How could a loving God condemn people to the lake of fire?

The question of how a loving God could condemn people to the lake of fire is one of those questions that Christians have a hard time understanding and unbelievers have a hard time accepting. There seems to be a paradox in the ways we describe God: God is on one hand, the loving, merciful Father who forgives sin and wants everyone to be saved; and on the other hand, an angry, wrathful Judge, hell bent on punishing anyone who doesn’t perfectly uphold his impossible standards. There’s the God who is like your selfless high school teacher who would sacrifice anything to see you succeed, and the God who is like your angry boss who finds fault in everything you do. So, how do we reconcile these two extremes? How could a loving God condemn people to the lake of fire?

Justice for Gerald

Gerald was an older gentleman who lived alone. He was beyond his working years and had outlived his wife and relatives. But he wasn’t unhappy or lonely; he got along great with his neighbors. He lived in a poor area, and he didn’t have much money himself, but he helped his friends out when he could. There was a family that lived next door. The kids’ mother was frequently too intoxicated to care for them properly and spent most nights away from home. Gerald went to the bank once a month to cash his pension check and pay his rent. With the extra cash, he would always stop on his way home to get groceries for the kids.

On one of these bank days, a young man approached Gerald in the parking lot of the grocery store with a knife and demanded Gerald’s wallet. Gerald dropped his groceries, was knocked over by the young man, and broke his arm. He managed to get his wallet out and surrender it to the thief without getting stabbed. Gerald couldn’t pay the rent that month and got kicked out of his apartment. With a broken arm, he couldn’t move many of his belongings, but he didn’t have anywhere to put them anyway. He had to sleep in his car. And without an address, he was unable to collect his next pension check.

After a few weeks living in his car, a police officer friend from Gerald’s old neighborhood told him that the thief had been caught and his court date was in a few days. Gerald attended the hearing in hopes that his bad luck would turn around, and maybe he could even get his money and apartment back. When the thief heard the evidence against him, he changed his plea and confessed to the crime. The judge said that there was enough suffering in the world already and only love could solve it. Condemning the thief to prison and forcing him to pay back what he stole wouldn’t be loving and would only make things worse. The judge had mercy on the thief and let him walk free. Gerald succumbed to sickness and died in his car a few weeks later.

Did the merciful judge act in love? It depends on who you ask. The thief thought the judge was very loving! But in granting freedom to the thief, the judge condemned Gerald to homelessness and poverty. The judge’s act of mercy toward the thief was an act of hatred toward Gerald. If the judge was really loving, he would have brought justice to this situation. There was no justice in the courtroom that day.

Love and the Lake of Fire

When we think about judgement day, we want to experience God’s love by walking free, like the thief. But do you want the same for those who have committed injustices toward you and others? Yes, you can experience God’s love when he has mercy on you. But you can also experience God’s love when he brings justice against your enemies.
How long will you judge unjustly
And show partiality to the wicked?
Vindicate the weak and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy;
Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12)
You see, even though love and justice seem like opposites, they are actually one and the same. If God doesn’t judge evil, he can’t be loving. God’s judgement is an act of love. The question is not “How could a loving God condemn people to the lake of fire?” The question is, “How could a loving God not send sinners to the lake of fire?”

Small sin, big condemnation

If God is going to bring justice to the wrongs against us, we know He is also going to bring justice to the wrongs we've committed. But the idea that our sin deserves eternity in the lake of fire can seem rather extreme. Most people would say that the wrongs done against them are far worse than the wrongs we have done ourselves. Sure, murderers and rapists may deserve eternal punishment, and maybe even that thief that ruined Gerald’s life. But what have you done to deserve punishment so severe?

