How Can a Good God Send People to Hell?
How could God create a place like hell? Why would he create a place like hell? Vince and Jo Vitale speak to these difficult questions this week on Ask Away.
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. There is no way to sugarcoat today's topic. The seeming divergence between God's perfect goodness and the fact that hell is a real place that unbelievers go to is something that many people, even believers, just can't get past. How could God create a place like hell? Why would he create a place like hell? There are no easy answers, but today we hope to show you that there are answers, but before we get started, let's get a little bit lighthearted. Jo, recently in the last several months, you've actually gotten your PHD, so we should be happy and excited about that, but can you tell us a little bit about what you studied and about the process?
Jo Vitale: Yeah, I'm very happy to be finished, that's for sure. I'm sure Vince is too. I was definitely subhuman by the end of that process, but I was working the Old Testament, I was already interested in questions of, “is the Bible fair to women,” “is it oppressive to women?” And my sort of narrow focus was looking at image women and beauty in the Old Testament. How do we compare what the Old Testament says to later texts outside the Bible and how is God presenting women and treating women? And I'm pleased to say that at a digging deeper that I did find it to be favorable and encouraging to me as a woman. So it was, it was a long project, but it was fun to do.
Vince Vitale: Oh, it's great to see what's resulted from it though. It's just a great topic for you to speak from because so many people, we, I have a cousin actually who her primary reason for not being a Christian is that she thinks that Christianity is sexist and that it doesn't have good things to say to women. And so it's great to hear Jo be able to speak to that topic now so confidently to take that rumored objection and actually just turn it right on its head and say actually the Bible, Jesus, Christianity as a whole is great news for women. So yeah, fantastic job and great to see you putting that to great use.
Michael Davis: Congratulations. And you know, I grew up in academia, so I know the process, my sister's got her doctorate and my father and I'm finishing up my master's and my wife actually said that if I decided to get my PHD, that she would use the biblical foundation of abandonment. So she said that I am not allowed to and then she would be able to divorce me. So I'm not allowed to get my PHD and when I finished my master's, but no, seriously, congratulations. That's great. Okay, let's, let's get into this.
Here's the first question. “With so many religions and philosophies out there, isn't it arrogant and exclusive to claim that Jesus is the only way to get into heaven?”
Vince Vitale: Yeah. I appreciate, Michael, you saying that there aren't any easy answers here and I hope people will find on this show that we don't shy away from the difficult questions. We hope that you'll submit your most difficult questions, not because we think that we have a perfect answer, but we do believe that we trust in a perfect God and that over time he can move us in the direction and he can help us to see more insights and prayerfully come to a place where we can understand more and more of who he is and what he's done and what he desires for our lives. So we want to deal with the toughest questions and this is definitely one of them.
The Bible makes some really outlandish claims in this respect. It does say that there's no other name but Jesus by which we can be saved. Jesus said, "I'm the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me." These are big, big claims. And I guess the first thing that I would want to say with this idea of why is Jesus the only way to heaven? Oftentimes the objection is put that way. And one thing I'd want to say is, isn't it amazing that God gave us a way? You know, if he had given us 10 ways to heaven, then we would want an 11th way to heaven. But isn't it amazing that he gave us a way, even though it meant him coming and living a human life and suffering and even giving his life for us in order to make that way?
And you know, if someone gave their lives for us, if someone made that sacrifice for you, it would be a very odd thing to turn around and say, well, why have you only given your life for me once? The appropriate response would be to turn around with great gratitude for their generosity and their sacrifice for you. So the first thing I want to say is, let's not say why doesn't God give us more ways to heaven? Let's delight in the fact and thank him for the fact that he has provided a way even at great cost to himself. And the second thing I often say in response to this question, why is Jesus the only way to heaven? In summary, I think the answer is because Jesus is heaven. Oftentimes I think we have a misconceived understanding of what heaven is. We think of it more like a theme park.
We're going to get to the pearly gates and Jesus would give us an entry ticket and then we'll go into the theme park and we'll go our separate ways. And if that's what heaven is, well then we think, well why can't God just give everybody an entry ticket and everybody wind up in heaven? Surely he can do that. But although there are a variety of biblical ways to think about heaven, I think one of the primary ways is that it is relationship with Jesus himself. Eternal life is to know God and the one that he sent, Jesus, and if that's the case, then I think it's not just something God can just give us. It's something that is a relationship and therefore it has to be chosen from both sides and it can't be the case, therefore, that we wind up in heaven just because we try to do good things.
