Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?
How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?
On April 15, 2013, two brothers attended the Boston marathon. Others had come to run or cheer, but these boys came to kill. They detonated two homemade explosives near the finish line. Three people died. Sixteen lost limbs. Hundreds were injured. After the FBI released images of the brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev killed two policemen. Tamerlan was shot several times in the exchange of fire and died shortly after his brother ran him over in a scramble to escape. An unprecedented manhunt ensued. Dzhokhar was eventually discovered hiding under a boat cover in nearby Watertown. As the helicopters circled and the infrared outline of his body was revealed, you would wonder what you would make of that young man.
We twenty-first-century Westerners hate judgment. We fear being judgmental and blame horrific crimes on mental health problems, religious extremism, or educational deficits. To be sure, all these things can be factors. And yet, when we hear of callous murders, carefully planned terrorism, or systematic abuse, part of us still yearns for justice. Some murderers might be too young and impressionable to be held accountable. But others who kill are mature. Perhaps they were under the sway of Islamic radicalism. But others who kill are not. Perhaps they had early life experiences that left them scarred and vulnerable. But other killers come from happy homes.
In this study, we will explore the hardest question in this series: How could a loving God send people to hell? Every other question pales in comparison. This one is about the end of the story, and it is the most difficult thing Christians are called to believe—harder by far than believing in miracles or prophecies, or that the God who made us has the right to tell us what to do with our bodies. We will discuss what the Bible says about judgment and hear a strange tale in which love and judgment are intertwined, and in which our vague ideas about heaven and hell become rooted in a person. We will discuss how these concepts are often misunderstood in ways that make God’s actions seem illogical, arbitrary, and unjust. To do this, we will examine whether good and evil, hatred and love stand up under scientific scrutiny, and we will train biblical light on the logic of the cross to see what the humiliating death and supposed resurrection of a first-century, Palestinian Jew has to do with you, or me, or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Has Science Murdered Sin?
Sam Harris begins his book Free Will by recounting a set of callous crimes committed by two men against an innocent family. The crimes included rape, child sex abuse, robbery, and indiscriminate murder. The account is hard to read: it will bring tears to your eyes. Harris recognizes that our natural response when we hear of such crimes is to demand justice. These men deserve punishment. He argues that these criminals in fact had no real choice in the matter. Their actions were entirely determined by their past experiences and neurological states. While we may seek restorative justice to prevent them from committing other crimes, we cannot hold them morally accountable. Indeed, Harris claims, “The idea that we, as conscious beings, are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map onto reality.”
If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had no real moral agency in his actions, if he did not in any meaningful sense decide to kill the marathon runners and spectators, shoot the policemen, and run over his own brother, then no act of moral courage is real either. If Larry Nassar, the gymnastics team doctor who is serving multiple life sentences for sexually abusing more than 250 young girls, cannot be held accountable for his callous crimes, then neither does Rachael Denhollander—the first woman to accuse him—truly love her children.
You see, evolution’s response to morality, epitomized in this quotation from Harris scratches away at our deepest beliefs: that there is a moral fabric to the universe, that right and wrong are more than dreams, and that you and I—weak and dependent as we are—are capable of love, just as we are capable of cruelty. Our circumstances, our genetics, and our pasts are certainly factors in our decisions. But unless we are willing to rob humans entirely of their moral agency, we must sometimes say that there is evil in the world, and that evil comes from the human heart. And if we cannot say this, we must also never say that love is love.
The #MeToo of Judgment
The #MeToo movement has gained traction because Americans are finally willing to say that sexually harassing or abusing women can no longer be excused or covered up—whatever the status and accomplishments of the abuser. For some, this means public disgrace. For others, it means prison. Film producer and Miramax cofounder Harvey Weinstein, whose record of alleged sexual abuse triggered the movement in 2017, has just arrested on charges of rape.
