Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended? (Free Bible Insert)

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Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended (Free Bible Insert)While the Bible clearly describes Hell as a reality, many of our non-believing friends and family members are unsurprisingly repulsed by the idea. Why would God create such a place, and what would ever provoke Him to send people there? As Christians, we know our ultimate authority is God’s Word, so it’s tempting to simply trust what God has revealed without any further philosophical investigation. But we can prepare ourselves for those who reject the authority or teaching of the Bible by examining the evidence from Scripture along with the rational explanations and philosophical foundations supporting the Biblical claims. God has commanded us to be ready to defend the tough truths of the Christian worldview as we share our hope in Jesus:

1 Peter 3:15-16
…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence

So let’s take a look at some common objections to the existence and nature of Hell as we defend the truth of the Christian Worldview.

Objection One
Why Would A Good God Create Hell in the First Place?
The idea anything as vile and repulsive as Hell could come from a good God is a stumbling block for many people. In fact, Christian claims related to Hell are enough for some to reject the Christian God altogether. How could a supposedly good God create such a place?

Mercy Requires Justice
The answer here is directly connected to the nature of God. The Christian God of the Bible is the perfect balance of mercy and justice. The Bible repeatedly describes God with these characteristics:

The Merciful Nature of God
The Bible describes God’s loving, merciful nature. God is loving (1 John 4:8), gracious (Exodus 33:19, 1 Peter 2:1-3), and merciful (Exodus 34:6, James 5:11)

The Just Nature of God
The Bible also describes God’s holy, just nature. God is holy (Psalms 77:130), just (Nehemiah 9:33, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7), hates sin (Psalms 5:5-6), and punishes sinners (Matthew 25:45-46)

The God of the Bible is described as loving, gracious and merciful. At the same time, however, He is described as holy and just; hating sin and punishing sinners. While we might prefer to focus only on the merciful aspects of God’s nature, doing so would completely ignore God’s just nature. Mercy without justice is not mercy. Mercy requires justice to have any meaning, and justice requires mercy to have any power. A loving God (if He is truly loving) would offer love tempered by justice. A loving God would not allow injustice to go unpunished; He would create both a Heaven and a Hell. A loving God offers a path to relationship but the possibility of judgment should we refuse this relationship. One without the other is meaningless:

Why Would A Good God Create Hell in the First Place?

A loving God would not be loving if He did not punish evil. Mercy would have no meaning if it was not applied with justice.

A loving God would not be loving if He did not punish evil. Mercy would have no meaning if it was not applied with justice. Click To Tweet

Objection Two
Why Doesn’t a Loving God Make Sure Everyone Goes to Heaven?
The idea everyone is eventually reunited with a loving God in Heaven (regardless of what they believe or how they behave in this life) is called “Universalism”. It is certainly an attractive idea (for obvious reasons), and in a world of increasing relativism, it’s not surprising this kind of objection would be raised. After all, we are living in a culture where people increasingly believe “all paths lead to Heaven”. As Christians, we know this cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the Bible, and there are also good philosophical reasons to reject such an idea:

A Compulsory Heaven Eliminates Free Will
People who want to go to Heaven (in spite of their free will choice to deny the existence of God), are true champions of the concept of free will. After all, they want to express their freedom to deny there is any one exclusive truth about the nature of God (and the nature of Heaven). But these same people fail to realize the concept of Universalism actually denies free will altogether. If Heaven is the only destination waiting for us (based on the assumption everyone eventually ends up there) then Heaven is actually compulsory. In this view of Heaven, we have no choice about where we end up. Everyone is reunited with God. A compulsory Heaven actually denies the existence of free will, the very thing they cherish. By offering (but not forcing) Heaven to those who freely choose to love Him, God is actually honoring and respecting the free will choices of all of us. He is treating us with the utmost respect and dignity.

A Compulsory Heaven Would Include the “Unsuited”
Most of us would agree a holy place of eternal reward is simply not suited for people with a certain kind of character or for people with certain kinds of desires. Now we may not all agree on who should or shouldn’t be included in such a place, but most of us would hesitate while pondering the possibility people like Hitler (or lifelong pedophiles with murderous desires) should be rewarded eternally in Heaven. If there is a Heaven, it is surely unsuited for certain kinds of people.