You know, I might go out and try to do lots of good things with my life. That in itself is not going to put me in relationship with Jo. If I want to be in relationship with Jo, then I need to turn in her direction. I need to trust her. I need to enter into a relationship with her and I need to put that as a significant value in my life. And the same thing I think with heaven from a Christian perspective, it's not just an award ceremony for good behavior. It's not just that we can try and do good things and think that that's what's going to get us to heaven. What heaven is a relationship with Jesus, a relationship with God, and so that has to be our primary focus if that is what we desire.
Jo Vitale: We have an anniversary coming up next week, so there's an opportunity to invest in our relationship.
Michael Davis: I do too actually. Uh-oh.
Jo Vitale: He's just checking his calendar right now. But I think that's what makes this so important, in regards to this question, because actually it's one of the totally unique things about Christianity. You know, people often say, “oh, there were all these paths up the mountain, but that will leading to God.” But the assumption behind the question is that all religions are aiming to get to God and actually think that's not the case until I think only in Christianity is the goal God. You know when Jesus says in John 17, "This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." If you look at, you know, the four most popular religions in the world for example, so you need, and in Buddhism it's basically atheistic.
There isn't God. You're, you're aiming for Nirvana, you know, Hinduism, you become one with God. But it involves the disillusion of the self into this sort of collective whole. If you're looking at Islam, it's really about reaching paradise. But you don't, you know, Allah seems to be quite absent from the picture you see depicted. Only in Christianity is the goal actually relationship with God. So I don't think it's arrogant to claim something when this is that, you know, it's the only religion saying that's what it's trying to do in the first place. I will say, speaking to that issue of arrogance, I just think it's Christians. We have absolutely no room for arrogance in our faith because we're not saying we've created a path by ourselves off our own efforts, like any other worldview. We say it's about doing good deeds, earning your way, whether it's, you know, the law of Karma in Hinduism or whether it's, you know, they're following the noble path of, of doing right deeds in Buddhism, or whether it seen a good deeds outweighing bad deeds and in Islam, but only in Christianity saying, actually none of you have a leg to stand on.
You can't do this by yourselves. You can't get up the mountain on your own. Only in Christianity do we have God saying, "Hey, I know you can't reach me. I'm coming down the path to you. I'm the one who's gonna, you know, make the path and make the way." So as Christians, we can't be arrogant about that. If we are, then we're completely in denial about the fact that we've done nothing and it's entirely what God has done for us. And that's also amazingly inclusive rather than exclusive as well because that's an offer for everybody.
Vince Vitale: Yep. And I think it's true to experience as well that just doing good works is not what gets you into deep relationship, and in particular, it's not what restores relationship when things have gone wrong. You know, when I've wronged you, Jo, and we have, you know, a tension in our marriage because of it. And sometimes I'll do this, but you can, you can be tempted to just try to do good things, do nice things and you can do that until you're blue in the face and it's not going to actually restore relationship. It's only when I actually turn towards you and say I was wrong and will you forgive me that relationship is restored. And so again, this picture of Heaven not as an award ceremony for doing enough good things, but as humbly stepping back into relationship and restoring relationship by being willing to say I was wrong.
Will you forgive me to repent? In other words, to turn in a new direction and enter into relationship with Jesus who is heaven itself. I like how John Lennox put it. Somebody once said to him, do you believe in heaven? He said, of course. I go there every day. What an amazing line, you know, to think actually eternal life can start now in the context of that relationship that we're intended for.
Michael Davis: I think that I'd like to add in, and I'm going to throw it back to you, don't you guys think that for the most part everyone has exclusive claims about their worldview. It's interesting how the people who hold incredibly like naturalistic and atheistic perspectives are incredibly exclusive in regards to the way that they see it. But for some reason the demand from others for them to be inclusive because if they, if they're holding to any other views or worldview that they're being exclusive, but they're allowed to be exclusive, just not us. So what do you guys think of that?
