Few issues are more difficult or controversial than the idea that a loving God would send people to hell.
In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller takes up the challenge and seeks to explain and defend the Christian doctrine of hell to a modern, secular audience.
Keller suggests that people have several hidden assumptions that lead them to reject hell and a God who would send people there.
Issue 1: A God of judgment simply can’t exist
Reply: Most people assume this, but their reason for believing it is emotional and cultural rather than logical. It is people from Western culture that our most likely to ask this question, and it subtly assumes that our particular culture is the ultimate standard of truth. Keller describes a conversation he had with a woman in one of his after-service question and answer sessions:
. . . a woman told me that the very idea of a judging God was offensive. I said, “Why aren’t you offended by a forgiving God?” She looked puzzled. I continued, “I respectfully urge you to consider your cultural location when you find the Christian teaching about hell offensive.” I went on to point out that the secular Westerners get upset by the Christian doctrines of hell, but they find Biblical teaching about turning the other cheek and forgiving enemies appealing. I then asked her to consider how someone from a very different culture sees Christianity. In traditional societies the teaching about “turning the other cheek” makes absolutely no sense. It offends people’s deepest instincts about what is right. . . . I asked the woman gently whether she thought her culture superior to non-Western ones. She immediately answered “no.” “Well then,” I asked, “why should your culture’s objections to Christianity trump theirs?” (74–75).
Keller then situates this point in a broader context: “If Christianity were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place. Maybe this is the place, the Christian doctrine of divine judgment” (75).
Issue 2: A God of judgment can’t be a God of love
Reply: “[A]ll loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love” (75). It’s not true that loving people don’t have wrath. They are opposed to that which would destroy peace and goodness in people. Keller quotes Becky Pippert to that effect: “God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer . . . which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being” (76). So, it’s entirely consistent for any person, including God, to be loving and to have wrath.
Issue 3: A Loving God would not allow hell
Reply: It’s important to note here that people often have a misunderstanding of hell. People often think of hell as a place people go against their will, but this is not correct. As Keller notes, “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into eternity (80).” Evil is more stubborn than we tend to think. It is amazing to see those who are trapped in some vice and simply refuse to get help, even though it is wrecking their lives. This stubbornness is the trajectory of hell. God allows hell because He allows people the choice to trust Him or live their own way.
Hell and the equality of people
Reply: Many people today are concerned that if people believe that others are going to hell, they will treat them with violence or cruelty. Keller explains that we cannot look at someone today and conclude definitively whether they will be in hell. So, it would be wrong to treat someone as if they were going to be in hell.
In spite of the seeming distance, the secular and Christian views may be closer than many expect: “Both the Christian and the secular person believe that self-centeredness and cruelty have have very harmful consequences. Because Christians believe souls can’t die, they also believe that moral and spiritual errors affect the soul forever” (83). If future consequences for moral error do not mean oppression and violence in the secular view, then why should anyone conclude that they do on the Christian view?
I believe in a God of love
Reply: Keller had his own spiritual journey. He studied a variety of religions seeking after the truth. One thing that struck him is that the idea of a God of love who unites himself to us in intimate union of love is not universal. “Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity” (86). If the Bible is really the only basis for believing a God of love, then how can we accept that claim without also accepting the Bible’s equally clear claim to a God of judgment?
We have just skimmed the surface here. I would encourage you to read and consider the whole book and to study it carefully. Look at some of the resources which Keller cites, if you have further questions. There are more to these issues than one would often think based on popular culture.