Since we’re going to talk about hell, my mind immediately goes to country music. For those who are offended, please know that I’m at least partially joking. I do loathe country music, though. You need to know this.
Let’s imagine for a moment that someone (clearly someone who doesn’t know me) has tasked me with the job of compiling a list of the best country music songs ever, and to use these to create an entire experience for a country music fan. I’ll need to know all about boot scootin’ and whatever other unsightly things country music fans would enjoy. I’m going to fail miserably at this job. I wouldn’t have it in me. Liking country music goes against my character, my principles, and all that is decent and right in the world.
That’s a silly illustration, but now I have a serious question. How can we say that a good and loving God can create a place as awful and horrible as hell? Wouldn’t we have to say that such an awful place is outside the character of God?
To answer this we’ll ask the who, what, how, and why of hell.
What Is Hell?
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss in depth the various metaphors and such used of hell. There are theological questions about how literal we should take some of the descriptions. There are even discussions about whether or not hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. Those are great discussion to have, but they fall outside the scope of this question.
According to Scripture, Hell is portrayed as a place of eternal separation from the goodness of God. If God is present (and I would say He is), then He is present in judgment. Hell is often described as a lake of fire, outer darkness, or a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Revelation 20:14-15 paints a vivid picture: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
For our purpose today we can simply say that hell is a place of judgment, where the wages of sin (death) are paid. Hell is a place of separation from the goodness of God, and all the good which He has created. How could we say that God could create such an awful place? We begin to answer this question when we consider who hell is for.
Who Is Hell For?
In Matthew 25:41 Jesus speaks of judgment from the Son of Man, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'” We see here that hell was originally created (or prepared) for the devil and his angels. It was not originally created for humanity. But we read in Revelation 21:8, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
It appears that this “lake of fire” prepared for the devil and his angels, becomes the destiny of some of humanity — those who continue to live in rebellion. Hell was initially prepared for spiritual entities (like fallen angels), but those who persist in rebellion against God place their lot with those who reject the goodness of God. Therefore, we might also say that hell becomes the destination of unrepentant human beings. What C.S. Lewis said on this point should be considered as well:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find to those who knock, it is opened.”
Why Would a Loving God Create Hell?
C.S. Lewis wasn’t a fan of the doctrine of hell, but admitted that it’s in Scripture. Lewis had difficulty with our central question — how can a loving God create hell? But part of his answer, and what has helped me, is to think through the nature of hell.
Hell is for those who harm and refuse to stop harming. I appreciate how Joe Rigney (with a bit of help from Lewis) depicts hell:
“Hell is an everlasting ruin, a decay, crumbling, retreating into yourself, a loss of all rationality and joy, a plunging into misery. But, it’s a self-plunging. It’s a gnawing and an ache, but it’s oriented inward, downward into the abyss.”
If we think about hell being the sad result of humanity pitting itself against God and goodness, then it inspires me to change the question. Rather than asking “How could a good God create hell,” I now ask “How could he not?” It is here that God’s justice and holiness are on display. A loving and holy God will hate all that goes against His good creation and harms goodness.
Every analogy falls apart at some point, but it’s helpful to think about this in more familiar terms. If there is an evil man who is doing harm to my daughter, and the only way for me to protect her is to bring suffering to this man, then it is not only okay, it is morally necessary. I’m not arguing here for bloodthirstiness, but rather to help us reframe the nature of hell. It is for those who harm and will continue to choose harm. It is just, then, for a loving God to separate them from all that is good.
To use the words of Lewis, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” The devil and his angels — and all those who choose the second death instead of redemption — will continually choose this path. It is good for God to separate evil and wickedness from His perfect kingdom.
How Can I Avoid Hell?
Scripture tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” The list in Revelation 21:8 isn’t reserved for those who are especially wicked. It’s all of us. When Adam and Eve took the bite of the forbidden fruit, humanity was plunged into ruin. We were kicked out of the Garden — a symbol of humanity being cast out of God’s good presence.
Thankfully, ruin isn’t the end of the story. God has given us a plan of redemption. Jesus became a man, the second Adam, so that where humanity was once destined for ruin, we are now given hope of a future. Jesus takes us back to the Garden — back into the presence of God. When we are united to Jesus, then His destiny becomes our destiny.
Simply speaking, we avoid hell by changing teams. If we cast our lot with those who oppose God, who continue to perpetuate harm, who refuse to unite to Jesus by grace through faith, then we’re making our decision for hell. That’s our “team” of origin. Yet, we’re commanded by God to repent (change teams) and unite ourselves to the kingdom of His beloved Son. When this happens, the promises of Revelation 21:1-7 become ours — instead of the destination of the demonic.
Did God create hell?
Simply put, yes. He created hell as a place for those who would perpetually harm, who would trample His glory, besmirch goodness, and wreak havoc upon the beauty of God’s good creation. And when humanity joined sides with evil — this became our lot. Thankfully, God has made a way for us to not only avoid hell, but to be restored to the goodness and glory which we were originally created to enjoy.
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