A loving God would make Heaven possible for all of us while respecting the free will desire of some of us. A loving God would reward those of us who have decided to choose Him while dealing justly with those of us who have decided to choose against Him. This is exactly the kind of God we worship:

Why Doesn’t a Loving God Make Sure Everyone Goes to Heaven?

A loving God honors our free will and our desire to choose Him, while dealing justly with those who have rejected Him.

A loving God honors our free will and our desire to choose Him, while dealing justly with those who have rejected Him. Click To Tweet

Objection Three
Why Would A Loving God Punish Finite Sin With Infinite Torture?
For many people, the idea our finite, temporal choices here should merit an eternal punishment of infinite torment in Hell ellHellseems rather inequitable. The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. In fact, the punishment seems extraordinarily excessive. Why would God torture eternally those who have sinned temporally? Why would God torture infinitely those who have only sinned finitely?

Torment Is Not Torture
Part of the problem is the way we are using language here. The Bible says those who are delivered into Hell will be tormented, and the degree to which they suffer is described in illustrative language. The torment is compared to an unquenchable fire. But the scripture never describes Hell as a place where God or His angels are actively torturing the souls of the rebellious. It is accurate to describe Hell as a place of separation from God where souls will be in ongoing conscious torment, but Hell is never described as a place of active torture at the hands of God or His agents. Instead, Hell is always described as a state of torment coming as the result of a choice on the part of the person who finds himself there. There is a difference between torture and torment. I can be continually tormented over a decision I made in the past, without being actively tortured by anyone.

Duration of the Punishment is Not Based on Duration of the Crime
The torment experienced in Hell is eternal, and for some, this still seems inequitable compared to the finite and limited sins that we might commit here on earth. So let’s address the issue of the duration of the punishment. First, it’s important for us to remember the severity of a crime does not always have anything to do with the amount of time it takes to commit it. If I embezzle five dollars a day from my boss over the course of five years, I might eventually get caught and pay the penalty for embezzling $32,500.00. In the State of California, this violates California Penal Code 503PC and the punishment might be anything from probation to a 5 year state prison sentence. But if I become enraged at a coworker and in the blink of an eye I lose my temper and kill him, the crime is now murder (187PC). This crime took much less than five years to commit. It only took five seconds. Yet the penalty for this crime is far greater. I will be serving at least 25 years to life, and I may even be put to death. The penalties for these two crimes are very different, and they have nothing to do with the duration of the actual criminal act. Instead, the severity of the crime is the key to determining its punishment. It’s the same way with God. The duration of the crime has little to do with the duration of the penalty. It’s all about the severity of the crime. “But are you trying to tell me that my disbelief alone is severe enough for me to deserve an eternal hell?” That question will be addressed in the next section. For now, it’s enough to simply point out that the duration of the crime is not what determines the punishment of the crime.

Punishment is Based on the Source of the Law
In addition to this, it’s important to remember the punishment for any crime is not determined by the criminal, but by the authority who is responsible for upholding the standard. Justice is not determined by the law breaker, but by the law giver. Justice and punishment are established based on the nature of the source of the law, not the nature of the source of the offense. Since God is the source of justice and the law, His nature determines the punishment. Since God is eternal and conscious, all rewards and punishments must also be eternal and conscious.

The Crime is Worse Than You Think
Finally, it’s important to remember the nature of the crime eventually leading one into Hell. It is not the fact you kicked your dog in 1992. It’s not the fact you had evil thoughts about your teacher in 1983. The crime earning us a place in Hell is our rejection of the true and living eternal God. This rejection is not finite. People who reject God have rejected Him completely. They have rejected Him to their death, to the very end. They have rejected Him as an ultimate and final decision. God then has the right and obligation to judge them with an ultimate punishment. To argue God’s punishment does not fit our crime is to underestimate our crime.

There are several good reasons to expect an eternal punishment even though our earthly crimes may seem finite. Our approach to this objection may require us to give a robust and cumulative response:

Why Would A Loving God Punish Finite Sin With Infinite Torture?

