Remember, God has many attributes, and love is not the only one. In addition to being all-loving, it is equally true that God is morally perfect; and His moral perfection understandably demands complete righteousness and justice.
When we recognize that God not only expresses perfect love but requires absolute justice, it helps us understand why Jesus had to die for us to accomplish God’s purpose. On one hand, God’s justice requires that our sin be removed; on the other hand, God’s love explains why He did what was necessary to forgive us. In His limited fleshly condition, shortly before His impending crucifixion, Jesus Himself prayed, “Father … everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me…” (Mark 14:35-36; Matt 26:39; Luke 22:42). It is clear that He was referring to the cup of suffering that He was about to experience (see John 18:10-12). But apparently, it was not possible, even for God, to cancel our debt of sin without nailing it to the cross through the sacrifice of His own Son (Colossians 2:13-14). That is how much God loves us: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4-5).
The Bible characterizes God’s judgment of the unsaved in dreadful terms. For those who “do not know God and do not obey the gospel” of Jesus Christ, it is described as “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:8-9). It is an “eternal fire” (Matt 25:41), a place of “weeping” (Matt 13:42,50), and “outer darkness” (Matt 25:30). However, we should not necessarily think of all of this in strict literal terms, because we have both fire and outer darkness. Even so, the Bible speaks of it as an experience of great suffering and eternal separation from God.
Nonetheless, when we are told that our present world is being kept for “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly,” we are reminded in that same context that God is “patient” with us, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:7-9). So once again, we see God’s love side-by-side with God’s moral perfection and His demand for righteousness.
We should also keep in mind that the judgment of God is much larger than just a judgment of humanity. The “eternal fire” is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41); it is Satan who is thrown into the burning lake to be “tormented” (Rev 20:10). The primary foe of God is Satan. But humans have been granted the freedom to follow the way of Satan and sin. As a result, those who choose this path will not be included in the “book of life” and will experience God’s judgment in the “lake of fire” (Rev 20:15).
Perhaps what makes the issue of “eternal hell” seem so unjust to us arises from a widely-held assumption that violates our deepest intuitions: How can it be morally “just” to categorize all of humanity into just two groups—saved or unsaved—and give every person in each group the same “rewards” or the same “punishments”? Our intuitions strongly suggest that there is a huge difference in the level of evil in someone like Adolf Hitler and the quality of sin in someone who tries, but fails, to live a moral life or in those who sin but do not have an apparent opportunity to accept Jesus because of where they were born and raised. How can a loving God treat all people in such a simplistic, “two-category” way, giving exactly the same rewards and the same punishments to both groups?
One very important consideration is that a strong case can be made that this widely-held assumption is wrong. First, it neglects the point that God is not merely a judge demanding righteousness; He is a judge displaying love. Second, the Bible itself suggests that the love and justice of God will produce a final judgment “according to our deeds.” Many passages speak of this, but one text is representative and enlightening: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10 NIV, emphasis added; cf. Matt 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Cor 11:15; 2 Tim 4:14; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 2:23; 18:6; 22:12).
This opens up the further possibility that there will be degrees of rewards and degrees of punishment at the final judgment. And the Bible certainly seems to support this idea. Some deserve to be punished “more severely” because of how they have “trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb 10:29). Some—especially hypocritical religious leaders—will “be punished most severely” (Mark 12:38-40). And the degree of punishment is also apparently affected by one’s level of knowledge. Jesus said (Luke 12:47-48), “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” (emphasis added). In addition, Jesus indicates that it will be “more bearable” for some than for others in the day of judgment because some had access to experience more of God’s works but refused to believe them (see Matt 11:21-24).
The larger point is this: Even though scripture speaks of God’s judgment distinguishing between two basic groups of people—the “sheep” and the “goats” (Matt 25:31-46)—it clearly supports the idea that God’s judgment will factor in the complexities of life circumstances and the differences among individuals, and be guided by His justice as well as His love.
It is important to note, however, that God’s judgment “according to works,” though it affects one’s degree of reward or punishment, does not mean that our salvation from God is determined by our works. We are saved “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy …” (Titus 3:5); we are saved, “not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:9). The message of Christ and of Christianity is that God’s demand for righteousness is satisfied, not by us, but by His own Son whose righteousness is applied to us based on the work of Christ and our faith in Him (see Romans 3:21-24; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:8-10).
While hell is the ultimate consequence of those who relish sin and reject God, God’s “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). He is “patient” with us, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
By Zach Breitenbach, Director of the Worldview Center at Connection Pointe in Brownsburg, IN and the former Associate Director of Room For Doubt and Rich Knopp, Director of Room For Doubt and Professor of Philosophy & Christian Apologetics at LCU.