This is a question that causes much anguish and confusion. When we think of our friends and family, most of whom are kind and good, it is horrifying to imagine that God might one day send them to hell. But let us first consider what hell is really like according to the Bible, and not the usual portrayals in myths or media.
It is important to understand that the Bible, especially Jesus’ parables and the Book of Revelation, contains metaphorical or figurative language. This means that things are described in terms of what they are like, rather than what they are. After all, hell cannot be described as a place of utter darkness (Matt 22:13) yet also have the light emitting from unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48). We cannot take these descriptions literally.
What these metaphorical descriptions give us is the most terrible and fundamental truth about hell — it has a complete absence of a relationship with the loving God. Hell, therefore, is without hope, joy, peace, kindness, or anything good and pleasing to God. There is only constant torture from all we hate about the world, about others, and about ourselves. Hell is unending separation from God (2 Thess 1:9). Nothing could be worse than this.
In light of this understanding, let us consider the question on a deeper level, as it actually reveals two assumptions we may have about God:
When we think of a loving God, what do we think of? Do we conjure up an image of cuddly hugs and an indulgent grandfather? But could we have a limited understanding of what love means? While God is love, He is also just. He is a holy God and so His people are also expected to be holy. If there is anything unjust or unholy in us, it must be addressed so that we may be in a right relationship with God and with those around us. It is because God loves us that He disciplines us (Prov 3:11–12; Heb 12:5–11). It is because God loves the world that He hates sin and His “wrath” comes upon those who sin (Rom 1:18–19).
Whenever my two-year-old daughter throws a tantrum, I find myself wanting to tolerate her behaviour because of her big cute eyes. However, because I love her and want the best for her, I need to teach her that such behaviour is wrong and show her that there are consequences for her actions. The Chinese have a saying, “Smacking is love, scolding is fondness,” while similarly, Proverb 13:24 says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” Loving someone does not mean turning a blind eye to their wrong choices but involves a level of discipline from rebuke to punishment.
God is love and God is just (1 John 3:16; Ps. 9:7-8)— He cannot be unloving, but neither can He be unjust.
Why would a loving God “send” people to hell? In the end, we are each responsible for our choices. The hard truth is that when someone actively chooses to reject God, the final consequence is eternal separation from Him. God gave us the freedom to choose and He has made the choices clear. Because He loves us, He has revealed who He is and what He has done for us through Jesus Christ (Eph 2:1–10). He sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins so that we do not need to be eternally separated from God. He has given us creation to point to His existence so that all “men are without excuse” (Rom 1:20) for knowing God. He has also given us His Word to point to His truth. In His love, He has not hidden from us the consequences of sin (Rom 6:23) but given us time to respond, being patient and “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). So the important question is — how will we choose to respond to God’s love, justice, and holiness?
As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, “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.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”
The question then is not, “How can a loving God send anyone to hell?” but rather, “How can anyone who understands God’s love choose to be apart from Him forever?” While we still have time on earth, may we persist in sharing of God’s love to those around us by telling them about Jesus, so that they may one day be with him forever.