A Loving God simply allows us to suffer the anguish and torment resulting as a consequence of our bad choices. There is a difference between self-inflicted torment and active torture at the hands of another. The duration of the crime has nothing to do with the duration of the punishment (even in this life). The source of the law determines the degree of the punishment, and God is a perfect eternal, conscious being. Don’t be surprised to find we often underestimate the eternal consequence of our own sinful and ultimate choice to reject God.

The source of the law determines the degree of the punishment, and God is a perfect eternal, conscious being. Click To Tweet

Objection Four
Why Is the Penalty of Hell the Same, Even Though People Are So Different?
For some skeptics, the inequitable nature of Hell is seen in the way God punishes. Isn’t it unfair to send someone like Gandhi to Hell (simply because he was not a Christian) alongside someone like Hitler (who committed unspeakable atrocities)? A reasonable and just God would not be the source of such inequitable punishment, would He? In one sense, it is true: All sin has the same consequence when measured against God’s perfection. Lying is just as significant as murder when it comes to assessing our imperfection relative to the perfection of God. Even the slightest sin demonstrates our inadequacy and need for a Savior. But make no mistake about it; some sins are clearly more heinous than others in the eyes of God (John 19:11-12). As a result, the God of the Bible equitably prescribes punishments for wrongdoing on earth and in the next life:

There Are Degrees of Punishment on Earth
When God gave the Law to Moses, He made one thing very clear: Some sins are more punishable than others. God assigned different penalties to different crimes, based on the offensive or heinous nature of the sin itself. The Mosaic Law is filled with measured responses to sin. God prescribed punishments appropriate to the crimes in question (Exodus 21:23-25). In fact, the Mosaic Law carefully assured that each offender would be punished “according to his guilt” and no more (Deuteronomy 25:2-3). The Mosaic Law is evidence of two things. First, while any sin may separate us from the perfection of God, some sins are unmistakably more offensive than others. Second, God prescribes different punishments for different crimes based on the severity of each crime.

There Are Degrees of Punishment in Hell
In a similar way, God applies this principle to the next life, prescribing a variety of punishments in eternity corresponding to the crimes committed in this life (Revelation 20:12-13). This is most apparent in Jesus’ teaching on the “Wicked Servant” (Luke 12:42-48). In a straight forward interpretation of this parable, those who reject the teaching and calling of God will be harshly punished, but those who have less clarity on what can be known about God (“the one who did not know it”) will be punished with less severity. There are degrees of punishment in Hell; God is equitable and fair when it comes to the destiny of those who have rejected Him.

Those who know more about God are held to a higher degree of accountability and responsibility. This is clear from the words of Jesus Himself (John 9:41, John 15:22-24) and the authors of the New Testament (Hebrews 10:28-19). But God has also given us enough information in the natural world (Romans 1:18-20) and in our own moral intuitions (Romans 2:14-15) to conclude He exists. For this reason, no one holds a legitimate excuse excluding them from the justice of God.

Why Is the Penalty of Hell the Same, Even Though People Are So Different?

While all who reject God will be separated from Him for eternity, not all will suffer the same form of punishment. The God of the Bible is equitable and fair, loving and just. He provides a pardon to everyone (through Jesus’ work on the cross) and fairly deals with those who have rejected the pardon, based on the severity of their crimes.

While all who reject God will be separated from Him for eternity, not all will suffer the same form of punishment. Click To Tweet

Objection Five
Why Would A Loving God Send Good People to Hell?
Some skeptics think it is unfair for God to penalize people who are otherwise good, just because they haven’t heard about Jesus. How many times have your non-believing friends said something like, “Hey, I’m a good person. If there is a Heaven, I know I’ll be there, because I’ve never done anything to deserve Hell”? I hear this all the time. It is almost as if they believe the Christian God simply sends people to Hell because they haven’t heard about Jesus or because they didn’t believe in Jesus. But this is simply not the case.

There Are No Innocent People
God sends people to Hell because we deserve it. God assigns people to Hell because we are guilty:

Revelation 20:12
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

And what are the “works” of human beings? Remember what Paul quoted and described when outlining the true nature of humans:

Romans 3:10-18
There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Humans are not actually as “good” as we would like to think we are. We are continually “missing the mark”. We are continually sinning. And this sin is worthy of punishment:

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death…

This is the Biblical description of humanity and the consequence of our supposed “goodness”. The Bible says none of us are good to begin with. But for those of us who might not want to accept the truth of the Bible, let’s look at it from a more philosophical perspective.

