Growing up I remember hearing preachers say God doesn’t actually send anyone to hell—instead, people choose to go there. God simply gives them what they want. These preachers were echoing a claim that C. S. Lewis made popular:
It’s not a question of God “sending” us to hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
In this quote, hell is less of a judicial punishment meted out by God and more of a natural consequence, something less like being fined for stealing and more like getting lung cancer from smoking.
A related idea is that in allowing people to go to hell, God is simply giving them what they want. As Lewis says,
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 . . . “Thy will be done.”
This is sometimes coupled with the claim that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.”
As a preacher, I can understand the appeal of this language. In talking about hell, we wish to show how it can be just, and we don’t want God to seem cruel in people’s eyes—because after all, he’s not. But hell is an awful place, and we’re conscious that our hearers might think God was cruel for sending people there.
Defending God’s character and removing stumbling blocks can be laudable goals. But as preachers and as Christians, we must be so careful to give the Bible functional authority over all our preaching and speaking, perhaps especially over those parts that are currently most offensive. We must be willing to say all that Scripture says and resist the urge to deny or soften things that Scripture explicitly affirms.
My concern is that statements like “God doesn’t send anyone to hell” or “The people in hell want to be there” are misleading when made the main focus of our apologetic on hell. As I hope to show, they capture something true, but they also run counter to clear biblical statements and risk making hell seem more bearable than Scripture presents it.
Fitting Punishment and Passive Wrath
Let me say first that there is something hellish growing up in each of us that has to be nipped in the bud. Did you realize that the imagery of fire isn’t just used to describe hell? It’s also used to describe sin. Sin is also like fire—in its ability to cause pain, in its capacity to destroy, and in its refusal to be satisfied (Prov. 30:15–16).
There is something hellish growing up in each of us that has to be nipped in the bud.
In fact, James 3:6 connects these dots when it speaks of our sinful use of the tongue:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:6)
The fiery connection between sin and hell isn’t arbitrary or coincidental. The fire in our tongues comes straight out of hell, and if we don’t learn to fight it it will one day overtake us (Matt. 12:36). Statements like these can help us see why hell is a fitting punishment for sin. It’s fitting that we should be given over to the destructive power we were already running after (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). This is what lies beneath the biblical principle of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7–9). There’s an organic connection between the sins we sow and the corruption we reap—both now and into eternity.
Further, the Bible has a place for viewing God’s wrath as passive. His delight in saving and his delight in damning aren’t symmetrical. There is a real sense in which judgment is his “strange work.” He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather they repent (Ezek. 33:11). In the judgment scene of Matthew 25, the kingdom is said to have been prepared for the sheep, while hell is said to have been prepared—not for the goats—but for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:34, 41).
Horror of Hell and Perversity of Sin
The problem isn’t so much what these popular statements affirm as what they often seem intended to deny. And other statements about hell in Scripture simply won’t allow us to justify God by focusing exclusively on passive divine wrath and active human agency.
Matthew 25 pictures Jesus seated on a throne at the final judgment passing sentence. And when he speaks to the goats on his left, his language is not “Your will be done,” but “Depart from me, you cursed” (Matt. 25:41). The emphasis is on the King’s verdict. It’s his will that’s being done here, not theirs. When they “go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), they go at his command.
Additionally, Scripture frequently suggests that they don’t go willingly. Not only does Jesus speak of people being sent to hell, he often describes them as being thrown into hell. For example:
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 13:41–42; cf. Matt. 13:50; 22:13; 25:30; Mark 9:47; Rev. 20:15)
Given Jesus’s descriptions of hell as a “fiery furnace” filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” it shouldn’t be hard to imagine why people don’t march in willingly, but must instead be thrown in. This language clearly suggests a punishment forcibly inflicted, not merely a consequence freely chosen and stubbornly endured.
The fact that people want the sins that lead to the penalty doesn’t mean they want the penalty. . . . Conversely, the fact that people want out of the penalty doesn’t mean that they’re willing to accept God’s terms.
It’s doubtless true that the people in hell neither love God nor wish to be with him. But that doesn’t mean they want to be in hell—it simply means that the option they would prefer (personal autonomy and fulfillment apart from God) doesn’t exist. That’s the perverse nature of sin. To borrow another line from Lewis, “It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had.” But that’s how sin operates.
The fact that people want the sins that lead to the penalty doesn’t mean they want the penalty. An unrepentant thief may not want to be in prison and would escape if he could, but neither would he stop stealing if he were free. Conversely, the fact that people want out of the penalty doesn’t mean they’re willing to accept God’s terms. The rebellious Israelites didn’t want to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Indeed, they quickly became eager to enter the Promised Land—but only after they were no longer allowed to (see Num. 14:39—45; cf. Luke 13:24—28).
That’s the perverse picture of us all apart from grace. We want the pleasures of sin without the wages. But the pleasures are fleeting. And unless we repent, the wages are coming—whether we want them or not.
Preaching Hell Like Jesus
Jesus is far less careful than many of us are when speaking of these realities. We need to ask ourselves why we often prefer to avoid the kind of language Jesus so deliberately uses.
Could it be that we have our own inward misgivings about how a loving God can send people to hell, and consequently prefer to speak of him as passive? Are we secretly fearful that people in our day simply can’t embrace the idea of a divine Judge who orders his angels to throw people into a fiery furnace?
However tender and loving toward sinners we may be, we’re not more tender and loving than Jesus is. And we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are.
I’m not sure. But there are a couple of things I know. The first is that even when people dislike what you’re saying, they prefer you to shoot straight with them. They can read the Bible, too, and they can tell when we’re embarrassed by our own holy book. And though they may outwardly praise us for our willingness to bend the text in order to placate them, they will inwardly lose respect for us (another perversity of sin).
The second is this: However tender and loving toward sinners we may be, we’re not more tender and loving than Jesus is. And we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are. So let us tremble at God’s Word more than we tremble at man’s response. Let us give the Bible functional authority over all our statements, especially on offensive subjects like hell. And let us not be afraid to preach hell like the One who came to rescue us from it.