Commonsense Christianity

Commonsense Christianity

Christianity, and the Problem of Hell

Most of us have an easier time accepting the goodness of Santa Claus than we do the goodness of God — if the former has this whole naughty and nice thing down fair and square, then surely, somehow, God does as well? Little Angel Bright by Steve Henderson, original oil painting, signed limited edition print, and open edition poster.

Most people, Christians or not, don’t like to talk about hell. Many seekers abhor the subject because they ask, quite logically,

“How can a God who professes to be loving, kind, faithful, and merciful toss anyone into hell? I mean, I’m a lowly worm of a human being, and I would never reject one of my children to the point of condemning them to death.”

This is a logical statement — soundly based upon a sense of justice and fairness that mirrors those attributes in God.

The standard Christian response, at least the one I’ve been slapped with, is,

“God’s ways are not our ways! You are a SINNER and in your disobedience and immorality you are UNABLE to see that God is loving and gracious, and if you do not submit to Him, you DESERVE eternal damnation!”

I’m in; You’re not

Too often, there’s a disturbingly smug sense of glee or satisfaction on the part of the speaker who knows, because he has properly recited the Four Spiritual Laws (many people do this repeatedly over their lifetimes to insure that they’ve got it right and won’t, by  inadvertence, be eternally damned), that HE’S going to heaven, even if YOU — and millions and millions of  corrupt, depraved, nameless and wicked people — are not.

It’s when you put faces on these people, and give them families, and jobs, and emotions, and settle them in an area where the name Jesus is completely inaccessible, or damage them by people who have literally spit the name of Jesus in their face, that the questions arise.

“They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” (Matthew 25: 46) you are then told. “See? There’s a HELL for unbelievers! It doesn’t MATTER if they can’t hear the story of Jesus. God is fair and just and this is how He does it.”

Read More Than One Verse

If you back up a few verses, however, to 31 onward, and read, you will not see any mention of “accepting Jesus” as you will injunctions to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, protect the sojourner, clothe the naked — in essence, take care of the Least of These.

The Least of These were very important to Jesus; we can hardly go wrong in paying attention to them in our search for truth. Seaside Story, original painting by Steve Henderson, sold; licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas.

This isn’t universalism; it’s simply reading the passage and not inserting statements that aren’t there. The difference between the sheep and the goats is how they treated the least of these. So maybe our next question should be, “Who are the least of these, and where are they in my life?”

Revelations 21: 8  consigns the “cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars,” to the fiery place of burning sulfur, and while it’s popular to single out the “unbelieving” and the “sexually immoral,” very few of us can stand up and say that we’ve never been cowardly, never lied, never worshiped money and position at the expense of God.

Justice, and Mercy

This is where Jesus comes in: He offers to take the punishment we deserve because, frankly, doing wrong does deserve punishment. If someone stole our car and bashed it into a wall, we wouldn’t expect him to walk off without paying. We would expect justice, but for justice to work, it is tempered by mercy, an exceedingly difficult combination for us to comprehend. We deserve punishment, but we need mercy.

God holds the balance of both, and while, in 2,000 years, we’ve never come up with a good answer to, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” we might consider setting the question, and the issue of hell, aside while we focus on God’s goodness, mercy, love, faithfulness, grace, and beauty. There is no evil in God, so however He does what He does, it is fair and right and just and good, and the reason the hell question bothers us is because the interpretations we are given destabilize our sense of God’s goodness.

Ignorance of God’s Understanding

Josh McDowell, in his most excellent book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (ISBN 978-0-7852-4219-2, page 408), quotes the 19th century poet and literary critic Samuel Coleridge:

“When we meet an apparent error in a good author, we are to presume ourselves ignorant of his understanding, until we are certain that we understand his ignorance.”

In terms of God, this means that, when we encounter disturbing sections or concepts in the Bible that seem to refute God’s inherent goodness and grace, we don’t

1) immediately assume that God’s not such a Great Guy after all


2) toss out the disturbing sections because they must surely be symbolic, wrong, or mis-written by a human being.

Rather, we accept that we have a conundrum — and as I mentioned, many of these conundrums have been with us for thousands of years — that’s beyond our understanding right now. Let it go, ask God for wisdom, and move on — never losing sight of the critical point of God’s perfection, power, grace, mercy, judgment, wisdom, and love.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I write about the things many of us think and wonder about, but generally avoid mentioning because someone, somewhere, will attack us for asking.

Posts similar to this one are

Two Reasons Why the World Hates Christians

King Kong God

Christianity Is Simpler Than You Think

The Atheist’s Cry to God


  • Carolyn Henderson

    Anonymous — You are right — it is possible to reject God, and His message. A gracious, fair, just, and loving God, however, plays on a level field — taking into account people’s experiences, pain, hurt, and confusion. I know many many people whose only true encounter with God, if you could call it that, is a harsh, unfeeling person who calls himself a Christian (because he’s recited those four spiritual laws) and yet who is unkind, uncaring, and thoughtless. That’s not a particularly good ambassador.

    This is my point: forget about hell for awhile, and focus on God’s love, because that’s what He talks about more. You can affect a child’s behavior by the threat of punishment or the promise of reward, and you are far more likely to see success when you focus on the latter.

    Not talking about a problem will not make it go away, and many many people who seek God are troubled by the harshness of many people’s attitude toward hell. If we truly care about these people, we will listen to them, acknowledge their confusion, and point them straight into God’s loving arms.

  • Carolyn Henderson

    Dear Anonymous: My article has my name on it because I am willing to stand up for what I read and believe, and put my name behind it.

    One can read every verse in the Bible, but this is no guarantee that one — anyone — UNDERSTANDS every verse in the Bible. There is much that flummoxes us, all of us, and no decent answer has been given to many of these questions, including, “How can a loving God send one to hell?” As I observed, too many Christians who focus too intently on the concept do so with a sense of glee, smugness, satisfaction, callousness, and harshness that is not in line with God’s message of salvation and love.

    Jesus spent a lot more time talking about God’s love, His willingness — through Christ’s sacrifice — to adopt us as sons, his encouragement to cry out, Abba, Father! — than he did talking about hell, damnation, punishment, and eternal fire. As Christians, we will not be remiss if we follow this example. — Carolyn

  • Anonymous

    OK, if you believe in hell or lake of fire and a Heaven then you must believe in a Creating God. Most people do not even understand the term used in the Bible when it talks about death, hell, the grave, mortality and the spirit. Without question about 95% of people that comment on sin and death and eternal life have never read the Bible. The Bible is the Old (Pre-Jesus Death and Resurrection)and the New (Post-Death and Resurrection) Testaments. The Bible is scripture that is factual, accurate and verifiable. So may watch TV hear lies from false teachers trying to get in your wallet or purse and believe almost everything these people say. I will guarantee the person that wrote this article about God and His punishments has never read the Bible and if my comment is challenged I would clearly call the writer a liar and the writer would know that. So before you raise peoples doubts that are equally uneducated I would ask you learn the Truth about the Truth. It is easy to deduce just by the writers comments the Bible was not read. If you haven’t read ALL the chapters and ALL the verses you have not read the Bible. every single word and phrase are important and critical in the Bible and understanding A God that can create ALL things, speaking things into being.

  • Anonymous

    My understanding is that it’s not so much that God sends us to Hell as that WE reject God and refuse to ask for His endless divine mercy and thus we end up sending ourselves to Hell, where we are forever separated from Him.

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