If God so Loves the World, Why is There a Hell?


Christ harrowing hellAs the camera pans the crowd at a football game, you see a few fans holding up the sign. It simply says “John 3:16.”

For years, evangelical Protestants have extolled this little bible verse as the heart of the Gospel. In their minds, if you only have a moment to tell people something about the Christian faith, this is the Scripture to quote: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whosoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

Pope Paul VI, in his landmark letter on evangelization, confirmed that this verse, from Sunday’s gospel, is indeed is the central theme of the entire bible.

So then comes the million dollar question–how could a loving God ever send anyone to hell?

The answer is very simple. He doesn’t.

Oh, hell certainly exists, alright. We see its crowded waiting room here on earth and can, if we observe closely, get some insight as to why its occupants are sitting there.

War certainly comes close to being hell on earth, especially when you happen to be on the losing side. Armed conflict is always nasty. But in the ancient world, despite the low level of technology, war was often total. When a city resisted a conquering army, it was made an example to neighboring towns. Jerusalem, for example, was razed to the ground by the Babylonians. The pride and joy of Israel, Solomon’s temple, was reduced to a heap of rubble, civilians as well as soldiers put to the sword, and a few lucky ones led into exile.

Did God bring this hellish fate upon them? Not in the least. He actually sent messengers to tell them how to prevent such tragedy. Jeremiah warned Jerusalem to repent and offer no resistance to the invaders. Their response? They imprisoned him. Through stubborn and foolish arrogance, they brought their fate crashing down upon their own heads, much to God’s dismay.

Eternal punishment comes in exactly the same way. None are in hell except those who choose to be. “The judgment is this–the light came into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of the light (John 3:19). Why would anyone walk away from the light? Perhaps because they don’t like what they see as they emerge from the shadows. Maybe because they don’t want anyone else to see them are they really are. They’d rather keep up the charade that they are good people and can fend for themselves, thank you very much. That they’ve always done what’s right and deserve to be appreciated, even applauded, by God and everyone else.

At the moment of death, the choice for light or darkness becomes final and irrevocable. But before that time, God is waiting for us to turn to him. He is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4). He shines his light on our sins and brokenness not to humiliate us, but to irradiate the vermin that infects us and to clear up our blotchy complexion. All we need is the courage to face the truth about ourselves and rejoice in his merciful love which accepts us no matter what we’ve done or who we are. All we need is to be willing to say “sorry” and “thanks.” For we can do nothing to earn his favor–it comes to us as a pure, undeserved gift, as Ephesians tells us in Sunday’s second reading.

But God can’t give us his mercy if we don’t ask for it. And if we insist of “pulling our own weight,” and getting from God what’s coming to us, he’ll do as we request. Jesus offers us a share in what He deserves from our heavenly Father. I think I’d opt for that rather than what I deserve!

Lent is a time to remember that we live by the mercy of God, and to renew our determination that the grace that he has so generously lavished upon us will not be received in vain.


About Author

Grew up in Providence RI. BA at Providence college, Ph.D. in historical theology from Catholic University of America. Former professional musician and theology professor at Loyola College in Maryland and the University of Dallas. Currently owner of Wellness Business Ventures LLC and director of CrossroadsInitiative.com. Father of five.

  • Struble

    Something here makes me uneasy. It’s like we are redefining God again (an ancient malady) this time to fit him into a skeptical culture.

    Postmodernists don’t want to hear about the final judgement (Matthew 25:41) where the Lord tells the goats, “then shall he say also unto them on the left hand. Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” It’s not fashionable in a pagan culture to take this image at anything like face value. Therefore let’s placate Americans enamored with the secular trinity of tolerance, diversity and choice. For their sake, let’s portray the Lord as eschewing the hard line and just letting the goats choose their eternal destiny, i.e. go voluntarily into hell.

    • Struble

      Their idea seems to be that the gates of heaven are eternally ajar, and that anyone can enter, or else freely decide to go elsewhere. It all depends upon his or her will alone. No need for St. Peter or any other gatekeeper.

