Recently I was asked the question, “How can a loving God send anyone to hell?” I appreciated the question because it provided an opportunity to focus more closely upon the question of what we mean by the phrase “a loving God”. It is my conviction that our modern age has no clue what real love means or what the Scriptures mean when they assert that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is partly because in our age we have lost the abiding sense of sin common to all ages prior to ours, and this loss helps to skew our understanding of the nature of God’s love.
By “a loving God”, today we mostly mean “an indulgent God”. By this phrase we imagine that God sits smilingly on His throne, beaming down upon the human race like an old, happy, indulgent, and mostly toothless grandfather. He is largely unconcerned with the evil we do, though He does ineffectively wish that everyone would be a little nicer. But as long as everyone down here is sincere and having a good time, He is content to let things be and go on smiling. In short, this God is rather like a heavenly Santa Claus, minus the red hat and the reindeer. And it is true that one cannot imagine such an indulgent smiling grandfather or Santa Claus sending anyone to hell. It is also true that no one in possession of his five wits would let anyone like that anywhere near the levers of power, much less give him the task of running the universe. Such a deity could scarcely run a business effectively, much less the cosmos.
The God of the Bible is utterly unlike the ineffectual and indulgent deity I have described, because love is utterly unlike indulgence. For example, I love my children, but I did not always indulge them. Indeed, it is precisely because I loved them that I did not always indulge. All real fathers think like this, as we see from Hebrews 12:7-8.
The God of the Bible is a loving God in that He is just, compassionate, merciful, and good. He is indignant and angry when evil men oppress, hurt, exploit, enslave, and kill the helpless and innocent. He has compassion on all, even upon such tyrannical and warlike nations as Assyria (see Jonah 4:11). He takes no delight in the death of anyone, even the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). He even has compassion on animals (see Deuteronomy 25:4, which insists that the hungry ox be fed while it works). He gives food to all flesh, and causes His sun to shine and warm even those who are evil and ungrateful to Him (Matthew 5:45).
It is because He is good that He judges the wicked, doing justice so that the wicked may strike terror to the fatherless and the oppressed no more (Psalm 10:18). God is patient, and does not instantly smite the wicked man. Rather, He is patient, giving the wicked time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). But patience is not indulgence, and it is a fatal mistake to confuse the two. God is patient, but eventually His judgment will come. We are fatally foolish if we take His patience for indulgence, and presume upon the riches of His kindness and forbearance (Romans 2:4).
Such a God is quite capable of morally running the universe, and of judging the impenitent and wicked. And we must be clear that “sending someone to hell” is not an arbitrary sentence. Those thus condemned are spiritually suicidal, for they have rejected the only source of life and happiness. They adamantly reject the light, and so find themselves in the darkness; they refuse life, and so are swallowed up by death; they run from the only source of joy, and so find themselves eternally miserable. Their destruction is self-chosen, and (as been finely said), the doors of hell are locked from the inside. There is nothing in heaven or the age to come that could contribute to their joy and bliss. They would be in hell even there, for the source of their misery is inside them.
In one sense, God sends them to hell. In another sense, He leaves them alone, petrified and suffocating in the self-will they insisted upon. Hell is not a torture chamber which God constructed. It is not even a place. It is where reality ends, where the age to come, full of the glory of God, finds a boundary. It is the outer darkness, far from the land of light (Matthew 8:12), where those who hate the light can no longer hurt the helpless. God will eventually triumph in this world, and the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, and they will not hurt or destroy in all His holy mountain (Isaiah 11:9). God will do this one day, vindicating the oppressed and cleansing His world of harm. And He will do it because He is a loving God.