Hell questions answered
Published: 17 November 2012 (GMT+10)
The article Why would a loving God send people to Hell? received many comments which illustrate the widespread confusion about the doctrine today. Several emails below are reproduced with responses from Lita Cosner.
Cecily M.A. from Australia writes:
I am one who has been troubled in the past concerning what happens to those who have not yet heard the Gospel and I’ve been comforted by the Scriptures in 1 Peter 3: 18–20 and 4: 5–6. I am also comforted by the fact that Enoch was taken up to be with God even though he was a descendent of Adam and Christ had not yet come. There is another Scripture which says that those who have not yet heard the Gospel will be judged by the light which they have. I believe God recognises integrity in people, the desire to be good and do right even though they do not achieve it perfectly. I like to think that there is a room in God’s House for such people where Jesus will come and preach the Gospel to them.
Lita Cosner responds:
Thank you for your comments. But I don’t think that there is any biblical support for the idea that Jesus is going to preach to people who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel message during their earthly life (Hebrews 9:27: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”). The Bible always speaks of our actions during this earthly life as a basis for judgment (for non-Christians, and although Christians get into Heaven by faith, there is evidence that Christians will also be judged by works as a basis for heavenly rewards).
As is so often the case, I think going to Romans is helpful here. Starting in Romans 1, Paul tells the Roman church that God’s attributes are plainly revealed through creation. But this revelation is only enough to condemn, to make them without excuse, not to save. Instead of honoring God as they should, they worship idols, and as a consequence engage in all sorts of immorality. At this point, your average Jew would be feeling pretty-self righteous, but if they thought Paul was going to ignore them, they were wrong! In Chapter 2, Paul lights into them: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the same things.” And then in verse 12: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” So the Jews who have have the law but don’t keep it, and the people who never had the law to begin with—they’re both condemned, completely and utterly. Continuing on through Chapter 3, Paul enunciates just how utterly condemned every single person is. Finally, we get to 3:21:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
This is one of my favourite passages of Scripture, and it’s one of the clearest expositions of the Good News in a single passage. But it is also clear that salvation is exclusively through Jesus, and there’s so much emphasis on declaring the name of Jesus, etc, throughout the New Testament that it’s certainly difficult to see any ‘loopholes’ there.
The Bible doesn’t talk specifically about ‘special cases’. What is specifically addressed:
- Every single person who has ever lived, with the exception of Jesus, has sinned and falls under God’s condemnation.
- Those who call on the name of Christ, who believe in his death and resurrection for the atonement of sins, will be saved.
- Those who hear the Gospel and reject it (and die still rejecting it) will not be saved.
What about those who have never heard? Well, once again, I think Romans has the answer (starting in 10:9):
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the Gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for:
‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’
Their voice has gone out to all the earth
and their words to the ends of the world.
But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.
Then Isaiah is so bold to say,
I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.
So let’s break down what Paul is saying here. Paul is emphasizing belief in Jesus for salvation. And then his answer is: well, we better take this news to everyone so they can believe! But also notice that he ends with an emphasis on God’s sovereignty. He will save whom He will, and He doesn’t need us to do it, although that’s His usual way of working. But God doesn’t satisfy our curiosity finally about the matter—and I think for good reason. If we knew exactly how God is going to deal with the pagan who ‘lived by the light he had’, would that keep us from going and sharing the Gospel, because the pagan who rejects the Gospel might have it worse off than the one who never heard in the first place?
Finally, in situations like this, I find Abraham’s rhetorical question (with the obvious answer) to be immensely comforting: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” At the Judgment no one will be able to accuse God of being unjust in His judgment. I don’t think we’re meant to go around stressing about what God is going to do in the case of certain groups of people (who often times are little more than abstractions to us). Rather, we’re to make sure first that we are saved and in a right relationship with God, and then we are to obey God’s command to spread the Gospel.
Jeff M., U.K., writes:
Of course I understand you are preaching to the (hopefully) converted so nothing you say comes as a surprise.
