This week, we’re going to talk about hell and specifically why do people go to hell. Now, we’re going to do a little bit of interactive podcasting here. At least it will seem like that, hopefully. I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to think of your answer. Then I’m going to ask you another question, and I want you to think of your answer to that. Here’s the first question: Why do people go to prison? Hold on to the answer. Next question: Why do people go to hell?
Now, here’s the interesting thing: Often, if you were like the average Evangelical today, you answer these two questions differently. Now, of course, hell and prison are different, although for some people, prison is like hell in some ways, but you answer them differently because when it comes to the question of why do people go to prison, if we assume that justice was actually done, the person wasn’t wrongly convicted, then we say that people go to prison because they were guilty of a crime, guilty of a crime against some kind of sovereign government, someone who could justly say that they did something wrong, and there was a punishment that was justly deserved. That’s what we often say when we say people go to hell.
Here’s what we say, at least in my experience when I survey people, here’s that the average person says for why people go to hell. “Well, they didn’t believe the Gospel.” Doesn’t that seem a little different? On the one hand, we say that people go to prison because they’ve committed a crime against a powerful sovereign, and the just sentence for that was this punishment. On the other hand, when you say, “Why do people get the punishment of hell,” the answer is, “Because they didn’t accept a pardon.” Those seem like very different answers.
In fact, they are very different answers. I don’t think we’re going to have the time to delve into all of the problems that are created by answering the hell question the way the average person answers the hell question, the way you might’ve answered the hell question and indeed the way I used to, but there are many problems that result from answering the question with the answer, “Well, people didn’t accept the Gospel. They rejected the Gospel. They didn’t believe the Gospel,” because here’s the thing. If that’s the reason people are punished, then how is it possibly just that God punishes people who never heard of the Gospel? If what we say is that people are judged, they go to hell because of rejecting the Gospel, well, what about the person who never heard the Gospel?
It makes it seem like God either doesn’t judge those people, which scripture strongly points against, or that He’s unjust in judging them because He has judged them for something that they never actually heard. We have to reframe and go back to the Bible to frame what actually happens and why people are actually under condemnation for their sin.
That is basically the issue. I just skipped ahead there. But we have to understand that, one, people commit crimes against a sovereign ruler, and two, justice requires crime to be punished, and three, God justly punishes crime and criminals. In other words, people have committed crimes against God, and as the Judge, He justly punishes crime, in other words, sin, and the punishment for that in God’s universe is hell. People go to hell for their sin.
This is actually what scripture says, “For the payoff of sin is death,” and death is not just a spiritual death, it’s not just a physical death. There are three deaths that are talked about in scripture. In other places, Jesus talks about the payoff for our evil deeds, being eternal conscious torment. I know that does not sit well with us today in 2019, but that is what the Bible teaches, and what we can’t say is, “Well, the reason people go to hell because they rejected the Gospel.” No, the reason the Bible gives for punishment is not rejection of good news, although I do think that is a sin, it’s actually just the commission of crimes against God.
What’s interesting here is Romans 1 factors into this conversation in some helpful ways because some people will say, “Well, it’s not fair that God judges people for their sin if they don’t even know He exist.” If we first get through the talking point that people are somehow judged because they rejected the Gospel, which is not true, some people will then say, “Well, how did they know their deeds were wrong in order to be judged for their wrong deeds?”
Well, there are two ways. The whole book of Romans factors in here, and we’re going to get a high-level summary of parts of Romans today in just our remaining few minutes together. But Paul says in Romans 1 that “the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness.” How are they suppressing the truth? What are they suppressing? He goes on to say, “Because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, (His invisible attributes, namely) His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen because they are understood through what has been made, so people are without excuse.”
Paul is saying here that people are without excuse when they sin, when they do not worship God and even give Him thanks. He says people should give thanks to God. Does he say that they need to hear the Gospel first? Does he say that they need scripture and a missionary first? No. He simply says their ability to see and understand the natural world is enough for God to say they are without excuse because the natural world communicates the glory of God. We see that in Psalm 19, but here, we see that it actually communicates that God eternally exists, that He has eternal power, that He has a divine nature. The creation is sufficient to convey that information and hints when everyone suppresses that, they are without excuse. It’s one of the examples given of denying the truth and unrighteousness.
Now, this passage does not say that people can be saved from looking at the world. It in no way says that. It simply says that they’re without excuse when they don’t worship God. It doesn’t say they can be saved by what they see in nature.
If we go on to Romans 2, we see that even the gentiles who do not have the oracles of God, the scriptures, are able to know right and wrong because the law is written on their heart. Their consciences testify to what is right and wrong. Now, once again, this does not mean they’ve had scripture. It doesn’t mean they know enough to be saved, but it does mean they know enough to know that there is a God and that their actions are right or their actions are wrong, and when they intentionally do wrong actions, they know they are wrong, and that is the basis on which we are judged. We’re not judged by what God may or may not do in offering grace and extending grace or by hearing the scriptures. No, we are judged by the actions we do that are wrong. That’s sufficient for judgment.
Being able to see God in nature, which we might call natural revelation, is enough to be condemned. It’s enough to know that God exists and be condemned for our sin, but special revelation, what is specific and special as revealed in scripture is needed in order to be saved.
