A Rationale for Hell
And the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land.’ (Genesis 6:7)
Most unbelievers I know trip over the Biblical doctrine of God’s wrath and hell. They ask, ‘How can I possibly believe in and worship a God who would send people to hell? I thought he is loving and forgiving. If this is the Christian God, then count me out.’ God tells Noah in the passage cited above that he plans to blot out, utterly annihilate the entire human race and every living thing through a universal flood. This is not the only time he planned to destroy large groups of people (Gen. 18:17ff, Exod. 32:9ff, Num. 16:21ff, 2 Pet. 3:10).
To understand God’s wrath we must begin at the beginning. In Genesis 1 we read that God created all things out of nothing. He simply spoke and everything came into being within a space of six, literal twenty-four hour days. After the days of creation he said, ‘It is good,’ and after creating man he said, ‘It is very good.’ God did not create us because he was lonely and needed someone with whom he could talk. He was perfectly content in the three persons of his godhead. He created us as a manifestation of his love, kindness, and benevolence, making mankind, the crown of his creation, vice regents (ruling the world in his place). He called mankind to subdue the earth and to rule over it, to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, God created man, as the Shorter Catechism says, ‘To glorify him (to make him look good in all we think, do, and say) and to enjoy him forever.’ Furthermore, as a reflection of his loving benevolence, in the garden he gave Adam and Eve freedom to choose. They could eat of any tree in the garden except one – the tree of knowing good and evil. To eat from this tree would be sin because it would mark man’s independence from God. Instead of trusting and obeying God and how he said we ought to live; to eat from the tree of knowing good and evil would prove man to be prideful and selfish, believing that he knew a better way.
The moment Adam ate from the tree everything went south very quickly. He tries to blame Eve for his disobedience. Do you have any doubt that this immediately put a rift in their relationship! Next we read of Cain murdering his brother Abel because his own deeds were evil. We then read of how quickly the ungodly line of Cain plunged further and further into wickedness. Lamech had two wives (sensuality and adultery) and he murdered many men, boasting of it to any who would listen. And it appears that by the time of Genesis 6 the wicked line of Cain has utterly destroyed, murdered, all the godly line of Seth except for Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their wives. Is there any reason to doubt, therefore, God’s pronouncement in Genesis 6:5 when he says that he saw a pervasive, inward, outward, and continuous depravity upon the earth!
‘Okay,’ you may say, ‘I can see why these wicked Cainites needed to be annihilated, experiencing the full force of God’s wrath, but we live in a different world today, don’t we? Why can’t God just forgive all of us? I thought that was his job?’ The answer to this is four-fold. First, the wrath of God on sin and sinners is driven by his love. A father who finds that his four year old daughter has been sexually molested, murdered, and dismembered will be filled with wrath and vengeance. Hopefully he will be able to resist his natural tendency to take matters into his own hands, but still, his desire for justice is natural. Why does he feel this way? Because he loves his daughter! The opposite of love is not anger, rather it is indifference. A man who does not care does not love. How much more so with God! He was filled with wrath at the Cainites because they did violence to the crown of his creation, those whom he loved supremely. Still you may say, ‘I resent the notion of God’s wrath.’ People or nations which have been unjustly treated, suffering genocide, typically have no problem at all believing in the wrath and vengeance of God. People in Papua New Guinea, who until the gospel came in, routinely murdered each other at random. Papua families of murdered victims would have no problem believing in a God of vengeance. They, however, would probably resent the command of Jesus to love their enemies. That would seem culturally irrelevant and repugnant to them. At the end of the day, the resentment of our culture or the Papua culture about God’s ways is not the issue. What matters is what God says.
Okay, maybe you are now willing to concede that really wicked people like Hitler and Idi Amin deserve hell, but not the rest of us. Aren’t most of us pretty good? Why would God send nice people to hell? He does so because we deserve it. ‘What? Really? I am not that bad.’ The root of all sin (going back to Adam in the garden eating from the tree of knowing good and evil) is pride. Man simply thinks he knows what is best and he decides to go his own way. This pride quickly reveals itself in selfishness, and therein is our problem. Selfishness always leads to suffering. You do not sin in a vacuum. When, in my pride and selfishness, I speak rudely to my wife it hurts her. It demeans her as the Imago Dei (the image of God). And because God created us to live out his love and benevolence to others, failure to do so harms them and incenses God. Remember – God’s wrath is fuelled or driven by his love.
God also sends people to hell because they desire it. You probably know a few totally self-absorbed people who believe the universe revolves around their little lives. Their pride and selfishness, if unchecked by the regenerating work of the Spirit, will grow progressively worse throughout their lives to the point that they are utterly miserable. They are unbearable. You hate to be with them. They are consumed with themselves. In his pride and selfishness such a man is on an eternal trajectory away from the presence of God, and that is hell. When the Bible speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth it means at least two things. First, in weeping, the damned finally know their foolishness and they weep over their loss of heaven. But second, in the gnashing of teeth they are filled with anger and hatred toward God. They are so consumed with sin and unrighteousness that the very presence of God infuriates them beyond measure. They are going to hell, and that’s what they want. The problem, of course, is that the misery and hate they foisted on others will be turned against them for eternity.
And finally, people go to hell because in their pride they reject the marvellous overtures of God’s grace. In Matthew 21:33ff, in addressing the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus tells them a parable about a man who bought a piece of land, planted a vineyard, constructed a wall and winepress, rented the land to tenants, and then went on a journey. At the harvest time the land owner sent his workers to collect the rent due him. These wicked tenants beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. The land owner sent more servants and the same thing happened. Finally, believing they would respect his son, he sent him and they murdered the son also. Then Jesus asked what the scribes and Pharisees thought the land owner ought to do to these wicked tenant farmers. They responded by saying, ‘”He will bring those wretches to a wretched end.’ They then realized that Jesus was speaking of them and they sought to kill him.
The simple fact is that God has so graciously dealt with each of us. He has given us a wonderful country, freedom, health, jobs, the ability to acquire and enjoy wealth, just like the tenant farmers in the parable. He only wants his due – our worship and obedience. But in pride and selfishness we have gone our own way and acted murderously to our spouses, children, parents, neighbours, friends, and enemies. However in our pervasive, inward, outward, and continuous depravity he has sent us his Son, the glorious Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is able and willing to save us. Those who reject such a marvellous overture of grace live at the zenith of folly. To live in this world while rejecting God’s one and only Son will get you exactly what you deserve. Will you not, therefore, flee to the only refuge, the lover of your soul, the kind and gracious Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ!
And if you have already done so, bow in wonder and amazement that he would bestow mercy and grace upon your soul. And can you not, therefore, argue from the greater to the lesser – remembering that if he has done this great and glorious work of salvation, then surely he can and will meet your every need on this earth? You need not fear. Look daily to the great Saviour of sinners, the Lamb of God, our Rock and Redeemer, the only One in whom we can find safety.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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