It’s All About “Perfection”, Not “Goodness”
If there is a God, then this God is responsible for creating everything in the Universe. This means God created matter from non-matter, life from non-life. If this is true, God has incredible, infinite, unspeakable power. This is why, as Christians, we believe God is perfect; He has the power to eliminate imperfection. The Christian God is not just a good God after all. He is a perfect God. His standard is not goodness, it is perfection. The real question each of us has to ask ourselves is not “Are we good?” The real question we should be asking is, “Are we perfect?” Can any of us answer in the affirmative here? Even if we reject the teaching of the Bible (but accept the possibility there may be a God), we should expect His standard will be perfection. You and I are guilty. That is why we deserve punishment. Our very nature is a nature of self-serving rebellion. As we stand in front of the judge, there is little defense we can offer. We do (or at least think about doing) wrong or bad things each and every day. We cannot argue to God we should be given Heaven as a reward for our good behavior. To do so would be to underestimate the nature of our own fallen condition. In spite of this, God offers each and every one of us a pardon. Read the second part of Romans 6:23:

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Although we’ve earned death, God is offering us a ‘free gift’ of eternal life (in spite of our behavior). He’s offering us a pardon. God does not send good people to Hell. We deserve Hell. We send ourselves to Hell when we reject God’s free pardon.

Why Would A Loving God Send Good People to Hell?

A loving God recognizes none of us are good (even though we sometimes think we are) and in spite of this, He offers us forgiveness and a life with Him in Heaven. All of us deserve Hell. But God does not send us to Hell even though this is true. Instead, He offers to pardon us and prevent us from getting what we deserve.

Objection Six
Why Doesn’t God Reform People Rather Than Punish Them in Hell?
If God is all-loving, why doesn’t He simply “reform” people rather than allow them to continue in their sin and eventually punish them in Hell? Even human prison systems understand the value of reform; isn’t a God who punishes his children in Hell a sadistic and vengeful God? We expect a loving God would care enough about us to offer a chance to change rather than simply punish us vindictively for something we’ve done in the past. As it turns out, God (as he is described in the Bible) understands the difference between discipline and punishment, and He is incredibly patient with us, allowing us an entire lifetime to change our minds and reform our lives. This is easier to understand when we think carefully about the definitions of “discipline” and “punishment”:

Discipline Looks Forward
All of us understand the occasional necessity of disciplining our children. When we discipline, we are motivated by love rather than vengeance. We hope to change the future behavior of our kids by nudging them in a new direction with a little discomfort. God also loves His children in this way and allows them the opportunity to reform under his discipline. This takes place during our mortal lifetime; God disciplines those He loves in this life because He is concerned with eternity. Discipline, by its very definition, is “forward-looking” and must therefore occur in this world with an eye toward our eternal destiny:

Hebrews 12:9-11
Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Punishment Looks Backward
There are times as a parent, however, when our loving efforts to discipline and reform are unsuccessful; our kids are sometimes rebellious to the point of exhaustion. In these times, our love requires us to deliver on our repeated warnings. Our loving sense of justice requires us to be firm, even when it hurts us to do so. Our other children are watching us as well, and our future acts of mercy will be meaningless if we fail to act justly on wrongdoing. In times like these, we have no alternative but to punish acts occurring in the past. Punishment need not be vindictive or vengeful. It is simply the sad (but deserved) consequence awaiting those who are unwilling to be reformed in this life.

Hebrews 10:28-29
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?

God is patient. He’s given each of us a lifetime to respond to His discipline and change our mind. It cannot be said God failed to give us the opportunity to repent. When we are rebellious to the point of exhaustion, however, God has no choice but to deliver on His warnings:

Why Doesn’t God Reform People Rather Than Punish Them in Hell?

A loving God carefully disciplines and reluctantly punishes. God has given us many opportunities to acknowledge His existence and accept His offer of forgiveness. No one has an excuse.