But as the waves of #MeToo have swept through Hollywood, industry, finance, and the churches, it has often felt less like a celebratory “ding-dong, the witch is dead” and more like the troubling fall of our would-be heroes like Bill Cosby. I loved watching The Cosby Show when I was a teenager and I introduced it to the girls. But he went from being the widely loved dad in America’s most popular fictional family to being a hated sex offender. Morgan Freeman has been accused of sexual harassment. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, Andrew Cuomo, who were outspoken supporters of the #MeToo movement, have been accused of sexual harassment and abuse. We long for the vindication of women who have been abused and traumatized. But as we grasp for justice, we find even seeming advocates succumbing to the wave of judgment. And we start to wonder, Who is next? Is anyone incapable of exploiting power?
The #MeToo movement has exposed a painful truth: that there is no ultimate “them” and “us” when it comes to exploiting power over others; there is only a sliding scale. And while arguments from circumstance can exonerate, they can equally condemn. In fact, most of us are capable of evil and cruelty, given the right peer pressure. And the pride and self-centeredness goes deep.
It has been said that no friendship in the world would last a day if we could see each other’s thoughts. Run that test on yourself between now and tomorrow. Think of everyone you spend time with and ask, would I let them see a transcript of my thoughts? Would our marriage die? Would our children would be crushed? Would our friends leave? Our thoughts are not all bad: many are good and kind and true. But like a bag of flour infested by maggots, we have parts of us which are not pure. This realization leaves us with another problem: many of our relationships hinge, to some extent, on hiding what lurks beneath the surface.
Longing to Be Known and Loved
Much of our modern heartache flows from the search for identity. We are told that being our authentic selves is the key to happiness: “You do you” is our self-loving battle cry. Any sense that the authentic “me” may not be a beautiful thing is repression, and guilt must be shed like a snakeskin. We are worth it. We are enough. But what if Larry Nassar was living out of his authentic self as he abused young gymnasts? Should he not have suppressed the part of himself that desired little girls’ bodies? How do I know when my authentic self is speaking? And why should I believe that the love and kindness in me is truly “me,” while the selfishness and jealousy are alien invasions? Part of me longs to be more known. But what would happen if my “true self” were revealed?
Going deeper into someone’s identity can breed empathy. In the 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, we rethink Killmonger’s actions when we realize who he is. The film begins with a showdown between two brothers. Killmonger turns out to be Erik, the son of the brother who died, and who was left as an orphan when his uncle killed his dad. His actions are driven by a two-pronged drive for justice: he longs to avenge his father; and—having grown up as a poor, black orphan in America—he longs for justice for African Americans. The revelation of his identity makes us empathize, even with a brutal killer.
One tattoo says, “If you can’t handle my worst, you don’t deserve my best.” It is a quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe. Ultimately, these words express a desire to be known and loved. But as we invite people in, we must navigate a minefield. Dig in some places in my heart, and you will find rich soils that will help you know me better and, perhaps, love me more. But scratch on other turfs, and your positive view of who I am will explode in your face. We all manage our self-disclosure. In varying degrees and ways, we find ourselves making a choice: to be known or to be loved. How does the Bible speak into this?
Christianity acts like a searchlight. On the one hand, it confronts us with a God who sees our thoughts. He knows our hearts and our pretense, our words and our deeds. The parts we work so hard to hide are laid bare before him, and the one person with the right to judge has all the evidence. Like the infrared sensors that revealed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding under the awning of a boat, the God of the Bible is the God from whom we cannot hide. And yet the searchlight that could expose us as fugitive criminals is trained on us as lost children. This God is looking for us, longing for us, calling to us to come home.
In one of Jesus’s most famous parables, a prodigal son who has taken his father’s money and run is welcomed home. Seeing his prodigal child still far off, his father runs to him, kisses him, hugs him, and calls for a party to celebrate, not because his son is innocent—which he is not—but because he is loved. The son was lost and now he is found (Luke 15:11–32).
But if God cares about justice, and all our mixed motives and manipulative thoughts are exposed before him, why isn’t the searchlight trained on us as criminals?