  • Dhaniele

    It seems to me that human freedom offers all of us the possibility to be like God (who is love) or like Satan (who is selfishness). Those who choose selfishness rather than genuine love reap what they have sown in this life in the next life. God simply accepts their choice and gives them what they have merited by that choice because God who is perfect in all aspects, in the last analysis, is fair to those who reject him just as he is merciful to those who accept him.

    • Rationalist1

      I was raised Catholic but now am an atheist. I do not consider myself selfish towards other people and I am quite willing to let my life be judged by any human standard. But I am not willing to cower in fear before a tyrant that holds out the threat of saying “begone from me” if I fail to worship him. It’s morally reprehensible.

      • ColdStanding

        Unless, of course, you have a partial or incomplete idea of what the term “fear of the Lord” actually means, no?

        Your use of the term fear of the Lord is as if it were base and servile trembling before a cruel slave owner. The muslim allah would be the tyrant you are thinking of. However, Catholic theology holds a rather different view. The holy fear of the Lord is the adoration and awe of His infinite majesty. This is not base and servile fear. Quite the contrary. This disposition, fear of the Lord by the Catholic definition, is a rational response to what the Church teaches.

        And how can you call Him a tyrant who gave you life and everything by which you are continually supported? It is also true that He has done everything possible to warn you of the doom with which you are faced. Did He not have you born into a family that gave you access to the Catholic Church? Many others He did not do that for. He, even though you have incomprehensibly rejected Him, continues to sustain you. You are alive aren’t you? That is His mercy.

        It is morally reprehensible and not at all rational to have been given the truth and failed to respond to it by at least giving the Catholic faith the hearing it deserves.

        • Rationalist1

          In scripture fear (phobos) is used in tow different ways, one meaning respect as you would for a person in authority and the other meaning being extremely wary. And why would such an infinite God need his creations to worship him. It’s akin to a parent asking a child he created to worship him and if they choose not to he allows them to be tortured. Maybe that works in the Cheney family but it’s not my morals.

          You have no proof God continually supports his creation. You and your church just made that up. If he chose to have me born into a Catholic family, then he chose others to be be born into a not Catholic family. Why? I gave it a hearing for 30 years and even took theology course at university and found it was empty and there was no evidence for a God or Gods.

          • ColdStanding

            It is a mystery. Love offered seeks a response. Even when the one that offers the love is God.

            If you have a job, does not the employer who created the position you enjoy the benefits of have certain expectations of you?

            If you employ people, do you not expect them to aid you in achieving your business goals?

            What father or mother is indifferent as to whether or not their child loves them? (A great many, I realize, as there are so many aborted.)

            These are crass examples. But fitted to the subject.

            Friend, your will is hardening in such a way that God will honor your choice. Will you regret your choice? Who knows? However, it does have very real and eternally lasting consequences. You will die. You will face judgement. You will end up in either heaven or hell.

            I don’t tell you this to give you further chance to harden your will against God’s love, but that is what you will do with it.

            God really does exist. His words are true. He will take you back. It isn’t too late for you. This message may be the last time you are called back. Is your pride worth so much more than life everlasting?

          • Rationalist1

            First there is no evidence that God is my “employer” (to use that analogy. Secondly my employer does not own me and my employer cannot threaten me with eternal unemployment should I seek another job. Am I here only to serve God’s “business goals” He wants (and somehow needs) someone to worship him for all eternity so he created us.
            As to abortions, about half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions, most without the mother knowing she was pregnant and some knowing but science can do nothing to stop it. Whose the largest abortion provider?

            You say some parents are indifferent to whether their child loves them. No good parent does. And further, no good parent, even if the child didn’t love them and turned their back on them, would ever allow their child to be tortured by someone. Hell (so to speak) I would do everything in my power to stop a stranger from being tortured. That’s just my morality, not God’s

            This is not pride, any more it is not pride that you do not believe in Allah, or Buddha, or any other God.

