Why would a good God send people to hell?

This is a common question, and sometimes reflects misunderstandings about a number of issues, including God’s character, the “free gift” of salvation, and how the Bible talks about both.

God’s will is that all people would be saved—he wants each person to make the choice to receive the free gift of eternal life and of the Holy Spirit. Scripture makes this clear in 1 Timothy 2:3-6:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (NAS)

But how does that work? If God desires “all men” (and in today’s language that means “all people”) to be saved, why doesn’t he just save everyone and be done with it?

God’s Character is Complex

First, it is important for us to understand that God is a complex being, and that though He loves each person and has a will for their salvation, He also allows people the freedom to reject Him.

This reflects the reality that God’s character is complex and multifaceted (see, e.g., Exodus 34: 3-7). While God is Love, God is also a holy and righteous Judge—the Supreme Judge of the World. These characteristics aren’t contradictory, they just mean that God is complicated. Kind of like you.

Receiving The Free Gift

Now, how does this relate to salvation and damnation? I once heard an older preacher use an example to explain the way God gives people the gift of eternal life, and it has stuck with me for many years.

gift cardImagine that, for no reason, someone just decided to give you a $1,000 gift card to any store in the world.

Did you pay for the gift card?

No, someone else paid for it.

What if you don’t use it? Do you get to enjoy that gift?

No, the gift card just sits there.

If you don’t use the gift, you haven’t really received it, have you? It has been given, but not received.

In order to enjoy the gift card, you must choose to receive it and use it.

Jesus’ gift of eternal life to us is the same way. He died so that every person who ever sinned can have eternal life and fellowship with the Father. But every person must choose to receive the gift and use it.

[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name. (John 1:11-12)

Just as God loves every person so much that he was willing to sacrifice His son for them, He loves them so much that he won’t force them to bend to His will. That is, each person gets to makes their choice, and live (or die) with the consequences of their choices.

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)

So God’s just-ness in His character means that people who choose to receive the gift, live eternally. His just-ness also means that people who choose not to receive the gift also choose eternal punishment.

But what about those who haven’t heard?

Many critics of Christianity complain that this is profoundly unjust and unloving. They point out the situations of people who have never heard of Jesus, who lived their whole lives and died never even having the opportunity to accept or reject him.

There are at least two responses to this criticism. First, it makes the Great Commission a very urgent task! Second, over the last two millennia there has been a standard response, because The Bible tells us what the resolution is. In Romans 2, Paul writes about the Gentiles who didn’t receive the Law (the Old Testament), but who managed to live righteous lives anyway.

14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Paul argues that when the Gentiles instinctively lived righteously, they demonstrated that the Law was written in their hearts (that is, their minds and wills), and that God will judge them according to that criterion. They, however, face a much more uncertain judgement than those who accept the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. The problem for the Gentiles in this situation, is how much obedience is enough? How much compliance with the Law written on their hearts is needed to balance of their disobedience to that Law?

Uncertain though it is, Paul seems to be arguing that this is the opportunity for salvation for those who have never heard the name of Jesus. But it is still a clearly worse option than the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

How much better to accept the free gift when you hear about it!

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Check out Sean McDowell’s video on another important dimension of this question.

A Graduation Message for My Son

M grad crop

This year we graduated our second son from our home school, Legacy Academy. These are the words I spoke about and over my son, but also about our home school journey, and how God changed our vision of family to his vision of our family. My son has given me permission to post these remarks publicly.

Thank you all for coming today to celebrate M and his high school graduation. We appreciate your friendship and that you would take your time to share this moment with us. Deb just did a great job sharing about M’s life and her love for him (read them here). I’d like to take a few minutes to pull back and share with you some of our family’s big picture from this father’s perspective—and to bless M as he continues his journey.

Our original vision

Early in our parenting we had a pretty typical vision for what we wanted to accomplish in our kids. And you can tell something of what our goals were by the books we read: Dr. James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline and The Strong-Willed Child. Even though we of course wanted our children to grow up to be responsible Christian adults, the main path I envisioned was through discipline, obedience, and self-control. And so discipline, obedience and self-control were what we focused on. Our three first children (of our eventual six) were the primary “beneficiaries” of those early years.

A new vision

As we lurched into homeschooling when our oldest two were starting school (another story for another time), the Lord started realigning our vision for parenting into His vision for parenting. Over time we came to see that His vision was not that we focus on right behaviors in the short-term but on the long term outcomes the Lord desired—Christ-loving adults who would pursue the Lord’s mission for their own lives and families.

