November 6, 2015

How can God condemn good people?

Two friends of mine have, quite independently, made the same argument against a strict scriptural understanding of Christianity. Both asked essentially this:
How can a loving, merciful God condemn non-believing but good people to eternal torment in hell?
To begin with, the question itself contains two assumptions that are worth noting. First, it assumes that scripture actually says that God condemns non-believers of all sorts to everlasting punishment. A great deal of effort has been put into humanizing scripture with new interpretations, but we will put that problem aside. I believe scripture does support quite widespread condemnation, and if a person confidently believed that scripture says otherwise that person really wouldn’t be worried about this issue in the first place.
The second and more revealing assumption the question makes is that there is a standard of goodness over and above God’s purposes, to which we can fairly expect God to conform. In other words, the question takes for granted that it is our notions of goodness and justice that the universe really should obey, and that God should be a sort of divine executive authority, whose purpose is to manipulate the universe so that it conforms to our ideals. Whether God exists or not, that is obviously not the universe we’re living in. Is cancer just by human standards? Are earthquakes?  More to the point, any interpretation of the Holy scriptures that involves actually reading them will show that it is not God who is here to serve our purposes – but we who are here to serve God’s. To even ask the question is more than to overlook some minor aspect of Christianity – it is to admit to an utter ignorance of who and what the scripture says God is. Atheists have long smugly assumed that man invented God, and to the extent that men have been willing to reinterpret (or abridge) the Holy scriptures to justify their own desires the atheists have been quite right. An average Christian of a hundred years ago would probably not have doubted the fate that waits for non-believers after death – but then their ultimate religious authority was the scriptures themselves. Our current standard is all too often the popular culture. Sadly, this is even frequently true of those who have authority over churches. Where, in scripture, does it say that the duty of God is to follow the standards of the secular society?
The God of the Bible is not without mercy – but he is not a grand entitlement administrator in the sky. He has expectations of us. Christ himself was quite straightforward about the conditions of salvation:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:16-18
In other words, we are saved by our faith that Jesus Christ suffered death in our place. He rose again that we might also rise. When we begin to think that Hindus and atheists, who lack this faith, might also go to heaven so long as they are “good people,” we only show ourselves to be either ignorant of scripture – or willing to twist it into whatever platitudes happen to suit our feelings.
God the father’s ultimate purposes are not easy to comprehend (they are perhaps not comprehensible at all) but he is not without consistency. Throughout the Old Testament he shows himself quite willing to condemn whole nations of non-believers in the course of his plans. To “save the world” does not appear, in God’s eyes, to necessarily mean saving the majority of the individuals. Nor does God’s position toward those who fall short of his purposes alter fundamentally in the New Testament:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Matthew 7:13-14
The salvation offered by Christ is not a giveaway to all but the most repugnant. If almost everyone, including non-believers, were to be saved then what would be the point of even teaching the Gospel?  What difference would it make?  While our sins were indeed paid for by Christ’s suffering, this gift of forgiveness and eternal life is received only through faith in Him.  Any other interpretation renders the text incoherent.

No one likes to think of good people being condemned, especially the people that we know and love. But we don’t get to vote on God’s purposes or his judgements. Those that we recognize as “good” people are usually those who are friendly to us or to whom we have some personal attachment. To be “good” in God’s eyes is to strive to obey his commandments – including the commandment which acknowledges his sovereignty. If the scriptures are understood courageously and honestly, God must be recognized an awesome and terrible being – a jealous God, wrathful on the one hand, but merciful and gracious on the other:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
Psalm 103:8-14

But one must note here – the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” He is merciful to those who believe.

While on Earth, there is much that we can do to help the non-believer. We are not, for the most part, called to be the instruments of God’s wrath. Scripture exhorts us to love our neighbor – repentant and unrepentant alike. That, and loving God, are the tasks set firmly and plainly before us in the Holy scriptures. Who are we to second guess God’s judgements?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9


  1. The argument I made and the question I raised was not should non-believers get to go to heaven, it was should no-believers get to burn in hell. I don't think you answered that question. I would never argue that Hindus should get to go to heaven. I simply argue that they get to die when they die. End.

    The scripture you cited is clear '“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." Christ used the word "perish" to describe the alternative to the prize of "eternal life". If Christ had meant "Eternal torment in hell" as the alternative he would have said so.


