Many people think it just doesn’t seem right that God would condemn some people to a fiery place of damnation. God is love, and eternally punishing people doesn’t quite fit with that, right? So how can a loving God send people to hell?
To begin, it would be helpful to understand where God is thought to be sending people. The majority of Americans believe in a place called hell. Many consider it a place of eternal punishment of “fire and brimstone”—like a fiery torture chamber. But is this what hell is—an eternal furnace of sorts where people are tortured forever? Just what is it?
Clarifying the Words of Scripture
To understand the teaching of Scripture we must understand when words are used literally or figuratively. If we don’t, we can easily misunderstand the teaching. Jesus referred to hell as a place where there is fire, which normally produces light (Mark 9:48). At the same time he referred to it as a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13). It seems reasonable that these words are figurative. If a literal meaning were attached to them, darkness and light from fire would cancel each other out. Jesus often used metaphors in his teachings, and here we believe he was giving a word picture of the indescribable nature of hell.
Hell is better understood by what is not there. Paul describes it as a place “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9 nasb). Try to imagine a place away from the God of relationships. A place without him is a place without relationships, without love, without joy, peace, beauty, satisfaction, contentment, acceptance, affection, fulfillment, laughter, and everything else that is called good. That would be hell—literally. A place void of all that God is would be a place of eternal aloneness—a place called hell. We believe that the “outer darkness” Jesus referred to describes this complete absence of relationship. And this eternal aloneness would be the source of indescribable anguish.
Likewise, we believe that the metaphor of eternal fire to describe hell suggests the decomposition of the soul. It describes a never-ending disintegration of all that is good in a person. Truth is, we are living souls that are becoming something. We are either becoming a person who is unselfishly loving God and others, which is real life, or we are selfishly loving ourselves, which is real death. Pastor, apologist, and author Tim Keller provides insight into this concept:
Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to perceiving bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?” Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever. 19
Jesus warned us that self-centered living would end in loss. “If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. And how do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose or forfeit your own soul in the process?” (Luke 9:24-25 nlt). A self-centered life is like existing as a living dead person.
God’s True Desire
Hell then is a place absent of relationship, which is absolute aloneness. Hell is a place of perpetual disintegration of the soul into greater and greater self-centeredness. It is hard to imagine the anguish of such a place—the absolute aloneness of the living dead. Yet is a loving God sending people to that place?
Scripture makes it clear that God “does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9). He loves the whole world and died that we might experience his presence and all the joy and goodness that brings. But he will not force us to love him and enjoy a relationship with him. So actually, God doesn’t send people to hell; they make a free choice to reject him. He forces no one into a relationship with him. And his giving humans free choice has opened up consequences that can be extremely negative. And when people choose to serve themselves instead of serving God, they ultimately choose a place void of relationship and full of self—a place called hell.
C.S. Lewis said, “All that are in hell choose it…The door to hell is locked on the inside.” 20 People make the choice to serve themselves because it is uncomfortable for them to serve God and others. Heaven—where God resides—is a place of perpetual worship and service to him (see Revelation 4). A person who has chosen a self-centered life would not tolerate heaven.
Hell is not where God wants anyone to end up. He won’t force them to choose him in order to have an eternity of joy with him. He simply offers himself as their salvation from an eternity without him. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish” ( John 11:25-26 nlt).
For a more comprehensive biblical view of hell see chapter 12, “Is Hell a Divine Torture Chamber?” in Is God Just a Human Invention?, by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Kregel Publications, 2010.
This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.