Almost all people would admit they’re not perfect. But a single little lie doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Sleeping with your partner is committing adultery against your future spouse, but if it’s for love, what’s wrong with it? Downloading music without paying for it might be stealing, but no one really gets hurt. Getting drunk is just having fun, smoking cigarettes only hurts yourself, homosexuality is just enjoying sex in your own way, and swearing is just a way of expressing anger. None of these things makes someone perfect, but surely they don’t deserve eternal punishment, right? In a court of law, most of our sins wouldn’t even warrant a fine, not to mention the death penalty! Why would God condemn people to the lake of fire for such minor offenses?

Here’s the thing: judgements are always made according to a standard. The validity of a touchdown is judged against a rule book. The grade of a math test is judged against the expectations of that grade level. The quality of a bolt is judged against an engineer’s specifications. The winner of a gymnastics competition is judged against the other competitors. And standards are not universal -- they change depending on the context. Standards are relative to the potential reward. An eighth grade essay that earns an A- probably wouldn’t stand up so well against a PhD thesis committee, because a PhD student has a lot more to lose. A player rejected by the NBA draft would be a welcome addition to a little league basketball team, but the pay is going to be quite a bit less.

If a judge is deciding between granting someone freedom or a few years in prison, his standards are going to be relatively low compared to the creator of the universe who is evaluating people for eternity with Him or the lake of fire. It’s not hard to find people around us who are more deserving of punishment than we are, which makes us feel like we’re moral heroes. When we judge ourselves by the standards we are familiar with, our sins seems small. But God’s standards are far superior to the standards of this world. Standing before God thinking that your sin doesn’t deserve the lake of fire is like trying to earn a Nobel Prize with your grade school science project. Standards are relative to the potential reward. When eternity is at stake, God’s judgement is no joke.

God’s standard

So what is this impossible standard that God is going to hold us to? It’s not as complicated as you might think. At one time, there was a laundry list of seemingly random rules that God’s people were expected to follow called the Law. But the Law was simply to get the world ready for Jesus. And when Jesus came, he made things really simple:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” -Jesus (Matthew 22)
Doing good is loving others. Loving others is not just treating people equally to yourself, it’s treating them better than yourself. This is not love in the modern, sexual sense. Jesus was talking about an act of sacrifice. Loving someone is putting aside your own best interest for the sake of other people.

If doing good is putting other people ahead of yourself, then putting yourself ahead of others is evil. Whether you’re being evil and selfish in a small way or a big way, aren’t both equally repulsive? If you commit a small evil like cutting someone off on the freeway or spitting your gum out where someone could step in it, you’re saying that your time, your effort, your pleasure, and therefore your life, is more important than the people around you. Maybe you didn't kill anyone, but the evil and selfish attitude behind all sins, big and small, are the same. Therefore, don’t they deserve the same punishment?

Everything you do can be put into one of two categories: actions that benefit others at your own expense, and actions that benefit yourself at the expense of others. Every action is either good or evil. Unfortunately, our good actions don’t undo our evil actions. If a police officer pulls you over for running a red light, stopping at the next red light is not going to pay your fine for you. It doesn't matter how many times you've obeyed the law, if you break the law just once, you are a lawbreaker. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are. If you’ve done evil, even a little bit, you’ve fallen short of God’s standard.
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (James 2)

The unfairness of God

It would be ridiculous, and frankly, mean, to expect a child to win a Nobel Prize with his grade school science fair project, or a little league player to win an NBA game. It seems just as unfair for God to hold us flawed humans living in this world to such an impossibly high, heavenly standard of perfection upon which all eternity rests. And actually, it’s not fair at all. You see, we weren’t created to ever meet God’s standard. We were created to fail at it miserably.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. (Romans 9)
This is why God’s plan is so amazing! He designed eternity with him to be so far and above what we were created for and what we deserve. What is fair for us is eternity in the lake of fire. But God has offered us something completely unfair, something so much better than we should expect. And he did it in a brilliant way that allows us to enjoy eternity with him while still maintaining his justice. That is the mercy and grace of God. We will explore how God extends us mercy while maintaining justice in an upcoming post.


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