Vince Vitale: I think is a fair challenge. I mean an atheistic viewpoint is incredibly exclusive. It's only a live option for the smallest minority of the world's population throughout history. And even today, if you don't live in certain countries today, the idea that you could come to adopt the view of atheism is incredibly, incredibly low. It wouldn't even be on the table as one of your possibilities. Contrast that with Christianity where I believe I have a God who actually can break in anywhere and we know that he has broken in in the most unlikely of circumstances to reach the most unlikely of people. That's an inclusive faith. Whereas I actually see atheists in atheism as a very exclusive way of seeing the world.
Jo Vitale: I also think there's a certain irony in the fact that when it comes to religion, we think, you know, truth is relative and yeah, and any other discipline, that's not how we function. That you know, thank goodness that scientists or engineers are not relative about truth, that they actually believe in objective truth. I mean, imagine like getting into a building if you engineered, didn't think that the math that the situation mattered. Imagine getting onto an airplane. We don't function that way in every other area of life. So why did we suddenly, when it comes to religion think, oh no, truth doesn't, there isn't really a big truth. That's all just it's relative. Whatever you want to believe. Whatever's good for you. There isn't one, one ultimate way to believe.
Michael Davis: Absolutely. So here is the elephant in the room. The question that we get a lot, and this is the question that I've, it's yet another one of those questions that you pretty much have to deal with every non-believer you're dealing with. So this is the question, how do we reconcile God's unlimited love? Cause I think everyone's very happy with an idea of God loving us and everything is wonderful. How do you reconcile God's unlimited love with his sending people to hell?
Jo Vitale: Hmm. I am. I really appreciate the force of this question. I think, I think we all do. I think it's one that we've all struggled with at different points. I know for me, I went through quite a long phase in my faith as a teenager when I really found this difficult, I think my mindset was, well, if God's so loving, why doesn't he just sweepingly forgive everybody? Why does he have to judge them? You know, that seems that the opposite of love. That seems to be in contradiction, aren't we taught to forgive everybody why then doesn't God just do the same thing? And actually that was really challenged for me. A few years after that when actually one of my friends went through that horrific trauma of being raped and seeing her deal with the consequences of that, seeing the impact it had on her life, the way that it was so painful and horrible, the way she would blame herself for something that shouldn't be blamed for in the fact that this guy got away with it.
It just made me so angry and so longing for justice and for judgment for somebody. He hadn't received human judgment in this lifetime. And that's when I realized, Gosh, if, if my love for my friend means I long for her to experience justice, cause that's what you do when you love somebody in their head, you cry out for justice for them. That how much more would a God who loves every single one of us more than we could possibly imagine be when we wrong and hurt each other. You know, sometimes we think, God shouldn't judge us because he's loving. But actually it's because he loves us so much that I think he's a God who's also totally committed to two judgment because he cares about justice. He cares about those who are oppressed, who suffer horribly in this lifetime you day there'll be people listening to this who have been treated incredibly badly and actually that really matters to God.
And I think it's so important to be able to say that even if in this lifetime, so much oppression and injustice goes un-dealt with and unanswered that we can actually, you know, look forward to a day when God will ensure that justice is brought about for everybody. And yet I actually think the harder question for us to answer is not why would God judge people? Why would he send them to hell as an act of judgment? Actually the harder thing is why would he forgive anybody? Because actually all of us under judgment, we've all wronged and hurt each other. You know, justice is an issue every one of us has to face. And how amazing that at the Cross God actually is inclusively offering for everybody forgiveness and not because of anything we've done to earn it, but because he is willing to lay down his life to give it to us. To me, that's the more mind blowing thing here, that God would forgive us. Not that he would judge us.
Vince Vitale: It is. It's incredibly beautiful, the solution that Jesus offers at the cross because it just to affirm what you've said, Jo, but you know, we sometimes get people who say to us, why won't God just forgive everyone? He loves everyone, right? So surely he would just forgive them. He wouldn't want to judge any of them. He wouldn't want to punish any of them. And that's a reasonable intuition. But then like you've said, Jo, there's other people who will come to us and we've had people come to us and literally say, I can't believe in a God who just forgives my rapist as if it was no big deal what happened to me. And so how can God answer both of those challenges? The challenge, I said, surely God loves everyone and wants to be willing to forgive everyone and bring everyone into relationship with him.
