“I just can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.”
“Doesn’t the reality of hell mean that God isn’t loving?”
“How is it fair for God to send people to hell forever?”
“What about those who have never heard of Jesus? How is hell fair for them?”
“How can you be such a judgmental hater as to believe in hell?”
I would guess that if there is one Christian truth claim that offends people more than any other—or at least is deployed to explain their rejection or abandonment of the faith more frequently than any other—it is the Christian doctrine of hell. To many, the perceived injustice of an angry God legitimizes their unbelief. But tragically, most who reject biblical teachings about the “coming wrath” reject a caricature rather than careful biblical teaching. As Christians we must set the record straight.
God’s final judgment will be an everlasting testimony to his perfect and unarguable (Rom. 3:19–20) fairness. God, in fact, cannot be anything but fair. Since he is just, his final judicial decrees will be infallibly righteous. They will be dispensed in precise measure (Isa. 65:7; Jer. 30:11; Rev. 18:7), in keeping with how each person has lived. God’s inherent and infallible justice is the clarifying truth that should inform and moderate all human objections to divine wrath.
JUDGMENT BY DEGREE
Medieval art—which finds its verbal equivalent in too much vitriolic under-nuanced Bible-thumping preaching—has clouded our understanding. Both have produced a gross misunderstanding of divine judgment by portraying indiscriminate torture of the damned that is a far cry from actual biblical teaching.
To be sure, biblical writers often use graphic apocalyptic language to describe the judgment to come in order to awaken awe-filled dread over that which is drawing nearer by the day. But what they emphatically do not do is imply that the coming wrath will be equally severe for everyone. In truth, judgment will be dispensed with utter precision, so that each one will receive exactly what is deserved and not one iota worse.
But this implies a too-little-known teaching that justifies the justice of God. Judgment will render different verdicts based on circumstances, leading to different consequences for every single person. If this is not true, then Christianity does in fact have an insurmountable injustice/unfairness problem. If God punishes everyone to the same degree without taking into consideration every single detail of each person’s circumstances, then he would not be fair.
But the Bible teaches clearly that God’s judgment will weigh every relevant guilt-mitigating or aggravating circumstance in every life. How God assesses the sinfulness of each person’s sin (and presumably the punishment it deserves) is influenced by at least twelve factors:
The amount of knowledge received (Luke 12:47–48)
The intentions and motives of the heart (1 Cor. 4:5; Heb. 4:12–13)
The standard of judgment each has imposed on others (Matt. 7:1–2; Luke 6:37–38; Rom. 2:1–3; Rev. 18:6)
The divine manifestations of power observed (Matt. 11:20–24; 12:38–42)
The age of the person (Isa. 7:15–16)
The frailty of one’s physical condition (Matt. 26:41)
The frailty of one’s fallen creaturely condition (Ps. 103:8–14)
The deeds each has done (Ecc. 12:14; Ezek. 33:20; Obad. 1:18; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12–13)
The words each has spoken (Matt. 12:36–37)
The lusts each has indulged (Matt. 5:27–30)
The ignorance each has had (Luke 23:34; 1 Cor.2:8)
The Christ-knowledge each has received, and then rejected (Heb. 10:26–29; 2 Pet. 2:20–21)
Punishment will be “severe” (Luke 12:47), or “light” (Luke 12:48), or “worse” (Heb. 10:29), or “better” (2 Pet. 2:20–21), or “more bearable,” or less “tolerable” (Matt. 11:22–24), all based upon whatever mitigates or aggravates the guilt of each individual person. The degree of distress each evildoer will face (Rom. 2:8–9) will be rendered “to each one according to his works” (Rom. 2:8, emphasis added), not according to a one-size-fits-all sentencing decree. Judgment will be rendered infallibly, one person at a time.
The result will be perfectly-measured justice rendered by an all-seeing and all-knowing God. The Judge of all the earth will do what is just (Gen. 18:25) as he causes each person’s deeds to return on his or her own head (Obad. 1:18), so that every defensive or self-justifying mouth will be stopped (Rom. 3:19–20).
THE ONE THING WE NEED NOT FEAR
Whatever happens to each in the end, God’s justice will come out just right. While a just God must punish sin, he must also punish it fairly, which is exactly what the Bible says he is going to do. Nobody—neither the relatively innocent nor the diabolically evil—will get any worse than he or she deserves. And that should be all we need to know.
Every punishment will fit every crime with the precision only God can achieve. He alone adjudicates with all relevant evidence and case-by-case circumstances in mind. Will there be fierce judgment awaiting some on that day? Yes (Isa. 13:9, 13; Jonah 3:9; Rev. 16:19). Will omnipotent wrath be meted out? Yes (Rev. 19:15). But God will increase or decrease the intensity of that wrath fairly for each person—and that, let it be remembered, with a broken heart (Eze. 18:30–32; Matt. 23:37–38).
The fairness of God is a certainty we can count on. The Judge of all the earth will get it perfectly right. And the one thing we need not fear is that it would ever be otherwise.
THE ONE THING WE SHOULD FEAR
There is then no reason to object to what the Bible says about judgment. All any cynic should need is the assurance that God is the fairest person there is. He has promised no one will get worse than deserved.
So why do people still object to what is unobjectionable? Perhaps it is not because they are afraid of God’s injustice so much as his justice. What people may actually fear is that God will be so fair that they (and the people they love) will get exactly what’s “coming to them.” What may terrify people—and lead to their denial—is not the idea that God is going to punish them worse than they deserve, but as they deserve. What may most alarm them is their own memory of sins thought, said, done, or desired that they are “not proud of” or “wish they had a do-over for,” or “hope nobody ever finds out about”—but for which God will call them to account.
The near-universal rejection of the holy justice of God in contemporary culture is not an argument born out of reason, but a denial born out of fear; a fear that there is One who knows it all, and who—in perfectly-measured justice—is going to hold us accountable for every bit of it. Humanity’s real issue with divine wrath is not that God will be indiscriminately vengeful and furious but that he will be perfectly and proportionately fair.
And if that isn’t what we are afraid of, it should be—apart from Christ.
The gospel speaks to all who are self-aware enough to fear the fairness of God. Those humbled by their sins do not ask how a good God can punish us. They ask, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). Those who are humble hope that God will not deal with them according to their sins or repay them according to their iniquities (Ps. 103:10). But how is that even possible? It is possible because of Jesus.
The good news of Christ is that while none of us will get worse than we deserve, there is a way for us to get better. Christ Jesus died for us—bearing our sins and guilt upon the cross—so that we would not need to die the death we deserve. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). “For our sake he made him to be sin (i.e., a sin offering) who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21; parenthesis added). Being just, God must punish sin. Being Love, the Lamb of God has taken that sin-punishment away (John 1:29), so that in him there is now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). All who believe may rest securely here.
And if cynics and doubters impugn God’s justice and denounce hell as barbaric, let’s assure them that hell will be meted out with precise and proportionate fairness, which is anything but barbaric. Let’s then ask them respectfully what it is that they are really afraid of. Let’s let them know that the only thing they need fear is that God will be fair. And then let’s tell them there is a way for them to escape his fairness and find his mercy instead.