By L. Alfred James
There is no Christian doctrine that is harder to accept than the doctrine of hell. The idea of people being punished forever is extraordinarily unpleasant. And, according to the Bible, anyone who does not trust in Christ for salvation will end up in hell. In the eyes of many people this amounts to believing that “God sends good people to hell simply for having the wrong religion.”
Bad people suffering in hell forever is bad enough. But good people? How could a loving God do such a thing?
What Do We Mean By “Good”?
Most of us think of ourselves as “generally good” people. And we do this, in part, because we compare ourselves to other people. Moreover, we carefully select who those other people are. We often say, “I’m a good person. I’ve never raped anyone. I’ve never murdered anyone. I’ve never stolen anything (big).” In other words, we feel okay about ourselves because we compare ourselves to rapists, murderers, and thieves. Unsurprisingly, we end up looking pretty good in these comparisons.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a spate of sleazy talk shows that dominated the TV airwaves during the day. These shows regularly featured extended interviews with people who had done (and continued to do) extremely perverse, hateful, and violent things. Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, and dozens of other talk-show hosts made it a point to endlessly trot out the most shocking examples of human depravity they could dig up. And they did this for one simple reason, ratings. People tuned in to see it, by the millions! In fact, the more depraved the guests were, the higher their ratings soared.
I used to be puzzled about the popularity of these shows, until I had a conversation with a professor of media at a university in California. She told me about surveys that had been performed to understand the motives of those who tuned in to these talk-shows. Thousands of people were surveyed about their viewing habits, and then asked to give reasons for their preferences. Once the data were compiled, the popularity of sleazy daytime TV shows was no longer mysterious: People like to watch other people who are morally worse than themselves because it makes them feel good about themselves. The typical viewer gets to think, “I may have done some bad things in my life. I may still do some bad things. But I’ve never done anything like that!”
Thus, instead of doing good deeds to feel good about oneself, or growing in one’s relationship with God, one only needs to tune in. After an hour of listening to the uttermost depths of human depravity being vividly recounted one could immediately feel very pious and holy, and have lots of stuff to gossip about with one’s friends.
We Exaggerate How Good We Are
Several years ago nearly a million high school students were asked this question:
“How well do you get along with your peers?”
The results of the survey were shocking.
None of the students rated themselves “below average.”
None. Zero. Nobody.
Out of a million students! Not a single one said, “I’m below average in my ability to get along with others.”
In fact, 60 percent of the students believed they ranked in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent.1 Obviously, that is not mathematically possible. But that’s how we think about ourselves.
I know what some of you are thinking: “Well, high school students can be really naïve. That doesn’t have much to do with mature adults.”
Okay, then let’s talk about college professors. We can assume that they would be much more objective and realistic, right? In a major survey, college professors were asked about their abilities as a professor. 10 percent said they were average, 63 percent said they were above average, and 25 percent think their work is “truly exceptional.” 25 percent? You can’t have 25 percent of anything being “truly exceptional” unless you change the definition to mean “rather common.” 2
Again, this is mathematically impossible. But it’s the way that we think of ourselves.
One scholar summarized our view of ourselves this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”3
Is Good Just Relative?
So, when it comes to deciding who is a good person, we should be skeptical about trusting our own judgements about who is a good person. We have a strong tendency to make our judgments relative to warped people and we have a strong tendency to skew the data. We have an exaggerated sense of our own goodness and worth.
This shows us that we simply cannot measure our goodness by comparing ourselves to other human beings. That gives a very distorted standard of goodness. This tendency to compare ourselves to other human beings is what Jesus was criticizing when the rich young ruler ran up to him and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking another question,
“Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
This young ruler was assuming that Jesus is merely a human religious teacher. And if Jesus were merely human, it would not be accurate to call him good. That is why Jesus corrects him. The ruler does not perceive Jesus’ divinity. Instead, he is using the word good in a human (relative) sense.
But Jesus insists we should use the word in an absolute sense. We should understand that there is no (merely) human being who is good. Only God is good. This is also what Paul was getting at in Romans when he said, “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). On the biblical worldview, the good person is someone who has never sinned in any way for their entire life. The good person is the one who has kept God’s law perfectly and has continually loved God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
In other words, there are no good people. Everyone is a sinner. Everyone has violated God’s law repeatedly. If you think that you are an exception, and think that you have kept God’s law, just consider whether or not you have ever lived up even to your own standards of conduct. Every human being has a conscience that tells them that there have been times, in the past, in which they have violated their own standards of right and wrong. C.S. Lewis puts it aptly:
The moralities accepted among men may differ—though not, at bottom, so widely as is often claimed—but they all agree in prescribing a behaviour which their adherents fail to practice. All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt.4
Everyone knows that they have violated their own sense of right and wrong; that is, they have violated moral rules that they accept as appropriate standards of behavior.
Well, it is absolutely certain that God’s standards are higher than our own standards. Thus, if you’ve failed to keep your own standards, it is certain that you have failed to keep God’s. This means that you realistically cannot call yourself “good.” The only way you can call yourself good is to only compare yourself to other human beings and not question if you possibly have an exaggerated sense of your own goodness and worth.
So, to answer the question, “Does God send good people to hell?” the answer is quite plain: No. There are no good people. We are all guilty.
1. Mark McMinn, Care For the Soul, 315. Stephen Moroney wrote the article
2. Mark McMinn, Why Sin Matters: The Surprising Relationship Between Our Sin and God’s Grace, 70.
3. Richard L. Berke, “The Nation: Scandalous Opinions; Clinton’s O.K. in the Polls, Right?” The New York Times. February 15, 1998.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 12.