How does a God of love send people to hell and eternal suffering? Is sin really that bad?
On July 8, I ended a lecture to about ten students around noon, and, despite having a busy afternoon ahead, I decided to invite the students out for lunch. Surprisingly, only two of them were able to attend. When the food arrived, one of the students asked me if he could give thanks for the food. I was extremely surprised and thrilled with such a request and so, after he prayed, we had a five minute discussion on how both of us were saved. The other student listened very quietly to the conversation until he finally got the courage to speak. He described his religious church-going practices but also his struggles with what he had been taught. He said, “All my church wants is my money.” He went on to say that he was certain God was interested in something much more than that. He then began to ask us a few questions and, having gotten to know this young man, I could see that he was sincere with his inquiries. I felt that the lunch had been so amazingly planned by God for the sole purpose of presenting the gospel. That little experience reinforced in me the importance of being ready to answer questions like the ones we have here in this article.
In looking back at that experience with those two students at lunch, it was very important to see sincerity in the young man. If someone is insincere and is only trying to trip us up, or mock the truth, then we should be very careful with our response. We do not have the same perfect discernment as our Lord, but He has given us His Spirit Who guides us in these situations, if we ask. In Matthew 7:6, the Lord taught, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” An insincere person will use your answer simply to create an attack against you. On another occasion in Matthew 21, the Lord responded to a question with another question when the chief priests asked Him the source of His authority. The Lord’s response proved that they were not genuine. We know that the Lord knows the thoughts of the heart and so He did not need to carry out this test for His own needs, but rather as a lesson to us in discernment before we speak. When parents or young believers are dealing with challenging or misleading questions like we have here, then the first test must be to discern the true intent of the question.
Once it is clear that the person with the question is genuine, then we must establish the Bible as the credible source in finding the truth. My father first came to a gospel meeting on December 16, 1984. When speaking to the preachers after the meeting about eternity, the first question they asked him was this, “Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?” This was the foundation the preachers used that night to point him to Christ.
When we deal with these two questions posed in the title, we see words and terms such as: sin, love of God, hell, and eternal suffering. These are all words and terms from the Bible so if its credibility can be established, then we should have the opportunity to use the situation and these terms to present the gospel. The problem with the first question is not the terms, but rather the way they have been arranged. We know that the love of God brings salvation. We see that so clearly in John 3:16. Hell and eternal suffering are a direct result of sin which ultimately brings forth death – these consequences have nothing to do with God’s desire for us. So in answer to the question, “How does a loving God send people to hell?” it would be correct to say that He doesn’t send us, we send ourselves if we refuse His offer of love.
The third approach that should be used when dealing with these questions would be the use of simple analogies and stories to tie in the truth. The Lord used this method in His teachings. For example, a young person might not see how terribly bad their sins might be, bad enough to be banished from heaven forever. However, most of us know the consequences for rebelling against earthly establishments.
In the home, a child is disciplined by the parent for disobedience. In a school, a student can be expelled by the principal for breaking the rules. In business, an employee can be terminated for cheating the employer, and a citizen can be imprisoned or even executed for treason against the nation. So it is with our sin. Sin is the root of all rebellion against a holy God. “Is sin really that bad?” The answer needs to show that any act of sin is direct disobedience to God; there is no relationship with God on self-merit.
We need to ensure that we are well-equipped to help those who have a genuine desire for the truth. As a resource tip I have enjoyed recommending a condensed version of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel in mp3 format for my friends to listen to on their iPods. Many good books of sound doctrine are now available in this format and online in the form of e-Books. These are ways that allow people to research in the quiet of their own homes or while in transit.
In summary, the genuineness of the questioner must be first determined, a belief of the Bible’s credibility must secondly be established, and the use of earthly references to establish heavenly principles are oftentimes necessary to communicate concepts that may be difficult for those with these types of questions.