Bible study: why would a loving God make a terrible place like Hell?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

It’s time for us to take a look in the Bible and make some sense of it, again. Today’s question is really “what does God expect us to be doing with our lives?” but I wanted the title of this post to be more eye-catching for non-Christians.

Why do people go to Hell?

Let’s start with finding out what we are supposed to be doing, and then we’ll know why there is a place like Hell for people who don’t do that to be separated from God.

Everyone has a moral obligation to choose how to use their time wisely during their life time. People everywhere, in all times and places, have had the choice of whether to spend more time thinking about the “big questions” or more time having fun and being selfish. Thinking about the big questions logically leads a person to making discoveries about God’s existence and character. Once the people who think about the “big questions” discover the answers to those big questions, they are morally obligated to use their free will to love God using all their capabilities.

Bible verse break:

Deuteronomy 4:27-30:

27 The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you.

28 There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.

29 But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.

30 When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him.

At a bare minimum, loving God also means obeying the moral law. But I think there is a lot more to loving God than just obeying rules. Each person is also obligated to engage in and support enterprises that help others to know God as he really is. If a person fails to use their free will to love God, then that person is sinning. Notice that on my view, being nice to your neighbor is relatively unimportant compared to being nice to God. Jesus’ first commandment is to love God, and that vertical dimension is much more important than horizontal dimension of loving your neighbor.

Bible verse break, again – this time Paul is explaining what he does to love God:

Philippians 1:3-19:

3 I thank my God every time I remember you.

4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy

5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,

6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.

8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,

10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,

11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.

13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.

14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.

16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.

17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition,not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.

18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,

19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.

So we are supposed to be telling people the gospel, which is the good news about who God is, and what he has done for us to bring us into a right relationship with him, despite our lack of curiosity about him, and our focus on ourselves instead of him. The pre-condition to loving God and sharing the gospel is knowing what his character is really like. Most people are born into a certain religion or learn it from their parents or their culture and they either adopt it without thinking or they reject it without thinking. They are not interested in investigating who God is using reason and evidence, including scientific and historical evidence.

On the Christian view, the best thing you can possibly do with your time is to investigate whether God is real, and what he is like. It’s wrong to say that investigating doesn’t matter or that all religions are the same. In fact, when you actually look into these things like you do any other area of knowledge, with logic and evidence, you do arrive at knowledge of who God is. And that’s because God has left clues of who he is in the natural world and in history – he expects us to be looking for him. He is as real as any other person you know, and his character is as defined as any other person you know.

Bible verse break:

Acts 17:26-27:

26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.

27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

I think that the result of any honest investigation is going to be that the Christian religion is going to be found to be more true in its major claims than any other religion. I.e. – people who conduct an honest investigation are going to find that the Christian claims about the universe coming into being out of nothing, and of Jesus rising from the dead, etc. will be validated by the progress of science and historical inquiry.

But since people have a natural tendency to focus on making themselves happy, not many investigations occur. They know that if Christianity is true, they would have to engage in radical self-denial and self-sacrificial love. They know they would have to sober, be chaste, be different, and not be liked because of their exclusive view. And people don’t want to do that, so an honest investigation never even gets started.

Instead, what you find non-Christians doing is hoping in speculations to justify their flight from the demands of the God who is there. We want to be free to make ourselves happy, and that means that we have to keep the real God who is there and who is not silent at arms length. That’s what non-Christians do – they use their time on Earth to push God away so they can focus on themselves and their own happiness. In fact, even Christians do it, which is why we rely on Jesus as a sacrifice for our sin. We could come near to God and work on the things that he would like us to work on without some way to get past our own rebellion. For those who grasp the sacrifice of Jesus as an atonement for our rebellion, cooperation with God becomes possible.

One of the problems that Christians have today is that we do not really understand what sin is. We think that sin is about hurting other people or making other people feel bad. But actually, the sinfulness of a person has little to do with that, and much more to do with how we respond to God. We have a moral obligation to know God and to include God in all of our decision making. Hell is the place that God has made for people who turn away from him. A person chooses Hell when she refuses to investigate whether God is there and who God is, so that she does not have to adjust her choices to respect God.

8 thoughts on “Bible study: why would a loving God make a terrible place like Hell?”

  1. I would add that a loving God must have a place for those who do not wish to love Him

    True love can/will not Force a being with free will to love them or it is not true love … He will not force a person into His presence who does not wish to be there … to do so would be unloving and thus there must be a place of separation ie. Hell

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  2. In recent years, the strict Calvinist view has made more logical sense: God has chosen who the Elect are even before they were born and only the Elect are going to heaven. (Disclaimer: I am not one of the Elect and I know I’m going to hell.) The alternative view makes it too random.