          • ColdStanding

            “I don’t tell you this to give you further chance to harden your will against God’s love, but that is what you will do with it.”

            I so called it.

          • Pax

            You are right about the “employer” analogy. Of coarse must have some leniency when using analogies because no analogy is perfect, they are used to demonstrate something and are not intended to be literal.

            Although I fail to see the need for analogy to make this point. IF God exists AND God is the creator of all things. THEN God is YOUR creator and as a creator ( of anything ) there is more then reasonable expectation that what is created is created for some reason, for some purpose.

            The Judeo-Christian claim is that God created human beings for the purpose of giving and receiving love especially for giving and receiving love from himself.

            The Greek word for ‘worship’ means to fall down in towards, to honor , glorify and love. Part of the old English wedding vows used to include ‘I will worship your body with mine’. It is a term that implies intimacy.
            So worship is not ,servile, in a certain sense, and Christian philosophy elevates the person from the the position of a possession to that of a child. “If you keep my commands, you are not longer slaves I call you friends.” This is the biblical idea of covenant.

            So if God is a lover , and not a rapist, what do you suppose would be the natural consequences for a created thing , built with the desire to fulfill a purpose , which refused to do what it was created to do?
            Should the creator who loves it destroy it? Or should He allow it to have the separation from him that it desires? Also, remember what the separation is from, it is a separation from all goodness, including all pleasure , it is utter loneliness. Even to some extent from existence itself. As even in hell you cannot be completely separated from God.

            Although you would best be benefited by putting first things first and resolve why you don’t believe in God , as you have not presented and rational reason for such an unbelief.

            And since the order of knowledge follows one thing after another it really isn’t very useful to attempt to discuss something like universal gravitation with someone who reject the idea the gravity exists.

            Or in other words, if the belief in hell is not the reasons you reject belief in God , why discuss something that is utter nonsense if God doesn’t exists.

            The existence of hell is logically provable from the attributes of God, but if you don’t believe in God how can you expect to make any sense of attributes attributed to him?

          • Pax

            To answer your question. “why would God need us too”. The answer is he doesn’t. He has absolutely no need of us, but recognized that our creation could be of benefit to us and so created us out of unselfish love.

          • Rationalist1

            Then he doesn’t need your or me to worship and glorify him for all eternity.

          • Pax

            Yes that is very true. God created us for the purpose of worshiping him. WE will be unhappy if we don’t , but he does not need us.

          • Rationalist1

            If he does not need it, why allow those who choose not to undergo an eternity of torture because we made the wrong mistake. Surely oblivion would be more humane (so to speak) course of action. It sounds like he really, really wants us to worship and glorify him for all eternity.

          • Pax

            I think you missed the theology behind the article. It is subtle but important point. God does not choose hell, he allows it , he allows it because those who are in hell choose it and out of love ( which is the reason God does all things) he doesn’t destroy those who he has created with free will. Also, he allows it out of justice, because the rejection of perfect reward , very justly merits the opposite.

            More to the point, they are given what they want and allowed their freedom of choice. Giving us what we want is the worst punishment God gives out , because what He wants is always infinitely better then what we want for ourselves.

            Also, I would note, that from what I have been able to gather you very correctly reject the God you understand, but that God has very little to do with the true God or what the catholic church teaches about him. I would encourage you to take a further look.

      • Pax

        I certainly am not your judge. However, if there is not god, and you are NOT acting selfishly, then you are acting inconsistently with what you claim to be reality. Even if you sometimes do nice things for other people , what motivation can you have other then the way it makes you feel, or some expectation of reward? Not being selfish means not doing what makes you feel good and what benefits you and instead seeking the benefit of the other, even if it makes you feel terrible and isn’t in your best interest. How can there be any logic what so ever in taking such an action unless you believe the benefit out ways the cost? What benefit do you get from performing an unselfish act?

