When Rob Bell released his book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, he capitalized on the historic controversy surrounding the existence and nature of hell. Critics of Christianity have cited the hell’s existence as evidence against the loving nature of God, and Christians have sometimes struggled to respond to the objection. Why would a loving God create a place like Hell? Wouldn’t a God who would send people to a place of eternal punishment and torment be considered unloving by definition?
The God of the Bible is described as loving, gracious and merciful (this can be seen in many places, including 1 John 4:8-9, Exodus 33:19, 1 Peter 2:1-3, Exodus 34:6 and James 5:11). The Bible also describes God as holy and just, hating sin and punishing sinners (as seen in Psalm 77:13, Nehemiah 9:33, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7, Psalms 5:5-6, and Matthew 25:45-46). It’s this apparent paradox reveals something about the nature of love and the necessity of Hell:
Mercy Requires Justice
When a judge pardons an unrepentant rapist without warrant, we don’t typically see this as an act of love, particularly when we consider the rights of the victim (and the safety of potential future victims). Mercy without justice is reckless, meaningless and dangerous. True love cares enough to punish wrongdoing. For this reason, a God of love must also be a God of justice, recognizing, separating and punishing wrongdoers. Hell is the place where God’s loving justice is realized and executed.
Freedom Requires Consequence
True love cannot be coerced. Humans must have freedom in order to love, and this includes the freedom to reject God altogether. Those who do not want to love God must be allowed to reject him without coercion. Those who don’t want to be in God’s presence must be allowed to separate themselves from Him if their “free will” is to be respected. God’s love requires the provision of human freedom, and human “free will” necessitates a consequence. Hell is the place where humans who freely reject God experience the consequence of their choice.
Victory Requires Punishment
All of us struggle to understand why evil exists in the world. If there is an all-powerful and all-loving God, this God (by His very nature) has the power and opportunity to conquer and punish evil. If God is both powerful and loving, He will eventually be victorious. God’s victory over evil will be achieved in mortality or eternity. God has provided a mechanism though which evil will be permanently conquered and punished in the next life. Hell is the place where an all-loving and all-powerful God will ultimately defeat and punish evil.
The loving nature of God requires justice if it is to be meaningful, and the justice of God requires punishment if it is to be fair. At the same time, human freedom must result in a consequence if it is to be significant, and the consequence for evil actions must ultimately be appropriate if God is to be just. Finally, the power of God necessitates victory, and eternal victory requires an eternal mode of punishment. The paradox of God’s love and justice necessitates the existence of Hell. God’s love does not compel Him to eliminate the necessary punishment and consequence for sin, but instead compels Him to offer us a way to avoid this consequence altogether. By offering forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (who took our punishment), God demonstrated His love for us. It cannot be said that a loving God would never create a place like Hell if that same God has provided us with a way to avoid it.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.