Hard Question #3 – If God loves us so much then why is there a hell?

There are common questions I get asked, as a pastor, and maybe you have wondered about them as well… or maybe you will want to correct me on how wrong I am in my answers.  So here is the THIRD of – I don’t know how many… (and by the way these are in no specific order – just however my chaotic brain remembers them…)

Hard Question #3 – “If God loves us so much… why is there a hell?” Yikes. I’ll try to explain why I believe there is a hell… And to do that I have to start with God’s Mercy and Grace. Weird I know… but hopefully it’ll make sense.

You know what mercy is. It’s when someone who holds power over someone else shows the person they hold power over a kindness or forgiveness that is not required under any rules or law. You don’t have to do it but you choose to. It has pretty much a universal definition. Grace on the other hand can mean a few different things depending on its use. In the New Testament when it is used referring to God’s grace extended to us it comes from the greek word charis which means favor. So when we talk about God’s mercy and grace we are talking about His kindness, forgiveness and His favor on us. And His kindness, forgiveness and favor are definitely more than any of us can ever fully comprehend… None of us deserve any of it, none of us can earn any of it, but we do have to seek it and accept it. I know… it’s a hard concept.

Usually if someone wants to argue with me about how I can believe in a God that is supposedly all loving, all merciful, all forgiving – they start with the seemingly contradictory idea of hell. “How can God be all loving, merciful and full of grace if He is willing to send someone to be tortured for eternity in a lake of fire?” Uggh… I despise those conversations. First, because I know there is no “winner” in that kind of debate. Second, because most people’s connotations about hell didn’t come from The Bible, but instead come from a book written in the 1300’s by a guy named Dante Alighieri… (it’s called The Inferno.) But mostly because that question states an inaccuracy in that God doesn’t “send” us anywhere and it talks about 2 things that aren’t mutually exclusive of each other – His love and a place called hell. Don’t get your shorts in a bunch… I will explain what I mean… hang on.

It would be easy to get off on some side tangent about what hell is or isn’t like… is it really a burning lake of fire with eternal torture and endless suffering or is it simply an eternal existence sans God’s presence? Let’s get this out right now: I… Don’t… Know… The Answer… To That Question. But the reality is that it’s completely the wrong focus anyway. The reality is that eternal life with God is what we desire if we are believers. If you aren’t a believer, then you don’t really care anyway and the argument is pointless and one day we will all know the answer.

The real question should be – regardless of the characteristics of hell – why would a loving God create a place like hell anyway? And that – I can answer.

Have you ever adopted a dog from the pound or animal shelter? It’s kind of grueling process if you give much thought to it. As you walk up and down the rows of cages – dozens and dozens of perfectly good, loving dogs wait excitedly for someone to put their hand through the cage and pet them. They all want the attention but ultimately we are only going to take one. And if you are at the pound – you know that many of those dogs aren’t getting adopted and many of them aren’t ever going to leave that facility alive – but we still choose and it’s often based on the one that seems to be the best behaved. Some want that to be the description of God. An unfair, biased deity who shows favor on the one that behaves best and it’s the fiery pit for the others. When in reality that isn’t it at all. A better description would be to place us in the spot of the “choosey individual at the animal shelter.” We have all of the choices in the world. We have free will and ultimately we have to choose to go all into one. Do we decide to choose a life based on our own base wants and needs or a life lived through God for others?

The problem that has happened in the whole focus on Hell has come about primarily through the teachings of the church. A teaching that says we should make our choice based on fear. You’ve maybe heard the phrase, “turn or burn,” and that is a really accurate term for what some people would teach. A friend of mine, who is also a pastor, one time told me that he would rather someone be scared into choosing God than the alternative of them never making the choice. I couldn’t disagree with that more. A choice based in fear is never going to be a choice that is permanent and life changing. Checking a box on the little card that says “I want to be baptized” because of a fear of eternal torture in some nightmarish vision of Dante’s Hell will not be one that leads to much happiness in life or a true heartfelt desire for God.

Finally, it’s important to point out that Hell was not a place created with you or me (or anyone else that has ever lived) in mind – it was created for Satan… (and that is far too much to get into here!) The original intent was that we live with God forever. And He has given us that as a free choice all a long.

See? God is not the one choosing our fate… we are. That’s what I meant when I said God doesn’t send us anywhere. We choose and we journey towards our choice. That’s why Hell and an all loving God can both exist. He desires for us to choose him and him alone. And I think He grieves anytime the choice is something else.

I want others to see God in me as a loving, caring Father who showed me through the example of His Son what a life worth living looks like and that through Him, that life WILL be forever. I believe with all of my heart that if we live our lives consistently with that – then others will choose that same life as well… and then… Hell doesn’t matter at all.

Jason Rehmel is the Lead Pastor at Eastside Christian Church on the east side of Cincinnati. If you are someone who has had a terrible experience(s) at a church or churches – stop by some weekend and give it one more shot with Eastside. Whether you have felt judged, or dismissed, or unwanted – wherever it has been – Eastside is different.

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