The Craig-Bradley Debate:
Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

Dr. Craig's Opening Arguments

Dr. Craig:

Thank you. "If God really is all loving, then how can He send anybody to hell?" The question is almost an embarrassment for Christians today. On the one hand, the Bible teaches that God is love, and yet, on the other hand, it warns that those who reject God face everlasting punishment, and it contains frequent warnings about the danger of going to hell. But aren't these two somehow inconsistent with each other? Well, a lot of people seem to think that they are inconsistent, but in fact this isn't at all obvious. After all, there is no explicit contradiction between them. The statement "God is all loving" and "Some people go to hell" are not explicitly contradictory. So if these two are inconsistent, there must be some hidden assumptions which would serve to bring out the contradiction and make it explicit.

But what are these assumptions? It seems to me that the detractor of hell is making two crucial assumptions. First of all, he assumes that if God is all powerful, then God can create a world in which everyone freely chooses to give his life to God and is saved. And second, he assumes that if God is all loving, then God prefers a world in which everyone freely chooses to give his life to God and be saved. Since God is thus both willing and able to create a world in which everyone is freely saved, it follows that no one goes to hell.

Now notice that both of these assumptions have to be necessarily true, in order to prove that God and hell are logically inconsistent with each other. So as long as there's even a possibility that one of these assumptions is false, it's possible that God is all-loving and yet some people go to hell. Thus, the opponent of hell has to shoulder a very heavy burden of proof, indeed. He has to prove that both of these assumptions are necessarily true.

But, in fact, it seems to me that neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. In order to explain this, let me lay out for you the Christian teaching on God and hell. According to the Bible, God's nature is both perfect justice and perfect love. Both of these are equally powerful, and neither can be compromised. Let's look first at God's justice. I was talking to a student once about his need of salvation, and he said to me, "I trust in God's justice. I don't think that there could be anyone who would be more fair or just than God. I have complete confidence in His decision." Now this is true. God is just. He is totally fair. He has no axe to grind. He is not out to get you. He is the most competent, intelligent, impartial, and fairest judge you will ever have. No one will get a bum decision at God's judgment seat. Every human being can be guaranteed absolute justice.

But this is precisely the problem! For God's justice exposes man's inadequacy. The Bible says that every person has failed to live up to God's moral law and so finds himself guilty before God. The Biblical word for this moral failure is sin. The Bible says that "All persons are under the power of sin. None is righteous; no, not one; all have turned aside, together they have gone wrong. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.10,12,23).

We thus find ourselves under the law of divine justice: You reap what you sow. The Bible says, "Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction. The one who sows to please God's Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Gal. 6.7-8). The prophet Ezekiel declared, "The soul that sins shall die" (Ez. 18.4), and the apostle Paul echoes, "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6.23). You reap what you sow. You reap what you sow. This is justice in its purest form.

The only problem is, nobody measures up! So, if we rely on the justice of God, we're sunk! There is nobody here who deserves to go to heaven. Nobody is good enough! So if we depend on God's justice, we've had it. It's all over.

Therefore, we must cast ourselves on God's mercy. Even though we are guilty and deserve to die, God still loves us. Sometimes people get the idea that God is a sort of cosmic tyrant up there, out to get us. But this isn't the Christian understanding of God. Listen to what the Bible says, "'Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?,' says the Lord God, 'And not rather that he should turn from his way and live? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,' says the Lord God. 'So turn and live! Say to them, "As I live," says the Lord God, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways. For why will you die?"'" (Ez. 18.23,32; 33.11).

Here God literally pleads with people to turn back from their self-destructive course of action and be saved. And in the New Testament it says, "The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance" (2Pet. 3.9). "He desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1Tim. 2.4).

Thus God finds himself in a kind of dilemma. On the one hand are His justice and holiness, which demand punishment for sin, rightly deserved. On the other hand are God's love and mercy, which demand reconciliation and forgiveness. Both are essential to His nature; neither can be compromised. What is God to do in this dilemma?