Now, if there’s one point you get from this whole talk today, this whole podcast, I hope it’s this next point because some people still feel like it’s not fair, and we’ll talk about fairness in a minute, but here is the main point that clarified this for me when I used to struggle with this topic. God does not have to first extend a pardon to someone before He is justified in judging and punishing their crimes. God does not have to first extend a pardon someone before He is justified in punishing them for their sin. Let’s go back to why do people go to prison. Because they commit crimes. Is it just for a judge to punish a guilty person for their crimes? Yes. Hopefully, everyone would say a resounding yes. Does the judge have to first offer the convict a pardon before he can punish him? Well, no. A pardon is grace. It’s extra. It’s not demanded. Justice actually does not demand a pardon. Justice demands punishment for the crime that fits the crime.
The judge doesn’t have to offer a pardon before he can punish the criminal for his crimes, and in the same way, God, who is an even more just Judge than any human judge does not have to offer someone a pardon to share the Gospel with them before He is justified in punishing them for their actually legitimate crimes and sins against Him. That is so important for us to understand. Not trusting in Jesus does result in punishment. That’s true, but it is not the grounds of punishment.
When people say, “Well, you’re punished in hell because you didn’t believe that Gospel,” I think that actually communicates something untrue because, yes, if they had trusted in Jesus, they wouldn’t have gone to hell, but not trusting was not the grounds for the punishment. Their sin was the grounds for the punishment. I do think rejecting the good news of God is sin also, some people never hear it and can’t reject it, so the grounds for their punishment is their sin.
But many of us, I think, actually implicitly act like man is neutral, and mercy and grace must be given. The way we approach this question often seems to betray that we think God must extend mercy and grace to someone, and yet, grace is undeserved favor. If you have to have it extended to you, it’s deserved. It’s not undeserved. That’s really important for us to understand.
Often, when we talk about this topic, people will say, “Well, what about the innocent man on an island?” Well, he doesn’t exist. The innocent man on an island is a fictitious creation. He doesn’t exist. No one is innocent. Everyone has sinned against God and fallen short of His glory, but we are guilty in Adam. That’s important to understand. When Adam sinned, we inherited his guilt, so we have a guilt from Adam, and we have a guilt on our own. Romans 5 speaks to the guilt we have from Adam and other places. Romans 3:23 speaks to the fact that all of us have sinned on our own and have a guilt.
That’s important also that no one is innocent. Everyone has a heart that is turned against God that lives for itself. Some people are worse than others. Some people’s sins are worse than others. All sins are not the same, and hence, all punishment I do not think will be the same either. Matthew 11 seems to make this point that those who had greater revelation of God were responsible to respond to it more and will be judged more harshly when they reject it. That’s from the mouth of Jesus. But all of that to say people go to hell because of their sin, coming back full circle to why we started and where we started. We must answer the question that way, or we create issues. If we say that people are judged, and they go to hell because they rejected the Gospel, well, what about those who didn’t hear the Gospel? Why would God not take their sin seriously? We actually create problems for ourselves, like I mentioned.
Let’s be clear that based on what scripture says, the wages of sin is death. What we earn from our sin is death. Everyone knows that God exists on some level. They may have suppressed that. They may not be consciously aware of that anymore due to suppression or a seared conscience or something like that, but even more so, everyone knows right from wrong, at least in general strokes. That’s what God’s word tells us. That’s His incisive diagnosis of the human condition. Often, we don’t think like people know God exists or they don’t know right from wrong, and we are confronted with this question of does God know or do I know?
I remember sitting at my dining room table. I remember the wall I was staring at, working through the question. Well, the Bible in Romans says that no one seeks God, and no one is good, and everyone knows God exists on some level. I think people seek God. I think people can be kind of good on their own. I think some people don’t know God exists. I had to work through this question and decide and come to affirm that God knows what He’s talking about in His word, and I cannot disagree with that, and so I must put myself under the authority of scripture, even in diagnosing the human condition. I must put my experience in light of and on trial by scripture.
That’s what I did. That’s why I believe that when God says everyone knows they’re without excuse, He knows what He’s talking about. Everyone knows, and they’re without excuse. When He says, “No one is good. No, not one,” I think He’s right. I think when He says, “No one is seeking God,” He’s right. The only people that come to God are those that are drawn by the Father we see. In John 6, “On their own, no one is coming to God,” because people are not neutral. People are sinful.
That is why they need to hear the Gospel. They need to hear this offer of divine grace that we share. This question of why do people go to hell, it shouldn’t end with just an academic answer. It should end with a commitment on our part to share the Gospel because, yes, while people are not judged and go to hell simply because they didn’t believe the Gospel, they do go to hell if they don’t believe the Gospel on the basis of their sin.
Let’s share with them the only message that can take the dead and make them alive, that can take people from the kingdom of darkness and move them to the kingdom of light by the power of the Spirit. Let’s share the only message that God has ordained to reconcile simple humanity to himself. That is what Paul says in Romans 10, people cannot come to believe without hearing the preached word of Christ. Nature won’t do it. Our own conscience won’t do it. We have to hear the preached word of Christ. Let’s go share it.
I hope this has been helpful, and I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.