July 29, 2016

Does the Doctrine of Hell Make God Unjust?

by Mike Riccardi

JusticeAwhile ago, I posted some selections of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As it happens, three weeks ago was the 275th anniversary of the greatest sermon preached on American soil. If you haven’t read that post, I would invite you to read what I’ve called America’s greatest sermon for America’s greatest need, extraordinarily relevant for our nation today.

Sermons and teaching like that represented in Edwards’ sermon tends to generate several objections, including the notion that it is unjust for God to punish those who die in their sins for eternity in hell. I want to respond to that objection today.

Two Disclaimers

But before I jump in, I want to make a couple disclaimers. First, this post does not set out to prove that the biblical picture of hell is that of eternal conscious torment. For the sake of time and space I assume it to be so. I know there are strenuous objections to this doctrine from the various corners of unbelief—both from those who do and do not claim to be Christians. Though I vigorously believe this to be the biblical teaching, it simply falls outside the scope of this post to make a full defense of the doctrine. For those looking for that, you might start here.

Secondly, I acknowledge the doctrine of eternal conscious torment to be a terrifying, awful reality. Though I speak about these things frankly, and what may seem like dispassionately, I want to assure you that I don’t do so with a sinful delight or an unfeeling vengefulness. Like our great God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11), and I don’t take for granted that I’m discussing an unspeakably horrifying reality that I hope none of you reading this ever experiences. In fact, it’s precisely because of my deep desire for you (and those to whom you minister) to escape eternal punishment that I endeavor to speak about it in this post. I don’t do so flippantly or lightly, but (I hope) with the gravity that it deserves.

Two Basic Claims

The basic objection is that the biblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment is at odds with any reasonable notion of God’s love or justice. The argument basically boils down to two claims:

  1. Not everyone in history has had equal access to the Gospel—i.e., the remedy for or rescue from the horrific punishment of eternal hell. God is unjust and unloving to not have sovereignly orchestrated things such that all had an equal opportunity of receiving salvation.
  2. It is unjust to think that a person who has committed fewer or relatively less evil sins (e.g., a child stealing a cookie from a cookie jar) suffers the same eternal, infinite punishment in hell as a person who has committed more or relatively more evil sins (e.g., Hitler). God’s justice has no sense of proportion.

God is Not Obligated to Be Gracious

GuiltyThe first claim fails for the simple reason that it presupposes that God is obligated to be gracious to everyone. It fails to understand the very definition of grace, which is that it is undeserved.

To illustrate, it is perfectly consistent with the tenets of justice for a human judge to sentence every murderer to life in prison without offering mercy to any of them. It is absolutely no blight on the character of a judge to send a guilty criminal to prison. In a similar way, it would have been entirely consistent with the tenets of justice for God to have saved absolutely no one from sin. He was entirely within His rights to send every last human being to hell. Why? Because we are all actually guilty. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). “Death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Because of our sin—because we are all actually lawbreakers—all of humanity deserves the eternal punishment that is the penalty for sin.

The unbeliever denies this. It’s the classic mistake of conceiving of God to be less righteous than he is and of conceiving man to be more righteous than he is (Rom 10:2–3). It supposes that man, the criminal, is owed some opportunity for reprieve from the just punishment that his sins deserve.

But we do not deserve grace. Grace is by definition undeserved, and so God is not obligated to give grace to anyone. No human being even deserves to hear the Gospel, let alone experience the sovereignly powerful, irresistible saving grace of God that is effectual unto salvation. That God does save anyone is an unspeakable act of love.

But He was under no obligation to do so. His character as a just Judge would not have been impugned in the least if He punished every single human being according as their sins deserve. That’s why Paul can say in Romans 9 that God is not unjust to have compassion on whomever He chooses (Rom 9:14–16), and that moral ability is not a precondition of accountability (Rom 9:19–20).

The Quantitative and Qualitative Aspects of Eternal Punishment

The second claim fails just as much as the first, but is a bit more complex. It requires us to understand both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of sin and punishment.

In the one sense, all sin—whether murdering someone, stealing a car, lying, or even being hatefully angry with someone—receives the same infinite penalty of spending an eternity in hell. We could call this the quantitative sense of punishment; i.e., the quantity of time for which all sinners are punished is equal. This is because punishment for sin is measured by the dignity of the One sinned against. All sin is fundamentally sin against God (cf. Ps 51:4), and He is infinitely holy. Accordingly, sin against an infinitely holy God demands an infinite punishment. The severity of the punishment points to the holiness of God. He is so righteous that the just penalty for offending His holiness is something so horrible as eternal conscious torment. It would actually be unjust for God not to punish sin eternally, because to do so would belittle the value and glory of His worthiness.

However, while the punishment that each sinner receives is quantitatively identical (i.e., it lasts forever), it is not qualitatively identical. There are degrees of punishment in hell. We see this plainly from a number of texts of Scripture. Jesus tells the citizens of Chorazin and Bethsaida that it will be more tolerable for the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for them—more tolerable for the wicked men and women of Sodom than for the citizens of Capernaum—since they had a greater degree of revelation available to them and spurned it (Matthew 11:21-24). Quality and QuantityHebrews 10:29 says the one who has been exposed to the greatest revelation of the truth of God in the New Covenant and yet rejects it deserves a “much severer punishment” than those who rejected the Law of Moses. 2 Peter 2:17 speaks about “the gloom of utter darkness” (ESV), “the blackest darkness” (NIV), or “the utter depths of darkness” (NET) that is reserved for false teachers (cf. Jude 1:13).