The answer is Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of God's justice and love. They meet at the cross: the love and the wrath of God. At the cross we see God's love for people and His wrath upon sin.

On the one hand we see God's love. Jesus died in our place. He voluntarily took upon himself the death penalty of sin that we deserve. The Bible says, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1Jn. 4.10).

But at the cross we also see God's wrath, as His just judgment is poured out upon sin. Jesus was our substitute. He tasted death for every human being and bore the punishment for every sin. None of us can imagine what he endured. As Olin Curtis has written, "There alone our Lord opens his mind, his heart, his personal consciousness to the whole inflow of the horror of sin, the endless history of it, from the first choice of selfishness on, on to the eternity of hell, the boundless ocean of desolation, he allows wave upon wave to overwhelm his soul."{1} Jesus endured hell for us, so that none of us would have to endure it ourselves. That's why Jesus is the key, and life's supreme question becomes, "What will you do with Christ?"

In order to receive forgiveness, we need to place our trust in Christ as our Savior and the Lord of our lives. But if we reject Christ, then we reject God's mercy and fall back on His justice. And you know where you stand there. If we reject Jesus' offer of forgiveness, then there is simply is no one else to pay the penalty for your sin--except yourself.

Thus, in a sense, God doesn't send anybody to hell. His desire is that everyone be saved, and He pleads with people to come to Him. But if we reject Christ's sacrifice for our sin, then God has no choice but to give us what we deserve. God will not send us to hell--but we will send ourselves. Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It is a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity.

Now if this scenario is even possible, it follows that no inconsistency has been demonstrated between God's being all-loving and some people's going to hell. For given that God has created us with freedom of the will, it follows that He cannot guarantee that all persons will freely give their lives to Him and be saved. The Bible makes it very clear that God desires every person to be saved, and by His Spirit He seeks to draw every person to Himself. The only obstacle to universal salvation is therefore human free will. It's logically impossible to make someone freely do something. God's being all-powerful doesn't mean that He can do the logically impossible. Thus, even though He is all-powerful, God cannot make everyone freely be saved. Given human freedom and human stubbornness, some people may go to hell despite God's desire and efforts to save them.

Moreover, it is far from obvious that God's being all-loving compels Him to prefer a world in which no one goes to hell over a world in which some people do. Suppose that God could create a world in which everyone is freely saved, but there is only one problem: all such worlds have only one person in them! Does God's being all-loving compel Him to prefer one of these underpopulated worlds over a world in which multitudes are saved, even though some people freely go to hell? I don't think so. God's being all-loving implies that in any world He creates He desires and strives for the salvation of every person in that world. But people who would freely reject God's every effort to save them shouldn't be allowed to have some sort of veto power over what worlds God is free to create. Why should the joy and the blessedness of those who would freely accept God's salvation be precluded because of those who would stubbornly and freely reject it? It seems to me that God's being all-loving would at the very most require Him to create a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost, a world where as many as possible freely accept salvation and as few as possible freely reject it.

Thus, neither of the crucial assumptions made by the opponent of the doctrine of hell is necessarily true. God's being all-powerful and all-loving does not entail that everyone will freely embrace God's salvation or that no one will freely reject it. And thus no inconsistency has been demonstrated between God and hell.

Now the opponent of the doctrine of hell might admit that given human freedom God cannot guarantee that everyone will be saved. Some people might freely condemn themselves by rejecting Christ's offer of salvation. But, he might argue, it would be unjust of God to condemn people forever. For even grievous sins like those of the Nazi torturers in the death camps still deserve only a finite punishment. Therefore, at most hell could be a sort of purgatory, lasting an appropriate length of time for each person before that person is released and admitted into heaven. Eventually hell would be empty and heaven filled.

