The Doctrine of Hell: Apologetic Problems

This is the second in a five-part series on the doctrine of hell. Click here for part one.

For many people, the doctrine of hell presents an apologetic problem for Christians. Skeptics say that believing in hell is “morally reprehensible” and that the doctrine of hell makes God a “barbaric, moral monster, the worst being ever to exist.”

The objections are serious—and loudly proclaimed by most of our society. We need to have a ready answer. Below are some of the most common apologetic objections that I’ve encountered.

1. Objection: God is too loving to send someone to hell.

Eliminating hell actually makes for a very narrow view of the love of God. Imagine that a child molester came to our church and I said to him, “Bro, we love and accept you. Please work in our kids ministry!” That isn’t loving, or if it is, it’s loving in a very narrow and unhealthy way.

How we feel about child molesters is, in a small way, how God feels about our sin. Good works in an overall posture of rebellion are disgusting to him, just like it would be for us to watch a child molester tip a bellhop on his way to molest our children. We simply do not understand “the sinfulness of sin,” as the Puritans used to say. For sinful humans to enter into God’s presence would be like a tissue paper touching the surface of the sun.

If God let us into heaven as we are, we’d turn heaven into the mess the world is in. All the injustice in the world is a result of our sin. We love the wrong. We reject God’s authority, which amounts to cosmic treason. We are idolaters who put ourselves in the center, not God.

Sin is like a cancer, eating out the insides of the human race. No patient wants a doctor who is tolerant of their cancer; we want a doctor who hates it. Neither can God lovingly accept us in our sinful condition. He loves us too much to allow things that will destroy us to thrive. But he also loves his glory too much to allow us to trample on it. In our celebration of God’s love, we must never forget the thunderbolt of his glory.

2. Objection: Hell is too extreme of a punishment for the crime.

I’ve heard people object a lot, “The idea of hell is unjust. A finite sin, followed by infinite punishment? That’s simply not fair.” What we often fail to comprehend is that our sin was against an infinite God, and justice required an infinite punishment. Hell is a very clear statement to us about the greatness and majesty of God. A lot of theologians think they’re doing God a favor by lessening hell, but what they’re doing is diminishing the greatness of God.

We think hell is severe because we don’t think trampling on the glory of God is that big of a deal. We think the big deal in the universe is us. I know this is horribly offensive to us as humans who think the universe is all about us. It isn’t. This whole Creation is a theatre to the only true, good, all-powerful One, God. He is the big deal in the universe and everything works to his glory. Hell itself is a permanent monument to the greatness of his name.

3. Objection: I’m basically a decent person.

One of the reasons I think we often react so strongly against the idea that God allows some people to go to hell is that we don’t really believe we ourselves are worthy of hell. The more we are persuaded of our own righteousness, the more the question of God’s justice troubles us.

I have found, however, that the more I sense the noose of God’s judgment rightly around my own neck, the more that I am amazed at the greatness of God’s mercy rather than the severity of his justice. The cross is God’s verdict on the sinfulness of humanity. Only when I first see myself as absolutely worthy of hell, then I am ready to understand the magnanimity of God’s grace.

Only when we see ourselves as worthy of hell can we see how glorious the cross is, which was the clearest picture of God’s majestic greatness and love reaching down to the depths of our depraved wickedness. You can’t really appreciate the cross until you accept hell. Most Christians don’t weep at the cross because they don’t really feel God’s verdict of condemnation on their souls.

4. In the end, God’s wisdom is far above our own.

If God is real, he is infinite in both power and wisdom. Think about how great God’s power is above ours. He spoke the worlds into existence, and he created the nebulae and the planets and the stars and the complexities of the atom—all of this with just a word! In one strand of DNA there is encoded enough information to fill up 500 sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. You and I have problems getting our DVD player to work right with our cable box!

Now, if God’s wisdom is also infinite, that means his wisdom is as high above yours as his power is above yours. Does it not make sense that a lot of stuff about him may not make sense to you?

One of the reasons people in our culture have trouble believing in God is because we talk about him with so little a sense of wonder and awe at his majesty. Charles Misner, one of Einstein’s students, once wrote about Einstein’s lack of interest in religion:

“The design of the universe is very magnificent and should not be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religions, although he struck me as basically a very religious man. Einstein must have looked at what the preacher said about God and felt that they were blaspheming! He had seen more majesty than he had ever imagined in the creation of the universe and felt the God they were talking about couldn’t have been the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that the churches he had run across did not have proper respect for the Author of the Universe.”

The point here is not that the answers to the hard questions do not exist, or that we should not seek them. They do and we should. But a lot of our apologetic questions might disappear if we ever reckoned with how large God is. There comes a point where the mouth must stop and the knee must bow.

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