any figure of speech has a literal point. What is figurative is the burning flame; what is literal is that this is a place of utter heartbreak. It is a loss of everything, and it’s meant to stand for the fact that hell is the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person.”
- “Each day we’re preparing ourselves for either being with God and His people and valuing the things He values, or choosing not to engage with those things. So yes, hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to go to heaven. I don’t mean they consciously reject heaven and choose hell instead. But they do choose NOT to care about the kinds of values that will be present in heaven every day. . . .So hell is not simply a sentence. It is that, but it’s also the end of a path that is chosen, to some degree, in this life right here and now, day by day.”
OBJECTION 1: HOW CAN GOD SEND CHILDREN TO HELL?
- People recoil at the thought of children languishing in hell. How can there be a loving God if children are subjected to hell?
- Moreland: “You must understand that in the afterlife, our personalities reflect an adult situation anyway, so we can say for sure that there will be no children in hell. In the Bible, in all the texts where children are used in regard to the afterlife, they’re used as pictures of being saved. There is no case where children are ever used as figures of damnation. Here’s a good example . . .2 Samuel 12:23—‘I will go to him, but he will not return to me.’ Speaking of David’s child with Bathsheba that died.
OBJECTION 2: WHY DOES EVERYONE SUFFER THE SAME IN HELL?
- Our sense of justice demands that evil people be held accountable for the way they’ve harmed others. And in that sense, hell might be an appropriate sanction for some. It seems unjust that everyone is subjected to the same consequences—i.e. Hitler, average Joe, etc.
- Moreland: “Actually, everyone doesn’t experience hell in the same way. The Bible teaches that there are different degrees of suffering and punishment. See Matthew 11:2-24. Jesus is saying that people will be sentenced in accordance with their deeds. There will be degrees of separation, isolation, and emptiness in hell. I think this is significant because it emphasizes that God’s justice is proportional.”
OBJECTION 3: WHY ARE PEOPLE PUNISHED INFINITELY FOR FINITE CRIMES?
- Isn’t it unfair to say that a finite life of sin warrants infinite punishment? Where’s the justice in that? How can anything in this life warrant eternal punishment?
- Moreland: “First, we all know that the degree to which a person warrants punishment is not a function of the length of time it took to commit a crime. A murder can take ten seconds to commit. My point is that the degree of someone’s just punishment is not a function of how long it took to commit the deed; rather, it’s a function of how severe the deed itself was.”
- “Second, what is the most heinous thing a person can do in this life? Most people, because they don’t think much about God, will say it’s harming animals or destroying the environment or killing someone. No, the worst thing a person can do, which is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God Himself. . . .To think a person could go through their whole life constantly ignoring God, constantly mocking Him by the way they choose to live without Him, saying, ‘I could not care less about your values or your Son’s death for me—that’s the ultimate sin. And the only punishment worthy of that is the ultimate punishment, which is everlasting separation from God.
OBJECTION 4: COULDN’T GOD FORCE EVERYONE TO GO TO HEAVEN?
- God is grieved by the necessity of hell. If that is so, why can’t He simply force everyone to go to heaven?
- Moreland: “That would be immoral, even more so than hell. . . There’s a difference between intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something has intrinsic value if it’s valuable and good in and of itself; something has instrumental value if it’s valuable as a means to an end. . . Now, when you treat people as instrumentally valuable, or only as a means to an end, you’re dehumanizing them, and that’s wrong.
- If you were to force people to do something against their free choice, you would be dehumanizing them. The option of forcing everyone to go to heaven is immoral, because it dehumanizing; it strips them of the dignity of making their own decisions; it denies them their freedom of choice; and it treats them as a means to an end. When God allows people to say ‘no’ to Him, He actually respects and dignifies them.”
OBJECTION 5: WHY DOESN’T GOD JUST SNUFF PEOPLE OUT?
- What if hell did not last forever and instead, what if God annihilated people—snuffed them out of existence.
- Believe it or not, everlasting separation from God is morally superior to annihilation. What hell does is recognize that people have intrinsic value. If God loves intrinsic value, then He has got to be a sustainer of persons, because that means He is a sustainer of intrinsic value. He refuses to snuff out a creature that was made in His own image.
- When the people does speak the wicked being annihilated (Daniel 12:2; Psalm 37) in the Old Testament, is usually meant to mean people being cutoff from Israel and the land.
OBJECTION 6: HOW CAN HELL EXIST ALONGSIDE OF HEAVEN?
- If heaven is supposed to be a place without tears, then how can there be an eternal hell existing at the same time? Wouldn’t those in heaven mourn for those who are suffering forever in hell?
- CS Lewis said hell doesn’t have veto power over heaven. He meant that people in heaven will not be denied the privilege of enjoying their life just because they’re consciously aware of hell. If they couldn’t, then hell would have veto power over heaven.
- DA Carson said, “People are consigned to hell, first and foremost, because they defy their maker and want to be at the center of the universe. He is not filled with people who have already repented, only God isn’t gentle enough or good enough to let them out. It’s filled with people who, for all eternity, still want to be the center of the universe and who persist in their God-defying rebellion.”
- Jesus taught about the reality of hell. In fact, He discussed the subject more than anyone else in the Bible. I think we’re on thin ice when we compare our moral sentiments and moral intuitions with Jesus’. We’re saying we have greater insight into what’s fair and what isn’t than He does.