Friday, February 12, 2010

Hell and a Loving God?

The following is a conversation, in progress, at the blog of Wade Burleson - a Southern Baptist minister in Oklahoma. Wade is a wonderful person to discuss issues with, because he is intelligent, respectful, and yet direct in communicating what he thinks. He recently wrote a blog alleging that non-Christians in Hell will have experiences proportional to the amount of evils they committed on earth. I do not think a loving God and eternal hell can coherently exist together, so I engaged him on the topic. I should mention that Wade has many ongoing conversations, so I am not suggesting that the exchanges below are his “A game”. It’s an interesting conversation. There is also a comment from Kevin Crowder, another Southern Baptist and quite a character.


I find it curious that you use the idea of Hitler, and then talk of what God will do to those who "reject Christ". God's actions appear to be far worse. Hitler could cause suffering and take a life. God can cast out forever, punish forever, according to the views of this blog.

This, by any practical use of the word today, is evil.

I am not sure that concepts like "righteousness" and "holiness" mean anything unless they are words ultimately describing love itself. And the idea that hell is justice makes a mockery of the concept.

And love never fails. One sinner spending eternity in hell would certain be a failure of love.

Thanks for the post,




Some very good thoughts. Thanks for commenting.

I think the best response to your concerns would be an analogy. What is the difference between a man drawing back a bow and firing an arrow into a beating heart and being praised and lauded for his action, and the same man drawing the same bow and firing the same arrow into a different beating heart and being condemned for his action?

Answer: The nature of the heart into which the arrow was fired.

The former was the beating heart of a deer. The latter was the beating heart of a man. What makes the action of the man different is the nature of the one whom the man shot.

So too, the nature of God is so infinitely superior to that of any human being, that any disobedience to the transcedent God's law is a crime of unbelievable magnitude. That law, by the way, seems to be written in the conscience of every human being (Romans 1). So, I think the struggle you may have is over the holy nature of God. It is possible that you see sin against Him as no big deal. If that's the case, then the cross of Christ loses its power and meaning.

However, I do think your understanding of the love of God is spot on. God is love. The question becomes how does a loving, holy God accept unrighteous sinners? Answer: By doing for them what they cannot do for themselves through the Person and work of His Son.

The question then becomes: "For whom does God grant this unbelievable gift of grace? Answer: Those who embrace His Son.




Hi Wade - thanks for the response! I apologize for the length below. I tried to keep each point as succinct as possible.

“What makes the action of the man different is the nature of the one whom the man shot.”

Motivations are not mentioned in your analogy. Why did the man shoot the deer? To leave the body to rot? If this were so, the hunter would be condemned.

Is he shooting the deer because he cannot tolerate being close to deer, because they are inferior creatures - imperfect and dirty? The man would be condemned.

This is the treatment God would be giving those who do not intellectually “embrace his Son”.

Does the man decide to spare the deer, but something still has to get shot because deer are so bad, so he shoots himself? That is not a sane thing to do. But this is the idea of “substitutionary” atonement.

If “holiness” does not include actions that we associate with love, then it has no meaning except “otherness” and “separateness”. Your argument for God is not that He is good, but rather that He is powerful.

For instance, you mention sin against an infinite God. And that infinite punishment is appropriate. But this standard would be considered evil in our world. If a toddler commits a crime against an adult, we do not try the toddler as an adult. And surely, by your own ideas, God is much more far removed from us than a toddler is from an adult.

Plus, I am guessing that your Calvinist theology includes the idea that ultimately God is the one who decides which hearts will accept him and which ones He will “harden.” Therefore God is effectively creating people who He knows will not accept Him. Therefore there is not even a legitimate offer being made here.

Or if you accept freewill, then once again, God is allowing us to make decisions with infinite consequences with our finite minds, which is much worse than me giving a set of scissors to my 2 year old son and then respecting his decision to do what he will with them.

“It is possible that you see sin against Him as no big deal.”