For all eternity to give that offer and at the same time take seriously what's been done even to the person who's been raped. And I just think that God finds the most creative and beautiful way of dealing with both of those challenges at this same time intersecting at the cross where he says, I will take that seriously what's been done to you. There does need to be judgment. There does need to be justice. There does need to be punishment, but I love each and every person so much. I can't bear to see them have to be the ones to carry that judgment and that punishment. So I'm going to take it on myself and I'm going to offer to every single person that if they accept that, then their judgment, their punishment will be on me. And then they will have the offer of forgiveness and life for me for all eternity. Just an incredibly beautiful, the only faith where you have love and justice in perfect unity. Not love at the expense of justice, not justice at the expense of love, but justice exercised through love, love exercised through God's justice, incredibly, incredibly beautiful. And I think the more we meditate on that, the more we just see the beauty of who God is.
Jo Vitale: I always say, I was just thinking that coming back to Vince's example about what is heaven and hell, what actually are they in? And yes, we believe in a physical resurrection that they're physical places, but as of it's the same, primarily heaven is about relationship with Jesus. And therefore if you don't desire that relationship with Jesus, if you don't actually want to be in relationship with him, then actually hell really is the only logical possibility for those who don't want to be in that relationship. So you know, I don't think it's the case of God saying, you know, I'm sending you to hell because I don't love you. But I actually think it's more the case that we don't want to be with God and we don't. We don't love God. I think it was C.S. Lewis. He said this well in his book “The Great Divorce,” when he basically said, at the end of the day, there are two kinds of people and that there are those who say to God thy will be done. Or there are those to whom God says thy will be done. You know, he actually amazingly is a respecter of our choices and our decisions. And that's not because he doesn't care. It's not because it doesn't grieve him, but actually it's because he loves us enough to take our decisions seriously. Even if that decision is about not wanting to be with him.
Vince Vitale: One of the ways that the Bible talks about hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth and oftentimes, that's a phrase that's shied away from talking about, but it's one that's come to make a lot of sense to me. We've dealt with a lot of estrangement in my family, as you know, Jo, and at times with my uncles, there had been years where they haven't spoken to each other. Brothers and yet estranged from the relationship that they know deep down they're intended to be in and is actually supposed to be one of their deepest and closest relationships. And one of the things I found was that I oftentimes could see the hurt that that brought to them and the weeping that that brought to them even when they were apart, but actually the weeping and literally the gnashing of teeth out of frustration was greatest when they were together, when we had a family gathering and they both had to be there and now they're physically in the same place, but they're still completely relationally estranged.
And so if you're not willing to choose the other person, then whether you're in the same place or whether you're in different places, either way, there's weeping and there's gnashing of teeth because you're not living in the relationship you were intended to live in. And you know that deep down. That's only because of your own pride and your own decision that you're making. So like Jo said, I think sometimes we put God in a position where if what heaven is his relationship with him, we put him in a position where it's very difficult to just put us into heaven and actually if we decide against him, then we wind up in a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Whether he makes it the case that we're far from him or that we're in physical proximity to him. Either way we're out of relationship with him and knowing that we're intended to be in relationship with him and that we're choosing against that.
That's going to be a really painful state to endure. One final thing I'd say on this is, when we talk about God's judgment, sometimes I think it doesn't make sense to us because I think we vastly underestimate the severity of our sin. We don't like to talk about that word. I had an experience a number of years ago where a boy named Ewan who I can remember being very unkind to as a teenager and then I heard that he had taken his life and you know the Bible says "For the wages of sin is death." I had read that verse many, many times before. Never did it hit me like it did when I received that news and I begin to think, would he have taken his life had I been kind to him, had I offered my hand to him, used it to help him up rather than push him down?
We don't always see the ripple effects of our sin, of the impurity in our hearts. Just recently I met a young woman who told me he was a freshman in college. She grew up in the church, went to college as a Christian, went with her boyfriend from the same church, both Christians. They decided they would take a comparative religion class and this was the first line out of the professor's mouth. This is how he started the class. He was trying to be provocative, and he said, "Everything you've been taught is a lie. The idea of God is a fairytale and the Bible is a false book." That was the first words out of his mouth in this class, the perfect person who supposed to be the smart person that they're supposed to learn from at college and their faith begin to crumble and collapse.