But Lita. Every muslim believes in God but according to you they are doomed. And every Hindu (and so on). You paint a very poor picture of Him-effectively unless you are a YEC you may as well give up now.
And don’t forget-in this life catholics can be as bad as they like providing they repent at the last minute. So they will be joining you at His right hand even if, like the Pope, they believe in (horror of horrors) evolution.
Don’t you see that it is you who are interpreting the Bible in such a way as to make Him into such a self-obsessed pedantic monster?
We can’t save ourselves; our own spiritual ideas can’t save us, the gods we create can’t save us, our best efforts can’t save us. We’re utterly and completely without hope—unless God does something.
Lita Cosner responds:
I believe every Muslim believes in a false god. I believe every Hindu believes in a false god (or millions of them). And so on. The Creator God who has revealed Himself through Scripture is the only true God. And the only way to have a relationship with Him is by believing what He has revealed about Himself and following His rules for relating to Him. This was true in Abraham’s day when He instituted circumcision; it was true in Moses’ day when He gave the Law; it was true in Jesus’ day when He became the ultimate revelation of God to mankind. Today, we have God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture.
I struggle to see how you could read my article and believe that I am painting a very poor picture of God. We’ve sinned, we’re horrible and disgusting in the sight of God because of that sin, but still He sent Jesus to save us. We can’t save ourselves; our own spiritual ideas can’t save us, the gods we create can’t save us, our best efforts can’t save us (and we rarely even give our best effort). We’re utterly and completely without hope—unless God does something.
God gets to set the rules—and how presumptuous would it be to contest His right to do so? We don’t deserve to be saved at all.
And God did do something—He sent Jesus. Jesus died a horrible death on the Cross, but even worse than the physical pain of the scourging which ripped the skin from His back, the thorns on His brow, and the nails through His wrists and ankles—the worst thing of all was that for the first time in His eternal existence, the Father turned His wrath upon His Son, the wrath that we deserved because of our sin. Jesus took that wrath so that we could be saved. When Jesus rose on the third day, that was proof that God accepted the sacrifice, and that the way to God was opened.
But we can’t come to God on our own terms. I can’t decide for myself that Islam is the path I want to take to God, or Gaia-worship, or Wicca, or Judaism which doesn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, or Mormonism, or anything else. God gets to set the rules—and how presumptuous would it be to contest His right to do so? We don’t deserve to be saved at all. We’re the disgusting sinful slime that deserves to burn, remember? (I am speaking of course of humanity in its unredeemed state.)
So what are God’s terms? Paul seems to lay out the ‘minimum requirements’ for belief in 1 Corinthians 15:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, any by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (vv. 1–6)
Paul goes on to list the other people Jesus appeared to, but the purpose for this appears to be to ‘cement’ the Resurrection as a historical event (especially in light of his argument through the rest of chapter 15). But we see that the minimum for belief is believing:
- Jesus died, was buried (He was really dead), and He was raised by God on the third day.1
- He did this for our sins.
Now, you’ll notice two things about this: it’s extremely simple; a little child can understand it, it can be presented in a single conversation. It also has nothing to do with the finer doctrinal details of soteriology, eschatology, or even creation (as important as those doctrines are, they fall in the area of things that can be ironed out with good mentoring/discipleship).
I’m not quite sure why you’re talking about Catholics to a Protestant ministry (are they the only people who can’t be saved on their own terms, according to you?), but nowhere in the Bible does it say, “You can live however you like your whole life and still get into Heaven.” Salvation is free in that there’s nothing we do to earn it, and we can’t earn it by works, but the Bible is clear: believers are characterized by a life that glorifies Christ. Someone who claims to be saved but lives a life that stinks of the sinful nature is not being consistent. At best, they’ll get into Heaven ‘by the skin of their teeth’, at worst, their profession of faith will be shown to be completely false.
Jeff, I can’t see how the Gospel makes God a ‘self-obsessed, pedantic monster’ to you. If I have diabetes, and the doctor tells me, “You will eventually die from this unless you change your diet and exercise habits, and you also need to take insulin,” I don’t call the doctor a pedantic monster because he is telling me I can’t have a whole cheesecake for dinner. God tells us the way to be saved in Scripture; He doesn’t allow anything else for salvation because there isn’t anything else for salvation.