I can think of no greater sin than condemning a person to an eternity of suffering without hope of reprieve. Punishment is only considered good if instructs, if it makes better, or if it acts as a deterrent. Hell does none of this.

“If that's the case, then the cross of Christ loses its power and meaning.”

I disagree with you here. If you don’t mind, I will change your phrase to a version that perhaps we can agree on - “If that’s the case, then the doctrine of substitutionary atonement loses its power and meaning.” Fair enough.

Thanks for the thoughts!!




Good thoughts!

By the way, I want you to know that I believe whosoever desires Christ is a recipient of the grace of God. In other words, nobody desiring the Lord is unrewarded!

Also, I admire your desire to protect the reputation of God. In any way that I have fallen short of presenting a loving, holy God whose justice is always and only perfect and right and love always and only unconditional, then I have failed in my communication.



Thanks for those words, Wade.

Here are your premises taken from two different comments:

“I believe whosoever desires Christ is a recipient of the grace of God. In other words, nobody desiring the Lord is unrewarded!”

“I can assure any sinner who asks that the punishment of hell, though just and according to deeds, is not something even the best of sinners would ever desire.”

(from a comment to Kevin)

If no sinner would ever desire hell, then why would anyone reject Christ?

There are only two reasons I can think of:

  1. They do not understand what is going on.

  1. They are not of sound mind.

Can anyone add to this list? Remember we are assuming Wade’s premises that no sinner would ever desire hell. If this is true then, if presented with all the facts and a sound mind, every sinner would certainly accept Christ, who is the escape from hell.

If a sinner goes to hell because of either reason I have listed, is this justice?





A few things:

1. Christ is not the escape from hell. He is the eternal God who must be worshipped.

2. Christians (those who are "regenerate") daily re-condemn themselves to everlasting punishment EVEN with the knowledge of the Word of God. The facts remains we still love our sins more than we love our God.

3. "but God" (Ephesians 2:4) Best two words in all the Bible.


Fri Feb 12, 09:37:00 AM 2010



Were a person truly unable to understand (like an infant or the mentally incapicitated), I would agree with you wholeheartedly that hell seems unjust.

But Romans 1 says that an understanding that there is an invisible and immortal God and that He is to be worshipped-- and not men or idols--is written in the conscience and heart of every human being. So it seems to me that the Bible is saying just the opposite.

All understand and disobey their natural inclination to worship the Creator.





"All understand and disobey their natural inclination to worship the Creator."

From my conversations with atheists, I think this is false. There are good reasons not to believe (the problem of evil, examples of "unintelligent design", God's hiddenness, etc.). I personally feel that belief in God is a matter of taste, and the only reason to believe is whether you want to or not. Nothing logically compels us to believe. *note that I mean the traditional Western concept of God here.

Your are suggesting that people do have the capability to understand the situation of salvation and damnation. Then why would they choose damnation, something fundamentally outside their own best interest? It's incoherent to think that they would, I think.

Also, according to your view of God being "infinitely superior" to man - certainly this is a much greater distinction than the difference between a mentally handicapped person, or an infant, and an adult of sound mind. If we do not hold infants accountable to adult law, why should an God hold finite men accountable to infinite law?


Some responses:

1. By whose dictate must God be worshiped? By his own. There are better ways to insure your own worship than by remaining relatively hidden and "catching" the non-believers after death. Why not appear in all your power and present them with their options? This would surely convert the entire world.

Some suggest God does not do this out of respect and love for man and his freewill. Of course, this doesn't make sense if He then consigns people to Hell who did not realize it was that serious. This is not love. Love is rescuing someone from a dangerous situation, when they do not recognize the danger.

2. A daily personal condemnation is no substitute for being held in condemnation against your will for eternity.

3. I come back to this idea. If everyone really understood the situation, then why would anyone reject Christ? It is incoherent - the action of one who is not of sound mind, or of one who does not have all the facts before him.