And before the end of that academic year, the boyfriend had committed suicide. And you know that professor, I don't know if he ever was able to trace the trajectory from his sinful words to that ultimate outcome. And so often we're not able to trace that trajectory. But if we saw the ripple effects of all of the impurity in our heart, I think we would understand why there needs to be judgment, either judgment on us or judgment on Jesus on our behalf. You know, a sin is even worse when it's committed against someone who loves you. If somebody gave their life for you and then you went and robbed them, that would be a particularly terrible sin, particularly terrible way to treat that person who had given so much to you. And when we sin, we do that against God, but not just any god, a God who came and was willing to give his life for us. And that's another reason why sin is so severe and why God does have to be a God not only of love, but also of justice and of judgment.
Michael Davis: I think that we also have to understand and building on what you were talking about, Jo, and the fact that it's amazing that God would save anyone, that's a more amazing thing, is that there's precedence to how God deals with judgment before humanity happened. And that's with the angels. He would have been completely justified in sending pretty much anyone who rebelled against his law, the law that is written on all people's hearts, to hell. It's what he did with the demons and what he did with angels. So the fact that he has given us any way to get to be reconciled with him, even though that we all willfully sin and the fact that, and also building on what you were talking about in the severity of sin, we look at the cross and we go, oh yeah, Jesus died for my sins.
Do we realize how horrible of a punishment that Jesus went through? This is not just dying on a cross. This was the God, the eternal God of the universe, Jesus and the Father, the Son and the Father who had eternal communion together, for the first time in history were separate. There is nothing that we can even begin to understand the severity of that sin and how much he loved us to be able to take those sins upon himself and to experience those things. Many, many people suffered. Crucifixion. Crucifixion was, the light is part of that punishment. The fact that he would do that for us is just amazing. And I do. I sometimes think when I do something willful and I sin against God, and I realized that for that specific sin, Jesus took that upon himself and that there was suffering that I have done personally that has done that is causing suffering to Christ. And just the joy and the gratitude that comes from the fact that he saved me from a punishment that not only I deserve. If I was face to face with all the things that I have done, and I will at the judgment, I will probably be begging for the punishment that I deserve. But Jesus, he took it upon himself and how amazing is that?
Vince Vitale: It is just amazing. And not only that he was willing to do that, but then continues in his love for us. You know, it just magnifies our understanding of his love for us. That actually it would've been our sin that put him on the cross. And yet he's not just, you know, willing to do that in a resentful sort of way, but that he then has the love for us. The love of the Prodigal Father, if you will, that sees the son still far off on the horizon and takes off running like an embarrassing fool to embrace his son and kiss his son and throw a huge party for his child. So, I mean, I'm just convicted now as we're talking about it, how often somebody does the most minor thing wrong to me and all of a sudden my love for them turns. And all of a sudden, you know, I don't want to reach out to them with affection. I'm not willing to do anything for them because of the way that they've wronged me. And yet our sin put Jesus on the cross and yet he loves us, you know, so unconditionally that he would not only take that, but he would reach out to us day after day after day with the desire that we would turn to him.
Michael Davis: Yeah. Amazing. So that is all the time we have today. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well, it was great to talk with you guys about a difficult topic and like we said, there's no easy answers, but I think we can point to the beauty of a God who's both loving and who is just. The Bible says that God desires all to be saved. It says that God wants no one to perish and so we can trust in the love of God and I'm just so grateful to believe in a faith and in a person in whom there will ultimately be both justice and life. If you adopt an atheistic worldview, we are all, every one of us, headed towards injustice and death. What Christianity offers is that we are headed towards justice.
We saw the ultimate justice fulfilled on the cross of Jesus and that we can be headed towards life if we will choose Jesus and embrace him, embrace the sacrifice that he made for us and say, you know what? If there's a God of the universe who's loving enough to die for me, then that's someone who I want to follow. If that's a decision that you haven't made, I pray that today would be the day that you make it, and if that's an offer that hasn't been extended to a friend or family members of you, I pray, I pray that you would consider today if that would be an offer, an invitation that God would have you make to someone in your life. Thank you so much for listening.
Michael Davis: Thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we hope you tune in next time. Thank you very much. Please submit your questions by emailing us at Ask Away at rzim.org or by using the hashtag Ask RZIM on Twitter.