There are few less popular topics in our day and age than a discussion on the reality of Hell. The very idea is appalling to the modern mind and sentiment. Despite endless (and so often justified) cries for justice, few will champion the justice and goodness of Hell. It is not uncommon to find a critique of the goodness of God linked together with the traditional understanding of Hell. Hell itself may be part of the argument against God’s goodness or even His existence.
Ironically, the Christian Scriptures work from the opposite framework. Rather than Hell being a problem for a good God, in Scripture it is more often an indirect defense of Him. The reason that Hell exists is because of God’s goodness. In a real way, Scripture paints Hell as a theodicy. A theodicy is simply a “justification of God.”1 A theodicy typically functions as a form of apologetic (defense) that is given for the truthfulness of the Christian witness (cf. I Peter 3:15).
Most often, theodicy relates specifically to a defense of God related to the ‘problem of evil.’ That is, how can evil exist if God is both all powerful and fully loving? If God is loving shouldn’t He care about evil and suffering? If He is all powerful, should He not have been able to prevent evil from ever existing? Why isn’t He doing anything now? More could be said, but that is the root of most objections to the God of Christianity as they relate to evil. Simple answers to this problem should be given with extreme caution, as Christian apologist and MIT professor Ian Hutchinson states, “The problem of evil is, for me, the toughest intellectual challenge for theism.”2 He is not alone. The “problem of evil” is the most prominent argument featured in contemporary atheist literature as the fundamental reason for unbelief.3
Christians of all kinds ought to take these objections seriously and handle them with extreme care and gentleness. However, we must not adopt arguments that go against the Scriptural framework of any given idea. Those under the authority of Scripture (i.e. Christians) must presuppose that God is both loving and all powerful and that evil is real. These are fundamental beliefs that arise from the breadth of Scripture that do give real boundaries for our reasoning. Further, we must not soften a doctrine merely because it does not fit in our with our current cultural sentiment (Eph. 4:14), this is where other cultures can be so helpful in guiding us to stay faithful to the Scriptures.4 Lastly, we should seek to frame our arguments with a structure that follows the same logic of Scripture. This last point brings us to our topic of Hell and theodicy.
To ensure that we process this clearly, we must recognize that Hell is best understood within the context of judgement. Jesus Christ repetitively declares that being cast into Hell is a result of God’s judgment, a judgment that Jesus Himself will certainly conduct (Matt. 7:23). Let us consider two brief examples. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ declares that he who calls his brother “fool” is guilty enough to go into the fiery Hell (Matt. 5:22). Note that guilt is directly correlated with Hell. Only the guilty will be found there. The preceding two verses demonstrate that this guilt is related to a judicial type context. Sin, guilt, judgement, and Hell are all linked together. Or, consider Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:33 where He states, “How will you escape the sentence of Hell?” Observe again, how Hell is a sentence. Hell is to be understood as a sentence, this sentence is the result of judgement. We have many other places that we could go to further demonstrate this, but for those approaching this essay with a modest knowledge of the wider teachings of Christ and the Apostles this ought to be a sufficient reminder.
Now, it is striking, at least to us moderns, how no “defense” is given for the reality of Hell, even when it is described with vivid and horrible imagery. As has been well noted by others, “With the anthropocentric turn in the West, judgement became a problem for God rather than a problem for the unrepentant.”5 To the ancient, and to many moderns who breath different cultural air, man stood and stands before God, not God before man. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently stated it:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the God who permits war, poverty and disease, [or Hell], he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.6
We “sophisticated” Westerns are not more enlightened than they in this area, and so many others. We so easily see from both Scripture and the witness of the ancients, that the idea of escaping the judgement of a Holy God is the core of the problem, not God escaping the judgement of man in regards to His sentence. After-all, “Who are you of man who answers back to God, the thing molded will not say to molder, ‘why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Romans 9:20). Note again, that this verse in context is directly dealing with the right of God to do as He pleases in regards to salvation, and one could say, his justice for doing so. Here we have one aspect of a biblical theodicy (though by no means what we could a “complete” one).
What is critical for our thoughts here, is that the although the Scriptures may broach the idea of justice as it relates to God’s judgement, the most dominant position taken is that God’s judgement, which will result in the sentence of Hell, is most typically a defense of his goodness. Even in Romans 9, Paul frames his rhetorical counter with the concepts of God’s patience and mercy being present in His expression of wrath. Again, the most common theme that is expressed within the Christian Scriptures is not, “God, how could you?” But rather, “How long o Lord?” (Hab. 1:2; cf. Job 19:7, Psalm 94:3, etc.) How long will you endure the wicked? How long will you let evil triumph? How long will you delay judgment? The primary argument of the entire narrative arch of the Scriptures is: ‘God, you are powerful and loving, how long will you delay in rendering your just judgment?’ As theologian J.I. Packer notes:
As to theodicy… so far from seeing endless retribution as creating a moral problem, as if it were really divine cruelty on those persons who do not deserve it, the New Testament sees it as resolving a moral problem, namely, the problem created by the way in which rebellious evil and human cruelty have constantly been allowed to run loose and unchecked in God’s world.7
If this is the way in which the Scriptures approach the idea of God’s judgment and goodness, Christians ought to reflect this same attitude or, at the very least, our arguments ought to lead in that general direction. Essentially, are we only ever defending God from Hell, or are we ever viewing Hell as a defense of God? While not excluding Christians from doing the former, the over all witness favors the latter.
To be clear, this is not an argument for flippant or dismissive attitudes that do not allow for hard questions or raw tears at the horrors of the topic before us (Romans 9:3). It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. This post must be understood within a wider context that harbors an attitude that allows for weeping and crying out in grief at the coming judgement upon the unrepentant (Matt. 23:37-39). Yet, this attitude must also be able to cry ‘holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,’ before His throne of wrath and grace. We must hold in balance a deep concern for the lost with an eager longing for Christ to return, knowing that He returns in judgement. Ultimately, the wicked will be judged. In the end, because of the goodness of God, the fires of Hell will burn eternally as they carry out the just judgement of our God. Justice will reign and God shall be blameless when it does (Psalm 9:8, 67:4, 51:4, 75:2).
- Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 9
- Ian Hutchinson, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?: An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science (Downer Groves, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2018), 234
- This is an adapted paraphrase from Travis Dumsday, “Next to the problem of evil, the problem of divine hiddenness has become the most prominent argument for atheism in the current literature.” Sourced from: Daniel Wiley, “The God Who Reveals: A Response to J. L. Schellenberg’s Hiddenness Argument,” Themelios, Volume 44 – Issue 3, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/the-god-who-reveals-a-response-to-j-l-schellenbergs-hiddenness-argument/, accessed: July 11, 2021
- Consider Miroslav Vole’s reflections: “It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge.” Miroslav Volf, Exclusion Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 303-4; sourced from: Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in Age of Skepticism (New York, New York: Viking, 2015), 114-115
- Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 280
- C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (1970; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 268
- J.I. Packer, “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, ed. Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 185