The other day, my professor at ACTS Seminaries, Paul Chamberlain, asked me to sit on a panel and answer questions from the audience following a talk on Hell given by one of our graduates. Thankfully, a New Testament scholar was on my left, and the man who had given the talk was on my right! Nonetheless, I did have a couple of unique things to say, and I thought I would flesh-out one of my answers here.
The question was, “If I’m a good person, and I don’t believe in God, would he still send me to Hell just because I didn’t believe in Him?”
This is a loaded question, because it paints God in a very dark light from the start. Frankly, it makes God look petty, egotistical, and even spiteful – almost like He would be enacting a sort of prideful revenge on these hapless, innocent people who simply didn’t think there was a good reason to believe in Him. Now, my answer to this question tries to paint a personal – even emotional – picture of the matter. But before I get to it, I should acknowledge a number of “standard” responses:
- The Bible doesn’t allow for the possibility that there are actually any “good people.” God’s standard is the only one that matters, and the best of us still utterly fall short.
Romans 3:10 – 18:
“There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
- The fact is, you cannot actually think of the true God while at the same time putting yourself over Him and judging Him, because if you’re looking over someone’s shoulder, that person cannot be God. God, by definition, is higher than you; He looks over your shoulder!
- God is a gentleman, and while sin is a self-destructive choice, it is still your self-destructive choice to make; God will not force your hand. The person who goes to Hell has chosen him or herself over God, and there are consequences for that choice. Someone who chooses drunkenness all the time does not want the self-destructive end of that choice, but they still wanted to be drunk each and every time.
- The “C. S. Lewis” answer is essentially that Hell is locked from the inside: those in Hell would not want to be in Heaven, because they hate God so much, and God respects that – He gives them what they want: to be separated from Him.
- Many are quick to say, “What kind of an all-loving God would ever send anyone to Hell?” Of course, they rarely ask the other side of the question: “How could a perfectly just God allow any evil person into Heaven?” The resolution to this problem requires an understanding of what happened on the Cross of Christ: the perfect love and perfect holy justice of God intersected on the Cross. He is the God who underwent the greatest humiliation in all of history, suffering and dying for the sins of the world. Only the true, perfectly-just God could demand justice for my sins; only the true, all-loving God could and would pay the price.
Okay, so, sometimes these answers fail to really “do it” for me. They feel a little hollow at times, and I’m not sure that they really connect with people all the time. We always put a face on the issue, and imagine a “good person” who is the victim of God. But there are at least two faces on this issue – Man’s and God’s. So, here is an answer that I believe is an original one of my own (if I didn’t come up with it, then I heard it so long ago that I don’t remember hearing it).
Suppose you had a son, and that he was perfect. I mean really perfect: he voted for all the parties you wanted him to; he made perfect grades in school; he did well at his job and earned a substantial income; he was well-respected in the community, and had married a wonderful, confident woman. Everything he set his hand to caused you to delight in him, and you could not be more proud.
Now, suppose that in spite of all of this, your son wanted nothing to do with you. Maybe he disagreed with a choice you made; maybe he was angry with you. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care to have anything to do with you – maybe a lack of time, or perhaps he was ignorant of you and your desire to connect with him. But in any case, suppose that he completely ignored your every effort to communicate, and taught his children that you didn’t even exist.
The question is, Would you consider him to be a good son?
And moreover, Would it be loving of you to force your way into his life anyway? If he utterly rejected you, would it be loving and just to force yourself on him?
You see where I’m going with this: regardless of your son’s perfection, he still would not be a good son. This is because you don’t simply want moral perfection from him – you want relationship; you want proper acknowledgement and involvement.
Well, in the same way, I would argue that even a perfectly moral human being (although such a thing is impossible) is still only a good human being if they relate properly to God. And that we, as humans, need this relationship with God for our eternal well-being. Sin is both disease and crime; it is both moral disability and moral crime. We are both victims and perpetrators. Sin is a spiritual cancer with eternal consequences and we need God to get out of this predicament.
“But that’s not fair!” you might say, “everyone knows they have a father – it’s obvious! But we don’t know we have a God!” And to this I would reply that we ought to know we have a God, because there is a wealth of evidence for Him – just as you ought to know you have an earthly father, even if you had never met him. As a species, we should know that we have a God. Romans 1:18-25 relates this idea, saying that we have turned from the Creator to focusing on the creation:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honour Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonoured among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Now, what is this evidence? That is another matter for another time. But the point here is that if the Bible is to be believed, we also have a sort of moral blindness about us; we tend to see moral issues as we want to see them, and we avoid admitting our fault. In verse 24 you can see that God is a gentleman who will not force Himself onto people who reject Him; however, He will not prevent them from experiencing the consequences of their actions.
In conclusion, I’ve tried to show that we are not being good people simply by being decent toward one another, because if God exists and we ignore Him, then we are being incredibly indecent toward Him. If we have a Creator who made us to know Him and enjoy Him, then we quite literally fail at the whole of existence if we ignore Him – that is what is at stake in this discussion.
I hope that this helps to “put a face” on the issue: God’s face.