Atheist Question: “If God is loving, why does He send people to Hell?”
This is one of the top objections that atheists have when it comes to God. There are some things that the question assumes, though. It’s important that we refrain from answering the question until we realize the assumptions the question is making.
Assumptions Of The Question
First, the question assumes that God is loving. This assumption is based on what Christians teach about God: that is, that God is love and no hate. God doesn’t hate the world, but loves it according to John 3:16. John 3:16 isn’t the only verse that says as much, but it’s one of the fundamental verses of the Christian faith.
Next, the question assumes that God sends people to Hell: “why does He send people to Hell?” This question is both theological and philosophical. First, the question is philosophical because it assumes that “sending people to Hell,” as atheists say, is a cruel act. It’s cruel for a good God to do a “bad” thing, and sending people to Hell, in this mindset, is a bad thing. Atheists say that God “sending” people to Hell is not a loving act for what Christians call a “loving” God. A loving God would not torture people, or send them to a place of torment. A loving God would not send people to the worst place imaginable. Hell is worse than earth, and a loving God wouldn’t send people to the worst place imaginable.
These are the assumptions atheism makes about God, but these statements are leaving some things out of the equation.
What the question ignores
God is not only loving, but also just
The atheist mentions God as loving, but he or she forgets that God is also just. If we’re looking at Scripture to see what God says about Himself, we can’t pick the parts we like and ditch the parts we don’t. Either we take all God says about Himself or none, but we don’t get to revise God to fit what we think is acceptable. We don’t get to revise God to fit our notions of sensibility and common sense.
So, it is in the spirit of allowing God to be what He says about Himself in Scripture that we must focus on God being both loving and just.
What does it mean for God to be just?
God as Father
It means that, while God is loving, God is also a God who rewards the right and punishes the wrong. It is no different than a parent. A good parent isn’t loving to the point where he or she lets the child get away with wrong; a parent who is both loving and just loves the child but disciplines the child when necessary. There can be no love without discipline. The Apostle Paul points this out extremely well:
5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
6 For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11, NKJV)
God is called “the Father of spirits” (Hebrews 12:9), and believers His “sons.” And so, God, as Father, is disciplinarian. He chastises, as can be seen from the words “chastens” (v.6), “chastening” (v.7), “chasten” (v.7), “chastening” (v.8), “corrected” (v.9), “chastened” (v.10), and “chastening” (v.11).
As Father, God rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness. And so, God, as Father, punishes wrongdoing.
God is Judge
But God is not just Father, but also Judge. Those who do not believe in God only know Him as a judge. Those who believe in Him and love Him know God as both Father and Judge.
As Judge, God does what you would expect judges to do. What does a Judge do? He or she sentences criminals, hears cases between individuals, makes rulings that become law, that hearers have to abide by. God is a loving Father, but He also chastises His children. If God chastises His children, then surely, He chastises unbelievers. Paul writes to Jewish Christians in his letter to the Hebrews that God is Father. And yet, God is the Father of us all in the sense that He created us all. This wasn’t a point lost on the Old Testament prophets and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Malachi asks the question, “Have we not one Father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10) The truth is that the one true living God has created every human, whether they believe in Him or not.
Why is God a Judge over mankind?
Judges decide the fate of lawbreakers or criminals. And God, though He is love, is also just and the Just Judge of all the earth (see Genesis 18:25). And He is just to punish humanity because humanity transgressed (violated) God’s Law in the beginning (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12). Humanity, then, is criminal because, like criminals today, it violated God’s law. It did something illegal, by rebelling against God. And, like all criminals, a judge must sentence humanity for its crimes. For humanity’s crime of violating God’s Covenant, it must be sentenced by God, the Just Judge. The sentence is death. Man should die for his sin, but even then, God gives man a way to escape death.
God, the just judge and the justifier
Most judges sentence criminals and leave it at that. And yet, our God didn’t just sentence us, but He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, to die in our place. Romans 3 says that God, by sending Jesus to die for our sins, is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). God the Father is just in that He is right to sentence humanity to death for its crime of transgression. And yet, God is “the justifier” of the one who believes because He sends Jesus to die on humanity’s behalf. Have you ever heard of a judge sentencing someone to death and then telling the court, “instead of this young man, I’ll give my son’s life instead”? No. Thus, God is far more generous than any judge you’ll ever meet. Atheists are so quick to see the good in judges that sentence criminals. Why then, do atheists condemn God, whose generosity stretches far beyond that of any human judge?
Does God send people to Hell?
We’ve talked about God as Father and God as Judge. As Father, God disciplines and chastises when His children do wrong. As Judge, God sentences criminals (transgressors of His covenant and Law, unbelievers) to their just “reward.” Fathers are good in rewarding and punishing their children. No good father lets his children do wrong without punishing them. No good judge lets criminals go free without paying for their crimes. Atheists see fathers who punish and judges who sentence criminals as good people. Only when it comes to God do they seem to struggle with God as loving and good.
So, does God send people to Hell? No. God actually provides a choice for every human being. Every person can choose whether to accept Jesus and go to Heaven or reject Jesus and spend eternity in Hell, separated from God and in utter torment forever. And God has given this choice to every individual. This is why we see King Saul fall from grace, along with Jesus’ handpicked apostle, Judas. We see these two examples in Scripture and they are reminders of how human choice can go against the divine will. Judas was a handpicked apostle who could’ve persevered to the end. He was in an ideal position as God’s handpicked apostle. And King Saul was chosen to lead God’s people. It doesn’t get any more ideal than that. What explains the falls of these two men if not human choice?
In the end, there are many humans who will go to a place not prepared for them but for Satan and the fallen angels (Matthew 25:41). We will all be judged for the deeds that we have done in the body, both good and bad (2 Corinthians 5:10-11). Since we’re all imperfect and sinful, we need an Advocate. Jesus Christ the righteous is the Advocate for everyone, but He cannot actively advocate for sinners who reject Him and refuse to believe (1 John 2:1-2).
God so loved the world that He gave Jesus (John 3:16), but Jesus isn’t an automatic ticket to eternity with Christ. Those who want to be with God must believe on His Son. That is the requirement for salvation. And those who refuse to accept Jesus are going to Hell only because they send themselves. God is not sending them; they are choosing to go. Their reasons for choosing Hell may or may not make sense, but then and again, humans don’t always make the smartest decisions. Unfortunately, choosing the wrong paint job for one’s home and choosing your eternal fate are two different things. And a paint job doesn’t hold a candle to where you and I will spend eternity.
The reason why atheists struggle with accepting God the Father and Jesus His Son is that it requires them to not only believe in Jesus, but also to believe that God exists (“that He is,” see Hebrews 11:6). If you can’t accept the existence of God, you can’t believe in Him.