This meant that our focus had to change by first re-orienting our own hearts, and then dealing with our kids’ hearts toward God, and modeling our parenting after God’s heart of grace toward us. The passages on how this played out in our family are familiar to many of us. Rather than emphasizing all of those great verses directed toward children (in which the emphasis is on obedience, listening to the wisdom of your mother and father, sparing the rod, and so forth) I began meditating on verses directed toward fathers and parents.

In this journey to being a God-centered father this verse about Abraham became my compass rose:

compass-152121_1280Genesis 18:19: For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

And I was challenged by this verse:

Ephesians 6:4: Fathers, do not provoke (exasperate) your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

As my brother will tell you, one of my natural gifts is exasperation, so this verse particularly challenged me.

And of course the passage that became the touchstone for our family, from Deuteronomy 6:

“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, 2 so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God,”

And here is where my emphasis as a father changed. I had to learn that the purpose of my obedience and keeping the Lord’s commandments is to influence the ways my children and grandchildren relate to God. The emphasis is not on getting them to fear and obey me, but to fear and obey the Lord their God. In specifically mentioning “your son and your grandson” Moses casts a multiple-generation vision of having a right spirit toward our heavenly Father, not merely extracting my childrens’ obedience and compliance toward their earthly father.

Moses continues,

5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.”

The key to God-centered parenting was transforming my own heart so that my descendants would be blessed. Finally,

7 You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

The spirit and structure and decor—the very DNA—of our home and family life was to be one of diligent teaching of the ways of the Lord. All day. Every day. Everywhere. Because the Christian life is not to be compartmentalized into the Jesus time and the other times, nor the Christian time of the week and the rest of the week. Rather, discipleship is supposed to take place in the normal everyday course of life, from rising to setting.

Making the handoff

HandoffOver the last two years we have been in a new season of our family—what Jeff Myers calls making the handoff. Although we’ve been preparing for years to transition M into full adulthood, now is the time to actually do it. While he’ll still be living here for the time being, and while we’ve been releasing him gradually over the years, this moment—his completion of our academic education—is a turning point.

It is the moment when our responsibility for his academics dramatically decreases and his dramatically increases. We’ve already seen in M, for his whole life really, a great deal of wisdom and discernment in decision making. He isn’t perfect of course, but we see in his character great strengths. We have been praying for years that the Lord would take M’s natural bent toward critical thinking and his quick wits for the Lord’s kingdom.

In our culture high school graduation is the moment when M makes his entrance into the so-called “real world,” whatever that means. This is supposed to be the moment when a person leaves the protective shell of a very structured educational environment and enters into the largely unstructured world of adulthood’s rights and responsibilities. Of course, we’ve worked hard for years at exposing M to the real world, and he has been operating in the real world in some ways already for some time now.

In the eyes of our culture this moment is a most significant point in a person’s “coming of age.” But M has long been on the path to this moment and, for the most part, we think he is prepared to handle it. So in the spirit of biblical tradition, we pass on to you the primary responsibility for your growth and decisions.

The Launching

M,

Having accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, may you continue to grow in your relationship with Him;

Having studied the ways of the Lord, may you continue to grow in your fear of the Lord and your understanding of His ways and will for your life;

Having been trained in and having cultivated your own God-given work ethic and character, may you continue to diligently strive for success in the Lord’s eyes first, and in the eyes of men second, and may the Lord use you to grow His kingdom;

We pray that our 19 years of discipleship will ripple throughout your life in ways that bless you, your future wife and children, and the Kingdom of God; and we trust that the Lord will fill in the gaps of our own shortcomings and do in you the things we didn’t or couldn’t do;

As your father, having caught God’s vision for what a husband, father, and head of a household ought to be and do, I pass that vision on to you—that you would understand that God has chosen you “so that you may command your children and your household to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Though you don’t have your wife and children yet, the Lord knows his vision for you in this area, so cultivate your own heart and mind for the Lord for your descendants—our great-grandchildren. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:32, while you remain unmarried, be “concerned about the things of the Lord, how [you] may please the Lord;” that is, cultivate your relationship with the Lord (because when you get married, you’ll have a lot less time to do it!);

Finally, having finished this major accomplishment in your education, may you continue to pursue a life of continued education and love of learning;

Last, I bless you with the famous blessing from Moses to his brother Aaron, and which I have sung for years while tucking you kids in:

The Lord bless you, and keep you;

The Lord make His face shine on you,

And be gracious to you;

The Lord lift up His countenance on you,

And give you peace.’ (Numbers 6: 24-26)

I love you and am proud of you.