Hell: The Horrible Choice

Dr. Pat Zukeran presents the biblical teaching on hell so that we can present a sound response when challenged.

The Importance of Understanding the Doctrine of Hell

Why study the doctrine of hell? Very few sermons today are preached on this topic, and most Christians try to avoid the subject. However, this is an important doctrine for Christians to understand especially if we are going to share our faith in the postmodern culture that despises this teaching.

Dr. Peter Kreeft and Ron Tacelli write:

Of all the doctrines in Christianity, hell is probably the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned. The critic’s case against it seems very strong, and the believer’s duty to believe it seems unbearable. . . . Heaven is far more important than hell, we know much more about it, and it is meant to occupy our mind much more centrally. But in a battle an army must rush to defend that part of the line which is most attacked or which seems the weakest. Though other doctrines are more important than this one, this one is not unimportant or dispensable.{1}

Several critics of Christianity grew up in the church but eventually abandoned the faith, and many of them cite the teaching on hell as a key factor. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his work Why I Am Not a Christian:

I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. . . . I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture: and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.{2}

Charles Darwin grew up and was baptized in the Church of England. Despite his rejection of Christianity, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Darwin has pointed to the doctrine of hell as one of the significant reasons for his abandonment of the faith. He stated in his autobiography, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”{3}

I am sure that many of us have friends who find the Bible’s teaching on hell to be offensive and use this doctrine to paint the God of the Bible as a cruel and vindictive being. However, most unbelievers’ attacks of this doctrine are built on a false understanding of hell. Christians also have difficulty defending the justice of hell with the love of God because we lack a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches. In this article, I will present the biblical teaching on hell so that we can present a sound response when challenged.

The Nature of Hell

Hell is basically a place of eternal separation from God. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 states that those without God “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power.” To be separated from God is to be separated from all that is good. A person in hell is separated from all the joy, love, and meaning for which we were created. Instead of knowing God as a loving father, one will know God as judge (Romans 2: 5-8). That is the attribute of God an unbeliever will know for eternity.

Many, including Christians, believe that God tortures people in hell. However, a significant thing to note is that in the New Testament, hell is not described as a place of torture but rather a place of torment (Luke 16:23-28, Revelation 14:11). Torture is inflicted against one’s will, while torment is self-inflicted by one’s own will. Torment comes from the mental and physical anguish of knowing we used our freedom for evil and chose wrongly. The anguish results from the sorrow and shame of the judgment of being forever away from God and all that is meaningful and joyful. Everyone in hell will know that the pain he or she is suffering is self-induced. The flames of hell are generated by the individual who has rejected God. It is not a place where people are forced against their will to undergo agonizing pain. Unbelievers often use this image to portray God as a cruel and vindictive being. However, the torment of hell comes from the individual who chooses not to love God and now must live with the sorrow of being aware of all that was lost.

One of the most severe punishments leveled on a criminal is the sentence of solitary confinement. One of the reasons this is a feared sentence is that the guilty are left to sit alone in their cells and live with the regret and sorrow of their crimes with no one to comfort or minister to them. Pain comes from within as they wrestle alone with their thoughts and emotions. It must be a horrible realization to see lost forever what could have been.

Such is the anguish of hell. The pain comes from the regret of all that was lost. A person experiences separation from God, the ultimate good. This is why hell is such a horrible place and a horrible choice.

Why Hell Is Necessary and Just

Is hell necessary? How is this doctrine consistent with a God of love? These are questions I face when I speak on the fate of unbelievers. The necessity and justice of hell can be recognized when we understand the nature of God and the nature of man.

Hell is necessary because God’s justice requires it. Our culture focuses mostly on God’s nature of love, mercy, and grace. However, God is also just and holy, and this must be kept in balance. Justice demands retribution, the distribution of rewards and punishments in a fair way. God’s holiness demands that He separate himself entirely from sin and evil (Habakkuk 1:13). The author of Psalm 73 struggles with the dilemma of the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. Joseph Stalin was responsible for the death of millions in the Soviet Union, but he died peacefully in his sleep without being punished for his deeds. Since evil often goes unpunished in this lifetime, it must be dealt with at a future time to fulfill God’s justice and holiness.

A second reason hell is necessary is that God’s love requires it. Love does not force itself on an individual, but honors the option of rejecting the love of another. Those who do not wish to love God must be allowed not to do so. Forcing oneself upon another is to dishonor the dignity and right of the individual. Those who do not want to be with God in this lifetime, will not be forced to be with Him for all eternity. It is important to understand that heaven is where God dwells and being the Lord of all creation, He is the heart and focus of heaven. His glory fills the entire realm, and inhabitants of heaven will be in His immediate and intimate presence for eternity. One cannot be in heaven and not know the presence of God. Therefore, those who do not want to be with God in this lifetime will not be forced to be in His presence for all eternity. Instead, God will honor their desire and let them dwell apart from Him in hell. Love honors the right of the other person to reject that love.