        • Rationalist1

          If you feel no motivation to help others, independent of your faith, I would strongly suggest that you remain a believer. Altruism is not limited to believers, it’s a human condition. It’s just that some people need a religion of some sort to get them to behave that way.

          • Pax

            I think you failed to understand my point. If the only reason you do altruistic things is because ‘it feels right’ is it really altruistic? And more to the point, if you do something that is to your disadvantage how can you say you are acting logically? Or would you rather claim that you enjoy acting illogically and against your self interest and that is a good enough reason to do so.

          • Rationalist1

            I do altruistic things because it’s part of my moral code. I seek, in my own small way, to leave this world better than I found it. I help others because of empathy, a feeling shared by all almost all people. I do many things to my disadvantage and I don’t need a future promised reward (we’ll all have pie in the sky) to prompt me. I also seek to make the live of others around me better because that is the society that I want to live in. I don’t just say, all will be better when we depart the vale of tears.

          • Pax

            I didn’t ask you why you did what you choose to do. Your reasons are very much as I expected them to be. I asked you if doing them was the rational thing to do,’rationalist’. What is the logical reason that leads you do them. history is replete with examples of the fact that the reasons you listed are ones that are easily discarded when they are no longer convenient . Many people who claim to believe in God have exactly the same reasons and they fail to act as they should when what is required of them is ‘too hard’ or ‘too inconvenient’.

  • Rationalist1

    Hell is an immoral, obscene concept that I wouldn’t wish upon the worse person who ever lived. It was however, until recently, a very effective way to keep people fearful and trembling less they stray one iota from their true faith (which ever Christian denomination that was).

    But society has changed. Just as most of society no longer accept that it was okay in the old Testament to kill all the Amalekites (except the virgins) or the mass bombing of civilians in war as like happened in WWII and Vietnam, society has found the idea of hell, of any sort, morally wrong.

    • Pax

      I thought you didn’t believe in god? How then can you say anything is immoral? What standard do you use to measure it? Do you simply mean you don’t like it? And more to the point what proof do you have that what you say is immoral is immoral? why should i believe you?

      • Rationalist1

        How can I say something is immoral? I use reason, discussion, science, experience (personal and shared), philosophy and human empathy to arrive at a moral system.

        It’s the morality that lead to a majority of non believers saying (in a recent Washington Post Poll) that torture is wrong but only 20% of Catholics saying so. Not a bad morality.

        • Pax

          Again i think you are missing my point. How can we start to talk about weather something has or does not have a property if we can’t first agree on the definition of that property? You have made the claim that there is no God and as far as I know that is equivalent to the claim there is not such thing as morality.

          Can you define for me the term ‘moral’ and demonstrate for me it’s cause?

          You cannot claim to use science to prove something is moral or immoral , morality is outside the scope of physical observation.

          Empathy again has nothing to do with what is or is not moral. You may feel great empathy for the pain someone is experiencing when they have their wisdom teeth removed , but that doesn’t make pulling wisdom teeth immoral.

          There is no philosophical system that presents an idea of the concept of moral and immoral without appealing to some ‘thing’ that is outside the two people speaking of morality and naming that ‘thing’ god.

          If you want to be a logically consistent atheist you must hold that there is no such thing as morality , only evolution and power, because there is no ‘immaterial’ thing that can obligate you or i to take any action we don’t find appealing to take.

          • Rationalist1

            How would you act differently if you didn’t believe in God?

          • Pax

            hmm… that is highly speculative and difficult to answer.

            I can tell you of some of the changes that occurred in my life as I have more fully embraced my faith. At one point it time I was virtually agnostic and near atheist. At that point it my life I often suffered from depression, because I realized that the world was not a good place and human beings were not good, I was was not good, often falling into gluttony and lust and there was very little anyone could do about it.

            Without God there is not hope.

            Since I have embraced God and his love I have found I world full of hope , and met many beautiful people , all of whom like my self are sinners looking to become closer to God. I have overcome my lust and much of my gluttony, I have seen and been inspired by people and things that I never would have given the time of day unless God had been a priority for me. I have found a way of accepting the things I cannon changes and believing that even those things will one day be healed and justice and love perfectly balanced.