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    1. I’m curious, sir: how is it that you know you are going to hell? Also, please Google Molinism/William Lane Craig. It is a much more satisfying explanation of how people are saved or lost than the hyper-Calvinism you describe.

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      1. I’ll look it up. I don’t know know that I’m going to hell, but I feel I was given the knowledge but not the Grace if that makes sense. I don’t blame God. He runs things the way He sees fit and apparently I am one of the vessels of wrath.

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        1. I think if you think that, it’s a good sign you’re not a vessel of wrath. The view that God is not there to be your cosmic butler is rare these days. You should chase God down, and definitely investigate middle knowledge (Molinism). I’m not a Calvinist and most of my friends who have looked into things aren’t either.

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  3. Once again, so close…Sin is a very man-centered concept. God’s purpose is way bigger than that:
    #1 – There is Evil in the world.
    #2 – A Holy (and yes, loving) God won’t put up with it forever.
    Too many verses to quote here, but start with what Christ said in Matthew 13.
    It’s a shame the Church won’t call out evil what it is anymore.

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  4. In seminary (and at my home church), I have heard some good sermons on the topic of Hell. For instance, on the text of Luke 16:19-31, this sermon: http://media.parkstreet.org/audio/2009-03-22-am.mp3 (“How Can A Loving God Send Anyone To Hell?”)

    Usually it’s been noted that the primary characteristic of Heaven is the presence of God and fellowship with God — and in the afterlife, that’s eternal fellowship with God. (This helps make sense of everything else about Heaven, for instance, because of the eternal empowering presence of God and fellowship with God, believers will be able to do His will with freedom and yet not sin. Or that because of the presence of God, all believers will want to worship God in Heaven. Worship may not be all corporate or all the time; for instance, I think we will see forgiven sins and praise God. Or because the eternal presence of God, we will be very worshipful in all that we do.)

    In contrast, the primary characteristic of Hell is absence from God. Those who do not wish fellowship with God, those who don’t want God as their Lord, those who reject God, will all be put in this … place. I don’t know if it is like another dimension or some other place (like the Phantom Zone or something else). Because God is the source of all things good, being cut off from this source … well … it will not be pretty. On this side of eternity, we experience something called “common grace” — rain falls on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Even some atheists or agnostics that I knew realized that extramarital affairs or sleeping around before marriage was a bad idea; that is to say, they had some ideas about ethics and morality and could see beyond primal instincts. At some point, even common grace will be gone.

    The appearance of God to unbelievers on the one hand, will be terrifying. The Hebrew word for “naked” can also be translated “exposed,” and sinful people being exposed to the perfect, awesome holiness of God is terrifying. (Interestingly there are Bible passages where unbelievers will want mountains to fall on them and hide them (Revelation 6:15-17, maybe Luke 23:30). Unbelievers will want to be away from the awesome and terrifying presence of God. They will actually get their ‘just deserts.’

    We could also simplify things. We could ask the question, “Who’s the boss of your life?” I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ quote in the Abolition of Man: “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

    My senior pastor and a lot of the seminary professors that I had were influenced by M. G. Kline (a.k.a. the father of American Covenantal Theology). Kline proposed that even before the Fall and implicit in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was Hell. Why do we have a Tree (of Knowledge of Good and Evil)? Why not a rock? Why not a star that is thousands if not millions of light years away, if God didn’t want us to sin? Trees were the place of judgment in the Ancient Near East, especially of capital crimes (sedition and rebellion against a sovereign would be a capital crime). If pronounced guilty, the perpetrator would be hung as judgment. In other words, Genesis 3 is held at court. At the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have a seditious serpent, inciting the first human couple to rebel. Upon hearing the serpent trying to get them to disobey God, it was the first Adam’s job to judge the serpent — therefore condemning the serpent to Hell. However, the first Adam failed, and the second Adam (Jesus) succeeded.

    Now, it is not that justice or wrath is the opposite of love, or is incompatible with love. For instance, if you saw some drunken man intimidate and abuse his girlfriend publicly (or some woman attacking her boyfriend publicly), you SHOULD try to intervene and stop him/her. The pastor above mentioned that his son only saw his dad get mad one time: it was when his son was bullied and the pastor zealously wished to address this with his son’s bully’s parents.

    My pastor also put it this way, “Justice delayed is not justice denied.” God will eventually have His justice, and for believers, our sins will be displayed as forgiven sins, covered by and paid for by Jesus.

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    1. Awesome! One additional point: the tree that Adam and Eve should have eaten from was not the tree of Good. It was from the Tree called Life.

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