  2. First, I want to acknowledge and reciprocate to civil tone. I am well aware it is a hard subject. Let us do our best.

    The problem with the annihilation theory is that there simply doesn’t seem to be any substantial scriptural support for it. Yes, “perish” could mean “be annihilated” (assuming the English text mirrors perfectly the Greek) but text elsewhere does not support this interpretation:

    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46 ESV

    There is no middle ground here. According to the Holy scripture, Christ’s own words in fact, it is a binary choice – eternal life or eternal punishment. I am no theologian (I am merely the newest of struggling Christians) but since we actually discussed this in person I have read a substantial fraction of both the Old Testament and the New. In much of the Old Testament the text is not particularly clear about the ultimate fate of people, good or bad – but I honestly see nothing anywhere that indicates that people are simply annihilated. I was mistaken about that. The position of my church, and I have to say in all humility, of all meaningfully Christian churches, is that you can neither ignore what scripture does say nor read into it what it does not say.

    According to scripture we are all condemned by our sins. We are all deserving of condemnation, because none can live entirely according to the Law. That is the universal condition of natural man. It is only through Christ that we can be saved from condemnation.

  3. A literal reading of the text you provide suggests that people are divided into "reward" and "punishment" groups based on whether they provided food, drink, clothing and such kindness to others; it says nothing about the "believer" and "non-believer" categories you describe.

    1. The reason I referred to the passage from Matthew is that it undermines the “annihilationist” hypothesis. It specifies “all nations” and offers only two possibilities for each individual – salvation or condemnation. While one could infer from the same passage (if taken alone) that Christ will judge people on the basis of good works, it is incompatible with the idea that anyone escapes the alternatives of eternal punishment or eternal life.

      The standard argument against the salvation by works hypothesis is:

      “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

      My opinion, for what little that is worth, is that Christ is reiterating the general thrust of God’s Law in the passage from Matthew -- not granting salvation to all people who muster up the occasional act of kindness.

  4. Matthew also provides ammo for the annihilationist camp: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." It seems to me that the opinion of the reader is worth a lot.

    1. I suppose it is inevitable that we are going to get into the problem of parsing the exact meaning of individual words – in this case the word “destroy”. Obviously, we are dealing with a translation, not the original Greek, which only compounds the problem. I do not speak Koine Greek, unfortunately.

      Let us look at how the concept of condemnation is expressed in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 –

      “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,” English Standard Version


      “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;” King James Version

      We are using the concept of destruction here, but obviously you could not interpret these passages to mean “destruction” in the sense of “being made non-existent”. It makes no sense to say that something is “non-existent, away from the presence of the Lord…” That which is non-existent is simply non-existent – it is not “away from” anything. The person in Hell is beyond the reach of mercy, thus, while still existing, he is destroyed relative to the purpose for which God intended him.

    2. Perhaps another approach is in order. I do not wished to be seen as a callous machine that serves up bible verses. I do so because, in an argument about what the bible says, there could hardly be a more reliable way to proceed than actually quoting what is written in the bible. I am very mindful of never starting as sentence with “I think God must actually…” Arrogant though I may be, I hope never to go that far.

      From a purely human, purely personal perspective I cope with God’s sweeping condemnation of non-believers largely by averting my gaze. Sometimes one but must.

      A couple of days ago, my wife and I were walking around our neighborhood and we noticed we were being followed by a stray black cat. She ran desperately after us and in front of us, so close that it was difficult not to trip over her. I reached down to pick her up at one point. She was quite thin. I could feel her bones. But what can one do? I have four cats at home, already about two too many for the space. The “official” reaction of taking her to the animal shelter is essentially a death sentence. So, my wife got her a little food and led her away so we could get into the house without her trying to follow us in. It is November and getting colder. One’s heart breaks. What can one do?

      I have intellectual theories regarding God, of course. Maybe, I think to myself, God is not, himself, entirely free. Maybe there is something necessary about hell – maybe it could not be otherwise. Or, perhaps hell really isn’t all that bad. The bible does acknowledge that it is a place with gradations of punishment. Maybe, if one has not been too bad, the fire is just a metaphor and one goes on eternally in a life that isn’t all that much worse than this one. Sort of like being stuck in the BMV waiting line forever. I know full well that it is better just not to speculate. I probably should not have either said or thought these things. I am here for such a limited time. I don’t want to miss the boat, and I certainly don’t want to jam up the gangplank. I take a deep breath. I fight the great fight, hour by hour, and minute by minute. What else can I do?