By L. Alfred James
“I could never believe in a God who sends people to hell forever. That accomplishes nothing good at all!” I’ve heard this statement, or something just like it, in very scholarly of settings (during a formal debate) and in informal settings (chatting at a coffee shop). It stems from a legitimate appreciation for the grace of God. However, it reflects a serious failure to think carefully about the relationship between mercy and justice.
God is Good
There are several hidden assumptions in this statement. Foremost among them is this: “If there is a loving and good God, he will dispense justice in a way that I can understand.”
But how realistic is this? Do we really think that the mere fact that God is merciful means that we will always understand his ways? We can’t even fully understand the human body, time, consciousness, or the nature of matter (just take a look at quantum physics). Many of the things that we experience on a daily basis are deeply mysterious to us. Thus, how much more will God be mysterious to us?
Moreover, just because God is good, this does not mean that he is not harsh. This line of thinking prompted C.S. Lewis to ask, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?” If a dentist can be stern in bringing health to a patient’s mouth, how much more will God be stern in executing perfect justice?
The assumption that God’s loving nature is somehow incompatible with his justice is simply mistaken. Indeed, this was the assumption of the convicted (and guilty) criminal who confidently strode up the judge for his sentencing: “Your honor, I’m not afraid to be sentenced by you. I know that you are a good judge, so I know you’ll be merciful to me.” The judge’s response? “You’re right. I am good. And because I’m good I’m sentencing you to the death penalty.”
We Only See One Side Of The Problem
The problem with the typical American view of hell is that we only look at one side of the problem. We only think it is a problem for a loving God to send people to hell. But we never seem to think it is a problem for a just God to send sinners to heaven.
That is, we are very disturbed by the fact that God, in his justice (condemning sinners to hell) does not seem loving and gracious. But we are not bothered by the fact that God, in his love and grace (taking sinners to heaven) does not seem just. Why do we have this one-sided view of things?
Think of it: if God is perfectly just, how could he send people to heaven? Does he not care about justice?
Strangely enough, this is a problem for people in several other cultures. For instance, to many who are raised as Muslims, Jews, or Hindus, the idea of God pardoning a sinner is repulsive. They stumble at the thought of a God who is so gracious that he could forgive someone of murder, rape, or blasphemy.
This should give us pause. Perhaps we are letting our cultural perspective determine our theology? Tim Keller captures this well:
In one of my after-service discussions a woman told me that the very idea of a judging God was offensive. I said, “Why aren’t you offended by the idea of a forgiving God?” She looked puzzled. I continued, “I respectfully urge you to consider your cultural location when you find the Christian teaching about hell offensive.” I went on to point out that secular Westerners get upset by the Christian doctrines of hell, but they find Biblical teaching about turning the other cheek and forgiving enemies appealing. I then asked her to consider how someone from a very different culture sees Christianity. In traditional societies the teaching about “turning the other cheek” makes absolutely no sense. It offends people’s deepest instincts about what is right. For them the doctrine of a God of judgment, however, is no problem at all. That society is repulsed by aspects of Christianity that Western people enjoy, and are attracted by the aspects that secular Westerners can’t stand. Why, I concluded, should Western cultural sensibilities be the final court in which to judge whether Christianity is valid? I asked the woman gently whether she thought her culture superior to non-Western ones. She immediately answered “no.” “Well then,” I asked, “why should your culture’s objections to Christianity trump theirs?”1
The things we dislike about God’s justice, the things we find so uncomfortable, are the very things that some other cultures find most appealing about Christianity. And the things that they find so uncomfortable are the very things we find most appealing. Again, this should give us pause. We should, at the very least doubt our doubts. For many of the problems we have with Christianity are not intellectual, they are cultural.
The good news is that God has solved both problems by sending Jesus Christ to the cross. Christ’s sacrifice shows the world how much God hates sin. It is the perfect expression of justice. But it also shows the world how much God loves sinful human beings. It is the perfect expression of love. As Romans 3:25-26 say:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Notice that last sentence. The cross enables God to be both just and the justifier of those who trust in Christ. He can be both perfectly just and perfectly gracious. In the cross of Christ God’s justice and mercy sing together in perfect harmony.
1. Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.