As Christians present the gospel, they are often confronted by difficult philosophical quagmires that they cannot find their way to wriggle out of. Not the least of these is the issue of Hell. Would a loving God send anyone to Hell? So the skeptic will ask. For the Christian, when presenting the gospel message will emphasize two things: God’s love. He loves you so much that he sent his Son to be the sacrifice for your sins. Yet out of the other side of their mouth, they will emphasize that God is a righteous judge, and you are headed for Hell. But wait a moment, if God loves me so much, why would he send me to Hell? Would a loving God send anybody to Hell? Yet we find both of these truths in Scripture. So how do they reconcile?
Hell is penal – it is a punishment for sin. Consider the court of law. A righteous judge will send somebody to prison to suffer the consequences for the crimes that they have committed. If the judge were to just let a guilty criminal go, he would a corrupt and immoral judge, and he would deserve to be brought to justice himself. God is not a corrupt or immoral judge, and therefore, he punishes people for their sins. That is why works are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and by works, no flesh shall be justified (Romans 3:20). No matter how many good works we accrue, we will always have to answer for the crimes that we have already committed. If we tell a righteous judge that we have done good things too, they will reply that we deserve to be punished for the sins that we already committed. Good works are good, but they cannot save you from the punishment that you rightly deserve.
In response to this, many will say that the judges’ work is redemptive rather than penal. The judge will send somebody to prison so that they will become a better person, a contributor to society, and recover from their life of crime. However I am not compelled to think that all punishment is solely redemptive. Let’s suppose for a moment that a man raped a child, only once, and decided afterwards that he would never do it again. He turned away from his crime, and stepped onto the path of righteousness. Should that man be sent to prison? There is no redemptive work to be done. If he is sent to prison, it would be only for penal reasons. The honest reader will concede that he ought to be sent to prison.
We need to balance God’s attributes. A universalist is a person who thinks that God is so loving that he would never send anybody to Hell. Their emphasis is squarely on God’s love. But this emphasis on God’s love seems to be to the exclusion of his righteousness. Although, in the other corner are often those who emphasize God’s righteousness to the exclusion of his love. They will argue that God is so righteous that he must send everybody to Hell. So one group emphasizes God’s love, and the other emphasizes his righteousness. They two groups are standing in each others’ face arguing with each other.
I think that this is why Theology Proper, the study of the attributes of God, is so important. If somebody discards God’s love, they are guilty of idolatry. If somebody discards God’s righteousness, they are guilty of idolatry. We need both of these attributes. We cannot say that God is so loving that he will not send anybody to Hell, because then we discard his righteousness. God is righteous, so he must punish sin. We cannot say that one attribute is, in any sense, greater than another, or overpowers another. God is perfect in every conceivable way. He is perfectly righteous and perfectly loving. Yet his perfect righteousness entails that he will send men to Hell for their sins, and his perfect love entails that he will not send anyone to Hell. Where does that leave us?
The Cross of Christ. Jesus called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). I think the cross is a worthy of consideration for this sort of dialogue. Jesus was godforsaken on the cross but he was still loved by the Father. He bore the penalty that we deserve (1 John 2:2). Three days later, he rose from the dead. We are guilty before a righteous God, and Jesus Christ paid our fine. That is why it pleased YHWH to crush him (Isaiah 53:10), because his perfect love was on display on the cross. God is just, because he poured out his wrath on Christ. God is love, because all men can freely come to him and be born again. Yet even if a person denies substitionary atonement, Jesus still died on the cross, by the will of the Father. He was still forsaken, and yet still loved.
I think that the universalist perspective is unbalanced. While the universalist will say that a loving God will not send anybody to Hell, another person could stand in the other corner and say that righteous God would not allow anybody into Heaven. We cannot limit God to only love or only righteousness. If we lose one of these attributes, we commit idolatry (not that I am accusing the universalist of idolatry). But when we look to the cross, we see the nexus of love and righteousness. After all, if a loving God would allow his only Son to be slaughtered, what will happen when a guilty sinner, uncovered by the atonement of the cross, falls into the hands of that same God?
Would a loving God send anyone to Hell? This question is fatally misstated. I could equally ask if a righteous God would send anybody to Heaven, and again, it would be fatally misstated. The question is if a perfect, holy, righteous, loving, powerful, wise God would send anybody to Hell. The answer is yes. Would the same allow anybody into Heaven? The answer is yes. We see God’s wrath and God’s love at the cross. Look to the cross.
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