So to summarize, all of mankind is guilty of sinning against an infinitely holy God. Therefore, all who die without repenting and trusting in Christ face the same quantitatively eternal punishment for their sins. And yet, because God is strictly just, He will punish those who committed qualitatively greater offenses with a qualitatively greater punishment. As Edwards continues in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he notes that the wicked “shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires.” The character of their suffering will be exactly proportional to the crimes they’ve committed.

Darkening Counsel with Words without Knowledge

Now, I’m under no delusions that this doctrine is anything but absolutely repugnant to the natural mind. The just punishment required by the law is always repugnant to the criminal. I understand that the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor 2:14). But to the one who would object to this teaching, and who would arrogantly dare to impugn the character of God as unjust, the Holy Spirit responds with the most scathing rebuke: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Rom 9:20).

In other words, you’re out of your league, above your pay grade. You’re the creature and God is the Creator. He is not beholden to your judgment, but rather you are beholden to His. After all, where were you when God laid the foundation of the earth? Have you ever, in your life, commanded the morning and caused the dawn to know its place? (see Job 38).

The Door of Mercy is Yet Open

No, you haven’t. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary that you humble yourself now before this Almighty God, and submit all of who you are—even your fallen, sin-cursed reasoning—to the Lordship of Christ as He has revealed Himself in His Word. And, wonder of wonders, there’s still time! This perfectly holy God, this Sovereign King whom you have so exquisitely offended, stands yet willing to receive you! Yet willing to come to terms of peace! Yet willing to cancel all of your debt, and look upon a Substitute, His own dear Son, for the satisfaction of infinite justice against your crimes. Turn from your sin, and trust Christ alone for righteousness.

As Edwards said at the close of his famous sermon:

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity,
a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open,
and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners. …
Let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell,
whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children,
now hearken to the loud calls of God’s Word and providence.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Fibber MaGee

    Confused about two references. Since God has ordained everything and if to be of the elect is by no result of ourselves then the passage in Matt 11 (as you explain it) seems to be saying that we have ” free will”. Secondly, the Hebrews 10 verse says, ” by which he was sanctified”. I would understand this to reference someone who had been redeemed. Any clarity is appreciated

    • Jason

      We all have our own will, but it is never “free” in the way some use the word. Matthew 11:21-24 informs us that those who reject more of the revelation of God are guilty of more awful of a crime. However, 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that they are incapable of accepting it.

      It’s not that an external agent forced them to reject the truth, but that their own will demands it (in that sense our will is “free” as we are capable of doing what we desire to do). We are all slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18), not arbitrarily choosing to serve one of two masters at any given time (Matthew 6:24). In that sense our wills are restricted.

    • Since God has ordained everything and if to be of the elect is by no result of ourselves then the passage in Matt 11 (as you explain it) seems to be saying that we have ” free will”.

      No, it’s simply saying that we are responsible. Responsibility and ability are often conflated, but they aren’t the same thing. Man has the responsibility to believe, but he does not have the moral ability to believe apart from the sovereign regenerating grace of God. That man is morally unable does not excuse his accountability/culpability for rejecting the message; indeed, it only heightens his accountability.

      Aside from that, Jason’s response is important to keep in mind. We have will — that is, the faculty of making genuine choices. If that’s all you mean by “free will” — i.e., doing what you want without coercion — then yes, humans have “free will.” But because the natural human will is enslaved by sin so that those genuine choices it makes are always for sin and evil and never for God and righteousness (apart from the regenerating grace of God), it seems strange to call the will free. It is precisely because the will is enslaved by sin and wants only evil continually (again, apart from God’s saving grace) that man is held accountable to God, and increasingly so as they persist in their wickedness in the face of greater revelation.

      Secondly, the Hebrews 10 verse says, “by which he was sanctified”. I would understand this to reference someone who had been redeemed. Any clarity is appreciated.

      Sure, this does tend to be a difficult verse to harmonize with the doctrine of eternal security, since the rest of Scripture plainly teaches that one cannot lose his salvation and this seems to indicate that those who have been sanctified can trample the blood of the covenant under foot. There are several ways that exegetes handle that passage, but the one that I find the most satisfying is that ἐν ᾧ ἡγιάσθη ought to be translated, “by which one is sanctified,” rather than “he.” In other words, this is the blood that sanctifies, and this person is trampling it under foot. The Greek grammar is identical for both, and understanding it this way has the advantage of not contradicting clear passages of Scripture which affirm the believer’s eternal security (e.g., John 10:27-29; Rom 8:28-39; 1 John 2:19).

      Hope that helps.

      • Jason

        I’m glad you gave the explanation for Hebrews 10. I’m not familiar with Greek (something I keep thinking I should take the time to learn) so I would not have known that.