Thanks for a very enjoyable conversation!


  1. If everyone really understood the situation, then why would anyone reject Christ?

    About as clear of a statement on the beauty of Christianity as I have read from anyone anywhere. I wholeheartedly agree with the wisdom in it.

    It leaves me wondering whose fault is it that people don't either see their predicament or their need of Christ?

  2. ".. any disobedience to the transcedent God's law is a crime of unbelievable magnitude."

    This is quite a crystalline statement of the authoritarian claim, made by priests from time immemorial on behalf of their own power structure. Fear, fear, fear is the name of the game, for all the talk of love. Fear of a totalitarian imaginary fate, Fear of the father, Fear of eternity. Fear of death.

    The atheist preaches love of the here and now- of good enough and best that can be, of loving each other without mind games or phantasms.

    Great work, Steven!

  3. Stephen, you make a number of excellent points to show that there is no way God intends to torture people in the afterlife, not for a second, much less for an eternity.

    I've actually written an entire book on this topic--Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at, but if I may, I'd just like to add one more point from my book to your several good ones already made--that if one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell.

    For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

    Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.

  4. Wade,

    "It leaves me wondering whose fault is it that people don't either see their predicament or their need of Christ?"

    Ultimately, it could only be God's fault, I think. It would certainly be in His capability to provide 1. all the relevant information and 2. a sound mind with which to make a judgement.

    Thanks for visiting the blog!


    "The atheist preaches love of the here and now- of good enough and best that can be....

    Thanks for your point. Your description here is quite close to some of my thoughts which seek to fill that mysterious crucible - the word "God". Good stuff!


    Thanks for your points! I hope to read your book sometime. While no biblical inerrantist myself (not by a long shot!!!), I am interested in your claim about the Gospel passages on Hades and Gehenna coming from later interpolations. It is certainly possible, but how do you prove it?

    It does seem true that the Hell passages are the product of

    1. Hellenization of Jewish thought through the centuries before Christ

    2. Apocryphal writing style of the time

    3. Polemical writing in reaction to in-fighting amongst different Christian sects, Christian frustration at the Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah, and persecution from the Roman Empire.


  5. These are all really nice posts. I have enjoyed reading them.

    Here is a thought: If there were no hell, what would it do to Christianity? I would like to think that Christianity is all about following God, out of love for Him, and with the faith that doing so leads to a better life now and in the future for you and all those around you. However, would Christianity survive without hell? I'd like to think so. However, I'm not sure based on the strong strong desire so many Christians have for it to exist. I wonder how many Christians would actually be disappointed if they learned there were no hell for non-believers.

  6. John,

    It's an interesting thought experiment for conservative Christians. "How would I feel if Hell didn't exist?"

    We might expect, unfortunately, for people to have a sense that it isn't fair - that if everyone goes to heaven then nothing we do in this world matters.

    This would reflect a belief that salvation is meritorious rather than based on God's favor (grace).

    Interestingly, this "hell-less" universalism shares much in common with atheism. Both believe all are headed for the same fate, so our actions today are all about today! Not about some ultimate future reward or punishment

  7. "If there were no hell, what would it do to Christianity? "

    There are some Christian groups who deny the concept of hell while maintaining the view of the Bible as authoritative and inerrant. The Seventh Day Adventists come to mind. They believe that the Bible teaches unbelievers will be annihilated, simply ceasing to exist, which is eternal punishment in the sense that it is a penal act of God with eternal consequences. While I find this idea somewhat appealing from an emotional standpoint, I think it involves problematic interpretations of certain passages of Scripture. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate that it is possible for a person or group to be Christian without the traditional doctrine of hell.

    There's no doubt that the fear of hell has been a serious club wielded by those in power over others, at least in some religions. In many cases it has likely been effective in maintaining control and discouraging undesirable behaviors. But it doesn't seem to me to be a very effective long term motivation for being a genuinely better person.