            Now to return to the topic. You claimed something (teaching about hell) was immoral. I asked why you believe ANYTHING is immoral.

            Do you claim there is some standard outside of you and me by which we can measure what is moral and what is immoral? If so that is one of the standard basis for the proof of existence of God. If not why are you using words that are meaningless? Or at least tell me how you define that term? Anyone who studies atheism for even a small time realized that that without some transcendent absolute that there is no such thing as morality.

            Can you say that genocide is wrong? why ? Then why not the slaughter of millions of en-utero homo sapiens. Every scientist knows that all life forms that reproduce with gametes have a life cycle begins when the ovum is fertilized.

          • Rationalist1

            Actually for a Catholic it’s not difficult to answer. You have recourse in the Catholic teaching of Natural Law – “The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin .” Catholic catechism. Remember I’m an ex-Catholic.

            Just the opposite occurred with me. When I was Catholic I was filled with anxiety, doubt and fear. I was always praying to God to help me. Gradually I realized there was no one there and I was able to overcome problems myself and with the help of family and friends. I don’t have to fear the dark day of the soul, I have the bright day of human contact, which is real, immediate and is with people who have the same strengths and weaknesses I do.

            There is morality without God. It’s called secular ethics and it causes reaches out beyond oneself. not to a unknowable, transcendent, inscrutable, hidden deity but to society as a whole.

            Why is genocide wrong? Ask your God who in your Scripture killed every man, woman and child on the planet, save six? Ask me why it’s wrong and it’s because each human life is unique and should be protected if all possible.

          • Pax

            What does the uniqueness of a human life have to do with it needing protection? Doesn’t every animal fit that same category? Even every plant, many rocks? There is nothing , physically speaking, that makes human beings ‘more special’ then any other complex chemical process , except you happen to fit the same category.

            In other words, ” If the only difference between a man nose and a pigs snout is a series of accidents , then why should we not treat men like pigs?”

            Secular ethics is a ruse, it is like a shell game, all it really means, at best is a consensus of what people feel about a given topic at a given time. So the Aztec were doing nothing wrong by sacrificing thousands to their god . Slavery wasn’t wrong in the south either , until peoples opinions of changed generations later.

          • Pax

            “The natural law” is engraved on the heart of every man, even atheist, so that is not an answer to the question, how does my belief make me different.

          • Pax

            “When I was Catholic I was filled with anxiety, doubt and fear. I was always praying to God to help me.”

            Interesting, I think that does support my earlier thesis that the God you rejected is not God nor the God of the catholic church. The God that grants peace , the God of love, who wishes to ‘take you under His wing like a mother hen’. I’m sorry for whatever experiences have separated you from so great a love. Not that I even hold fault in you specifically over it. Pope Benedict the XVII wrote ‘whenever a christian dialog with an atheist they also dialog with some part of themselves, because all of to one degree or another lack faith’. So I thank for the opportunity and your openness.

          • Rationalist1

            It was revealed after her death that Mother Teresa (who I once met and talked to briefly) lived most of her adult life in the dark night of the soul, not experiencing God’s presence. Did she reject the God of the Catholic Church as well?

          • Pax

            I don’t know how the question is related. I honestly would not be a person able to judge that, except that she has been canonized which is normally considered something very close to a official declaration that she is in heaven. The dark night of the soul , however , is a term coined by John of the cross to signify a type of spiritual purification that some saints are asked to endure. It is something that helps them to become , saints. God asks them to keep loving him and others, keep doing what is right , with no earthly reward. Making there actions much more selfless then they otherwise might be.

  • Randall Ward

    Why they choose hell? Because their sin is wonderful to them and they love it more than life.

    • Pax

      why choose hell “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

      They love themselves, their own autonomy , their own ‘way’ more then the truth.