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  • 4Commencefiring4

    While I certainly agree with your views here, many would object that God is still unjust because, while none of us deserve salvation, He only saves some and not all when He is perfectly able to save every last one.

    For instance, imagine the Titanic tragedy–with a twist: The crippled liner will soon be forever swallowed by the cold waters of the north Atlantic, there is panic throughout the ship, but fortunately there are plenty of seats in the lifeboats for all passengers. Yet the person in charge of loading them says he’s only taking those with last names “A through M”–reminding N through Z that he didn’t HAVE to take anyone.

    I’m not advocating this objection; just describing it. God is always just. But our sense of justice may differ from His.

    • Jason

      That analogy only holds provided we make the assumption that the person responsible for loading people into lifeboats has a good (both rational and righteous) reason for stopping at M. Personally, I can think of none, but if someone comes up with one we’d be in business!

    • While I certainly agree with your views here, many would object that God is still unjust because, while none of us deserve salvation, He only saves some and not all when He is perfectly able to save every last one.

      So, even though He’s perfectly able to save everyone but, in our hypothetical, He saves no one, He is righteous. But as soon as He decides to save some and not others, He is unrighteous? There’s the folly of man’s reasoning on display for all to see. Absolved when equally wrathful, condemned for being merciful to some.

      For instance, imagine the Titanic tragedy–with a twist: The crippled liner will soon be forever swallowed by the cold waters of the north Atlantic, there is panic throughout the ship, but fortunately there are plenty of seats in the lifeboats for all passengers. Yet the person in charge of loading them says he’s only taking those with last names “A through M”–reminding N through Z that he didn’t HAVE to take anyone.

      This analogy is flawed from the ground up. In the case spiritually dead haters of God (for that is how the New Testament speaks of the natural man, Rom 8:7-8), there is no panic on the ship, nor eager desire to escape into the lifeboats. There is only high-handed and even mocking defiance — people aghast that anyone would be so arrogant to suggest that they need a lifeboat to survive the sinking ship, and couldn’t do it on the strength of their own resources. God is not turning willing sinners away from salvation; He is righteously condemning those who obstinately refuse His offer of rescue despite repeated warnings, and even despite the greatest demonstration of His saving will toward sinners in the sacrifice of His own Son.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Good observation. Of course, this opens the whole “predestination/election” debate, doesn’t it? Because none of us who are saved today “wanted” to be saved any more than those who–so far, anyhow–haven’t been. He decided to save us, but will He save them? Time will tell.

  • Peter Clarke

    Thank you for this post. I have been struggling with this concept for some time now. I agree with you on many of these concepts; however, I am still uncertain what to make of the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel. Certainly none of us deserve to be saved, yet some are exposed to the Gospel, and others are not. The vast majority of people who ever lived would never even have the opportunity to be saved. For example, if you or I were born into the Maya civilization 1,000 years ago, we would not be Christians, and thus, not be saved. We are fortunate enough to be born in the right place at the right time. While none of us may deserve this chance, the location and time of a person’s birth seems to be a rather arbitrary way of determining who is fortunate enough to receive this opportunity.

    Any insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated!

    • 4Commencefiring4

      Abraham lived a long time before the Mayans, he wasn’t a “christian”, yet was saved because he “believed God.” David never heard of Jesus, wasn’t a christian, yet was “a man after My own heart.” “Christian” is merely a newly minted term referring to those post-cross believers in the God of Israel, the God of creation, and His designated Savior–who is God Himself in human form. But He is the same God as Abraham and David believed.

      Romans 1 tells us that the very creation we’re ALL exposed to broadcasts the God of creation and should prompt us to seek Him. Yet most don’t. In that sense, we all have exposure to the Gospel, to God’s presence, to His glory, regardless of where or who we are.

      If God saved those in OT times who couldn’t name Jesus as the One Who was saving them, why would we think someone in a remote jungle in the 21st century, who also doesn’t know that Name, must now be able to do so before he’s saved? As David did, as even Enoch did centuries before that, so also someone without complete knowledge of Jesus today can do likewise: call on the One they understand and seek His mercies. No one can help the circumstances he’s born in, but we’re all responsible for what we do with what revelation we have.

    • Charles Horton

      4Comm gives a meaningful and heartfelt perception to Peter’s question. I too have wondered about the
      fate of those who never heard of Jesus or the Christ. I would add to 4Comm’s response that there is a Scriptural basis for hope for those who’ve never heard of Him. Although many disagree with this, that hope is found in Rev. 20, in that after the 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth with His resurrected
      followers (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” “Blessed are those in the first resurrection.”), the “rest of the dead shall live again.”
      And in v.12, the books will be opened, including the book of life. This gives hope for a lot of people that miss out on the first resurrection. Those in the first resurrection are the ‘elect.’ It’s also helpful to remember that “The Father, in fact, judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son,” John 5:22. So it is Jesus who will judge them, the same Jesus who asked God to forgive those who were nailing Him to the cross, who was slain for all the sins of the world, and who teaches to forgive and bless our enemies. He is the one who will be the judge of those who never heard of Him. There is much hope for them.

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