The Logic of the Cross
On the night Jesus was arrested, he went up to the Mount of Olives to pray. He was profoundly distressed. Walking away from his disciples, he fell on his knees and pleaded: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). An angel came to strengthen Jesus. But it was not enough. “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Why was Jesus so afraid?
Some have speculated that he was afraid to die. Crucifixion was designed to maximize torture and humiliation so onlookers would be cautioned to avoid the kind of offense against Rome that got you nailed to a cross. This would be quite enough for you or me to fall on our faces and beg to be spared. But for Jesus there was more. Just as human marriage is an illustration of a deeper love, the physical agony of the cross was an illustration of a deeper pain—a pain Jesus packaged into a metaphor.
The image of the “cup of the Lord” cuts through the Hebrew Scriptures with the jagged force of a lightning bolt. Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah all use this metaphor to communicate God’s judgment. Some passages proclaim destruction for those about to drink the cup. Others herald salvation for those from whom the cup is being removed. Just as the image of God as Husband presents the whole nation of Israel as his bride, so the cup of God’s wrath is served up to whole nations whose sinful abuses, child sacrifices, rejection of God, and exploitation of the poor have incurred the Lord’s judgment.
Then there is Jesus, kneeling on the ground, begging for “this cup” to pass him by. To the first Gospel readers, the meaning would have been clear: Jesus faced drinking down the righteous anger and judgment of God against sin on an epic scale.
The idea of the wrath of God seems alien to us—a psychologically damaging relic from a bygone era. 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 of the anger you feel when you see school children shot, women raped, or people beaten because of the color of their skin. Think of your anger at the slave trade, the Holocaust, and global sex trafficking. When you analyze anger, its root is love. No one who regards those of other races as subhuman cares about racial exploitation. No one who believes that women or children are property cares about sexual abuse. The more we love, the more easily our anger is kindled. We rush to defend our children from the least attack because we love them: anyone who harms them inspires our fury.
Imagine that this kind of love-motivated anger is so deeply entrenched in the heart of God that your own commitment to justice is like a drop in the ocean, like the justice of a child dressing up in a police outfit compared with a Supreme Court justice. God’s anger at the Holocaust, God’s anger at the slave trade, God’s anger at abuse and murder and cruelty and neglect was all poured out on Jesus on the cross. That was one thing he dreaded: not the nails in his hands.
But that alone does not explain the logic of the cross. Even if there is a world of sin to pay for, why would an outpouring of anger against a totally innocent man make a difference? Iin fact, is that not the worst form of injustice? Before we can grasp the logic of the cross, we must understand who Jesus is in relation to God and who he is in relation to us.
First, according to the Bible, Jesus is not the passive victim of God’s wrath. Jesus is God in the flesh. Thus, on the cross, Jesus is both executioner and condemned. Conversely, while Jesus expounds God’s love and mercy again and again, he also hammers on God’s judgment more than any Old Testament prophet. And Jesus is clear: he is the one who will judge all humanity.
In the last book of the Bible, the tender, vulnerable metaphor used to depict Jesus as the sacrifice becomes an image of terrifying judgment. Revelation describes a time when people will say to mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16–17). The wrath of God is the wrath of Jesus, the Lamb. On the cross, the one perfectly righteous, perfectly loving, perfectly innocent man who ever lived faced the full force of God’s judgment, drank it down, and threw away the cup. In biblical shorthand, He experienced hell.
Second, just as Jesus is not separable from the God whose wrath he faces on the cross, so he is not separable from us, if we but put our trust in him. The church is Jesus’s body. But a yet more vital implication of this truth is that if we trust in Jesus, we are as inseparable from him as our bodies are from our heads.
Jesus was not a random bystander, hauled in to pay for our sin. If we have put our trust in him and obeyed His gospel, he is our Head: every evil of our hearts has been laid on him and paid for by his death, and each of His beautiful acts of love is credited to our account. We have all rejected God and deserve his rejection in return. The choice we have is this: to face hell by ourselves or to hide ourselves in Christ.
