How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

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.

How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?

If you or someone you love has questions on this issue (as most of us do!), I would encourage you to read Pastor Tim Keller’s New York Times Bestseller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.

In this post, I’d like to summarize what Keller says about this important question: how could a good God allow suffering?

Whether you are a believer or unbeliever, it’s likely a question you’ve asked at some point in your life, maybe often.

Keller says that there are two ways we can ask this question. The first is intellectual. How can we logically say that a good God could allow evil? The second is emotional. We get angry at a God who would allow such evil.

Let’s consider what Keller says about each in turn.

The Intellectual Issue
In regard to the intellectual question, Keller begins with the objection of a philosopher who states essentially: “because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist” (23).

Keller responds: there is a hidden premise, namely, that there is much pointless suffering in the world. The problem with this objection is that it assumes that what appears pointless to us actually is pointless. On what basis can we make the claim that because we don’t know the reason for the existence of suffering that it has no reason whatsoever? There seems to be hidden beneath this statement an unwarranted but very strong belief in our own analysis.

This is more than just an artful escape from a logical dilemma. He describes tragedies in his own life and the life of those whom he knows and states: “Though none of these people are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything” (25). I myself can testify to this same reality.

Second, Keller notes that suffering and evil may actually be an argument for God’s existence.

The reason is this: on a naturalistic worldview, there is little reason to complain that the world is unjust. He notes:

. . . the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?

In short, the problem of suffering is a problem for everyone, and it is at least as big of a problem for unbelief as for belief.

The Emotional Argument
To discuss suffering in this way can easily seem cold and unfeeling, especially to those who are in the midst of great suffering.

Keller responds this way:

[A real-life sufferre] might say[,] “I’m still angry. All this philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering!” In response the philosopher Peter Kreeft points out that the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. (27)

According to Keller, the emotional argument is best answered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the death of Jesus on the cross, we see God experiencing some of the worst suffering that one can experience in the world. He puts Himself right in the center of it. We may still wonder, Why does God allow suffering in the world? We may not know the whole answer; however, as Keller notes, “we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition” (31).

The second part of the answer is the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus teaches that God is going to restore everything that was lost. That is the Christian hope. Keller cites Russian philosopher and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky who captures this point powerfully:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that happened. (33–34)

I know that such a short explanation will not satisfy everyone, but I hope that it can be of an aid to you, if you are struggling with some of these issues. At the least, I hope it can whet your appetite to dig in further to Keller and some of the resources he points to in his book.