This is an interesting objection because it argues that hell is incompatible, not with God's love, but with His justice. The objection is saying that God is unjust because the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

Now if one finds this objection persuasive, one could avoid it by adopting the doctrine of annihilationism. Some Christians hold that hell is not endless separation from God, but rather the annihilation of the damned. The damned simply cease to exist, whereas the saved are given eternal life. Now while I'm not of this opinion myself, it does represent one way in which you could blunt the force of this objection. But is the objection itself persuasive? I think not:

1) The objection equivocates between every sin which we commit and all the sins which we commit. We can agree that every individual sin which a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But it doesn't follow from this that all of a person's sins taken together as a whole deserve only a finite punishment. If a person commits an infinite number of sins, then the sum total of all such sins deserves infinite punishment. Now, of course, nobody commits an infinite number of sins in the earthly life. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.

2) Why think that every sin does have only a finite punishment? We could agree that sins like theft, lying, adultery, and so forth, are only of finite consequence and so only deserve a finite punishment. But, in a sense, these sins are not what serves to separate someone from God. For Christ has died for those sins. The penalty for those sins has been paid. One has only to accept Christ as Savior to be completely free and clean of those sins. But the refusal to accept Christ and his sacrifice seems to be a sin of a different order altogether. For this sin decisively separates one from God and His salvation. To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore deserves infinite punishment. We ought not, therefore, to think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence which we have committed, but as the just due for a sin of infinite consequence, namely the rejection of God Himself.

3) Finally, it's possible that God would permit the damned to leave hell and go to heaven but that they freely refuse to do so. It is possible that persons in hell grow only more implacable in their hatred of God as time goes on. Rather than repent and ask God for forgiveness, they continue to curse Him and reject Him. God thus has no choice but to leave them where they are. In such a case, the door to hell is locked, as John Paul Sartre said, from the inside. The damned thus choose eternal separation from God. So, again, so as long as any of these scenarios is even possible, it invalidates the objection that God's perfect justice is incompatible with everlasting separation from God.

But perhaps at this point the opponent of the doctrine of hell could try one last objection. Granted that it is neither unloving nor unjust of God to create a world in which some people freely reject Him forever, what about the fate of those who have never heard about Christ? How can God condemn people who through no fault of their own never had the opportunity to receive Christ as their Savior? A person's salvation or damnation thus appears to be the result of historical and geographical accident, which is incompatible with an all-loving God.

This objection is, however, fallacious, because it assumes that those who have never heard about Christ are judged on the same basis as those who have. But the Bible says that the unreached will be judged on a quite different basis than those who have heard the gospel. God will judge the unreached on the basis of their response to His self-revelation in nature and conscience. The Bible says that from the created order alone, all persons can know that a Creator God exists and that God has implanted His moral law in the hearts of all persons so that they are held morally accountable to God (Rom. 1.20; 2.14-15). The Bible promises salvation to anyone who responds affirmatively to this self-revelation of God (Rom. 2.7).

Now this does not mean that they can be saved apart from Christ. Rather it means that the benefits of Christ's sacrifice can be applied to them without their conscious knowledge of Christ. They would be like people in the Old Testament before Jesus came who had no conscious knowledge of Christ but who were saved on the basis of his sacrifice through their response to the information that God had revealed to them. And, thus, salvation is truly available to all persons at all times. It all depends upon our free response.

No Christian likes the doctrine of hell. I truly wish with all my heart that universal salvation were true. But to pretend that people are not sinful and in need of salvation would be as cruel and deceptive as pretending that somebody was healthy even though you knew that he had a fatal disease for which you knew the cure. The issue before us today is not therefore whether we like the doctrine of hell; the issue is whether the doctrine is possibly true. I've argued that no inconsistency exists between the Christian conceptions of God and hell. If Dr. Bradley is to maintain that they are inconsistent, then the burden of proof rests upon his shoulders.


{1} O. A. Curtis, The Christian Faith, p. 325.

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