Halldór M., Iceland, wrote in. Lita Cosner’s responses are interspersed.
What really stings about the doctrine of eternal hell is how it’s obviously cruel and unjust.
Are fallen human beings in a position to say what’s ‘obviously unjust’? Because we are sinful, our ‘moral compasses’ are skewed, meaning that our intuitions often lead us astray. The Bible, in contrast, is inspired by God who has a perfect sense of justice.
Justice for everyone is when the punishment fits the crime but the doctrine of eternal torment is obviously not just.
Who is to say what is just and what is not just? And do you have an accurate sense of what the correct punishment would be? And what about the continuing sin of the person who continues to reject God for eternity? And who is to say what form the torment will take? Is it primarily physical or psychological? Is it something in and of itself, or the sense of being deprived of every good thing that comes from God? Each of these questions is very important when we consider the nature of Hell.
Christians would hopefully object loudly if a judge here on earth would sentence a criminal to be tortured with fire for a year and they should but how can they then turn around and say God can do that for millions of years and that’s a loving just thing to do?
- A human judge would not be able to infallibly know if someone were guilty, and what standard could a fallen person use to decide what punishment is precisely appropriate?
- What about the victims of a sinner? Let’s say a man kills multiple people and dies unrepentant. There’s not just the man who is going to suffer; there are the people who will finally receive ultimate justice for the wrong done against them. This is the other side of the equation, and it’s important.
- The suffering in Hell is primarily the result of the withdrawal of God’s provision of every good thing. The people in Hell don’t experience God’s presence, but that is also the source of all the good things we experience here.
Sinner should be punished and the Bible makes it clear that all who die without the saviour will be punished.
And it’s important to note that the people in Hell have either consciously rejected the Savior, or they have rejected the revelation in nature that everyone has.
What’s wrong is the ridiculous punishment that the doctrine of hell says God will inflict on His children He created and says He loves.
Can you point to a statement in Scripture that says that the people in Hell are God’s children? I can’t think of one. Believers are God’s children because Christ’s sacrifice opens the door for an adoptive relationship between God and believers. Rejecting the Savior means rejecting this adoptive relationship.
Why not just stick with what the Bible clearly teaches? The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:24), more suffering for those who deserve it (Luke 12:48), a day when no suffering and sin exists (Revelation 21:4) because the wicket have been destroyed (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
If this was all the Bible had to say about the destiny of those who reject Christ, I might well agree. But the Bible speaks of ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal punishment’ in the same breath (Matthew 25:46). Revelation 20:10 says that the beast and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Revelation 14:11 says of those who worshipped the beast and its image “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” So at least for some people, the Bible clearly teaches, in the strongest terms possible, eternal torment.
Very simple, eternal life is a gift from God and those who seek God and eternal life will find it if they repent and trust the saviour.
And on this we are in complete agreement.
Those who die in their sins without the saviour will be punished for their sins and will then suffer the second death which is in the lake of fire where they will be destroyed so that there won’t be nothing left of them (Malachi 4:1).
The utter destruction of those who rebel against God is a recurring theme in Scripture, definitely. But I suggest that destruction doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t anything left, but rather means complete and utter ruin, without any hope of ever being ‘fixed.’
If the doctrine of eternal hell is true, why didn’t God warn Adam and Eve that if they will eat of the fruit of tree of knowledge He was going to torture them in fire for all eternity? What kind of a parent would use that kind of punishment without even a warning?
Well, for one thing, we aren’t told that Adam and Eve are in Hell; they may have repented before they died. If they did, Jesus’ sacrifice covered their sin and they would have the opportunity to enjoy a relationship with Him again in Heaven. And again, I cannot find any indication that God calls Himself the Father of those who do not trust in His Son for salvation—Jesus is the one who enables us to call God our Father.
- Of course, included in this is correct belief about who this Jesus is; i.e. belief in His divinity, etc. Return to text.