A loving God carefully disciplines and reluctantly punishes. God has given us many opportunities to acknowledge His existence and accept His offer of forgiveness. No one has an excuse. Click To Tweet

Objection Seven
Why Would A Loving God Condemn People Who Simply Don’t Have the Chance to Hear About Jesus?
The last objection we will examine here is a concern many non-believers (and some believers) have. There are still many people in our world who have not heard about this free pardon offered by God. If faith in Christ Jesus as our Savior is needed to prevent us from getting what we clearly deserve, what about those who are not in a position to hear about Jesus? What about very young children who die before being able to hear about Jesus? Is it fair for these people to go to Hell?

The “Middle Knowledge” of God
If God is who we think He is, and if God has the power we think He has, we don’t need to worry about how He will judge us. Some Christian philosophers and thinkers (like William Lane Craig) believe God’s power extends to knowledge not only of what we will do in the future, but also what we might have done given any possible situation. Theologians refer to this as God’s “middle knowledge”; the fact God has knowledge of what every possible free creature would do under any possible set of circumstances. These Christian thinkers offer an example of this in Scripture. God knows in advance the choices the men of Keilah will make when they encountered David:

1 Samuel 23:9-13
Now David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; so he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Thy servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Thy servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Thy servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the pursuit.

God knew what these men would choose to do in any given situation. If God knows in advance what each of us will do under any possible set of circumstances, then He may choose not to send the message of Jesus Christ to certain people if He knows in advance they would simply reject it in the first place. This may be the case for those who we currently see as “unreached” (or even “unreachable”). While admittedly controversial within theological circles, the “middle knowledge” of God may be a factor here. God may not send messengers to people He knows in advance will simply reject the message.

The Grace Offered to Children
It is God’s desire for all to be saved, but clearly some will not choose to be saved. Children however, may not even have the chance to choose. What will God do with young children who have not had the opportunity to be taught about the forgiveness offered through Jesus? Well, the Bible never describes Hell as a place for children. You will not find a single description of Hell in which children are present. In fact, there may be good Biblical reason to infer God offers a special grace to young children. King David, for example, had a young baby with Uriah’s widow. This child died while still an infant, yet the Scripture affirms the notion the baby’s soul was present with the Lord after his death, in spite of the fact he was far too young to even hear about God at all:

2 Samuel 12:22-23
And he said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

We have good reason to believe David’s soul also is present with the Lord today, and David tells us his son preceded him. God appears to offer special grace to children who are not yet able to hear about Him or understand the message of Salvation. This seems consistent with the idea that God shows special mercy to those who are not yet even capable of understanding right from wrong:

Isaiah 7:14-15
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. “He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good.”

In this passage, Isaiah affirms there is a point at which young people “know enough to refuse evil and choose good”. Perhaps this is why God demonstrates his mercy with children. Young children simply cannot understand (and do not have the capacity to choose) good over evil. While all of us have a sin nature rebellious toward God, His special revelation has been given to those of us who have the ability to understand it. This also seems consistent with other Biblical passages that depict God’s Law as targeting those who were capable of understanding:

Nehemiah 8:1-3
And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

All of us are born as sinners. No one is righteous. We are all sinners from birth. But it does appear God shows special mercy toward those who simply do not have the capacity to understand. This may include those who are mentally handicapped and it may also include those children who are too young to understand the truth of God’s offer of Salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Loving and Just Character of God
God’s character and nature are the perfect blend and balance of mercy and justice. We trust God will act with justice when judging those who have never heard about Jesus. We have great confidence in the character of God. We expect God to do what is both loving and just. We know that He alone understands the heart of men and women and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him:

Hebrews 11:6-7
…He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

Given the character of God, we trust that He will deal with each of us fairly and there are good reasons to believe this includes those who we might think are unable to understand the Gospel:

Why Would A Loving God Condemn People Who Simply Don’t Have the Chance to Hear About Jesus?

A loving God knows the heart of each of us. He knows who will accept Him and who will reject Him, even if this is not clear to us from our limited perspective. God is gracious and just. He will deal with everyone fairly as His character and nature demand.

God is gracious and just. He will deal with everyone fairly as His character and nature demand. Click To Tweet

Christian claims related to the existence and nature of Hell can be defended both from the Biblical text and from reasonable, rational philosophical arguments. As Christian Case Makers, we should be prepared to offer both lines of defense. To help you in this regard, I’ve prepared a free downloadable Bible Insert briefly summarizing these defenses. You can find it at the link in the right column at the homepage.

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.

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