The Real Meaning of Heaven and Hell
Heaven, in biblical terms, is not primarily a place. It is a shorthand for the full blessings of relationship with God. It is the prodigal son come home. It is the bride being embraced by her husband with tears of joy. It is the new heavens and the new earth, where God’s people with upgraded, resurrection bodies will enjoy eternity with Him at a level of intimacy into which the best of human marriage gives us no more than a glimpse. Heaven is home: an embodied experience of deep relationship with God and his people on a recreated earth.
Hell is the opposite. It is the door shut in the face of the prodigal son, the divorce certificate delivered at the moment of remorse, the criminal receiving his just deserts. If Jesus is the Bread of Life, loss of Jesus means starving. If Jesus is the Light of the World, loss of Jesus means darkness. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, loss of Jesus means wandering alone and lost. If Jesus is the resurrection and the life, loss of Jesus is eternal death. And if Jesus is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, loss of Jesus means paying that price for ourselves.
For many, it is easy to reject Jesus now. They might find His offer touching. But they believe they will be happier without such a commitment. They worry He will cramp their style, so they move on with life and leave Him in the spiritual countryside. One day, the Bible warns, we will see Jesus in all his glory, our eyes painfully open to his majesty. We will know in that moment that all our greatest treasures were nothing compared with him, and some will bitterly regret that decision. But it will not be unfair. If we accept Jesus now, we will live with Him forever in a fullness of life we cannot imagine. If we reject Him now, he will one day reject us, and we will be eternally devastated. The choice is ours.
But is it?
Freedom, Life, and Love
The possibility of unity with Christ unpicks one final knot in the human condition—a challenge that confronts Christians and atheists alike. Are we really free to choose at all? Sam Harris believes that free will is a delusion: a belief impossible to map onto reality. Christianity holds out an alternative. Yes, our actions are informed by our circumstances, but we are moral agents nonetheless.
Multiple biblical texts suggest that our wills are in a state of bondage in some ways similar to that described by Harris: we are free to do what we want to do, but we cannot determine the wanting itself. Paul calls us “dead in our sins” until we are made “alive in Christ.” Corpses cannot choose. But whereas in Harris’s worldview there is no true free will, in a Christian worldview there is. Just as our lives are contingent on his life, and our loves are contingent on his love, so our wills are contingent on his will.
We get a hint of this relationship in pregnancy. The child in this womb is truly alive, even though his life is utterly contingent on mom’s life. He moves freely within the womb. But he does not control his location: where she goes, he goes. Likewise, we are truly alive and truly free not independently from Jesus but united to Him. Just as escaping from mom would mean not life to the child but death, so escaping from Christ would mean not freedom and life but a brief writhing before stillness. Enclosed in mom’s body, dependent on mom’s blood, protected by mom’s immunity, and housed in mom’s love, the little child is, in a tangible sense, united with her. Because we trust in Jesus and obey His will, we are similarly dependent on Him. Where Jesus goes, we go. If Jesus lives, we live. He died my death and took my punishment. He is my resurrection and my life.
In a moving speech at the trial of Larry Nassar, Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to file sex-abuse charges against Nassar, faced the man who took her innocence and pleaded with him to turn to Christ. The Bible, she explained,
“carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.”
Denhollander, a victim of child abuse, knows that she ultimately stands in the same dock as her abuser. The cross of Christ serves justice: through Jesus, Nassar’s sin could be expunged. The crushing weight could be lifted. He is serving multiple life sentences for his crimes, as he rightly should. But—as it has been for many before him—the prison door could be a door to freedom, love, and life in Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate scandal of the Christian faith. The worst criminal, like a Jeffrey Dahmer, can be welcomed. And that is good news for us, because we are more sinful than we realize. But in Christ we can be more known, more loved, and more truly alive than we have ever dreamed.
Friend, if you are settling for deferred beliefs, hoping that the universe has a plan, believing human equality is self-evident but not knowing why, wondering if anyone who knew your secret thoughts could ever truly love you, come to Jesus. Come to the man who brought hope to oppressed slaves. Come to the man who calls dead people from their graves.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus to Martha. And he says the same to you: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”