Third, God’s sovereignty requires hell. If there is no hell, there would be no final victory over evil. If there were no ultimate separation of good from evil, good would not ultimately triumph and God would not be in ultimate control. God declares He will have victory over evil (1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Revelation 20-22). God will defeat evil by quarantining evil and separating it from good eternally.

The biblical teaching on hell fulfills the justice, holiness, and sovereignty of God and remains consistent with His character of love.

Why Hell?

Hell is also necessary because of the nature of man.

Human depravity requires hell. The only just punishment for sin against the eternal God is eternal punishment. God is absolutely perfect and mankind is sinful.

Romans 3:23 states that all are guilty of sin and fall far short of God’s perfect standard. Sinful, unrepentant man cannot stand before a holy and perfect God. In order for God to maintain His perfection and the perfection of heaven, sin must be accounted for. For those who have received the gift of God’s grace, sin has been cleansed by the payment of Christ’s life. Those who have rejected Christ remain guilty of sin. Heaven cannot be a perfect paradise if sin is present. Therefore, man’s sin requires separation from God.

Second, human dignity requires hell. God created us as free moral creatures, and He will not force people into His presence if they do not want to be there. If a person chooses not to be with God in his or her lifetime, He will respect that decision. In Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel because they rejected their savior and thus were not willing to accept the love of God. Christ as Lord of creation could have forced His will on His creatures, but instead respected their decision even though it broke His heart.

My grandfather suffered a stroke as the result of high blood pressure, a high level of cholesterol, and a few other ailments. While in the hospital, the doctors recommended a diet and treatment program. However, he found the diet and treatment not to his liking. The doctor explained the treatment and the ramifications if my grandfather would not change his lifestyle. He chose not to follow the doctor’s prescription. Even though the doctor knew the serious consequences that would follow, he respected my grandfather’s wish and allowed him to return home. In the same way, although God knows the consequences of our choice, He respects our dignity and honors our decision.

Romans 1 states that all have had an opportunity to respond to God’s invitation and are therefore without excuse. Human beings are created in God’s image and are creatures of incredible value. God does not annihilate beings of value even though they rejected His love. Instead He respects their decision, honors their dignity, and allows them to dwell eternally apart from Him as they have chosen.

God’s justice and love plus man’s nature requires a hell.

How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

Recently I was in a enjoying a pleasant discussion with an atheist named Gus. After answering most of his objections against Christianity, he paused for a moment of contemplation. He then leaned over the table and said, “I find it hard to believe in a God of love who says, ‘Love me or I will throw you into the fire!’”

This statement represents a common misunderstanding. God does not send anyone to hell; people choose to go there.

I explained that God is a loving God, and His earnest desire is that all turn from sin and receive His gift of eternal life. 2 Peter 3:9 states, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God desires all to be saved and has made the way possible by sending His son to die in our place. He invites everyone to accept His free gift of eternal life through Christ.

Since God’s desire is that all be saved and He has made this possible for all men, God cannot bear the blame for people going to hell. People go to hell because they knowingly choose to reject His love. C. S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ “{4}

God’s love also keeps Him from imposing His will on individuals. If a person does not want to be with God in this lifetime, He will not force that person to be with Him for all eternity. In other words, the door of hell is locked from the inside.

After a brief moment, Gus asked, “Do people really have a choice since the Bible states that we are all born sinners and cannot help but sin?” I acknowledged that we are born in sin (Psalm 51) and have a bent to sin. However, our sin nature does not force us to sin. We are sinners and it is inevitable that we will disobey God. However, we can avoid sinning and often do so because disobedience to God involves a choice we make. We can choose otherwise. In a similar way although we are on the road to destruction, we can decide to get off that road and choose life.

What about predestination, some may ask? Does that not negate one’s ability to choose? There are various views on this doctrine but it does not negate our responsibility to repent. God holds us accountable for our decisions, and this responsibility implies the ability to respond. Although we as finite beings may not fully comprehend this doctrine, that does not excuse us from the choice we must all make about Christ.

The sad news is that all who go to hell could avoid going there, but they make a horrible choice.


1. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 282.
2. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Touchstone Books, 1957), 17-18.
3. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Darwin Barlow, with original omissions restored (N.Y.: W. W. Norton, 1993), 87.
4. C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan), 69.

© 2006 Probe Ministries