On Hell, Holiness, and Why Our Worldview Must Begin with God

by Alvin Reid

Why would a loving God send people to hell? This is an important question that drives right to the heart of big theological themes:

  • Who is God and what is he like (theology proper)?
  • Who are we and how do we relate to the world (anthropology)?
  • What has gone wrong in the world and what can be done about it (harmartiology and soteriology)?
  • What does the future hold (eschatology)?

Where we start has a lot to do with how we answer this question. If we answer starting with people in the year 2017 in American culture marked by individualism, consumerism, and entitlement, we might assume it’s unloving to consider a place like hell or a God who might condemn people there for all eternity.

That’s the opposite of political correctness, right?

If love is an overarching, often sentimental feeling we give to one another, supposedly free of judgment, God would simply be a greater form of that kind of love. If that’s true, the question of people going to hell seems immediately unjust.

But suppose we move outside our immediate circumstance in our time and began with scripture and the character of God. The answer to the question actually flows out of the redemptive story of God revealed in the Bible.

God is infinitely loving. He is also infinitely holy.

We were made uniquely in His image to know and worship Him. We too have the capacity to love deeply, and we possess a keen sense of justice—we all have causes or issues we believe to be unjust, and if we could, we would set these issues right. God’s holiness leads to His sense of justice, and it is perfect, without flaw or prejudice.

In the beginning, God walked with the first couple, Adam and Eve, in perfect harmony. But they chose to rebel and sin against God, and so have we. If you are a parent, you don’t have to teach your children to disobey; it comes naturally!

We have sinned against a holy, perfect, limitless God. In a famous sermon related to this subject, Jonathan Edwards argued our sin, being against in infinite God, is thus of infinite consequence. Therefore, the only just retribution for such infinite sin is infinite punishment in a place called hell.[1]

But there is good news. God did something about this. He didn’t have to; we didn’t deserve it. God did something amazing to prove His love (Rom. 5:8): He sent His only son Jesus to die in our place, to offer us life through His death and resurrection.

If you start with the idea that people are generally pretty decent, the idea of hell seems foreign. But if you begin with a holy, righteous God, and see the reality of sin in humanity and all the evil we have accomplished throughout history, God’s capacity to serve as judge makes sense. Paul unpacks this in detail in the Book of Romans.

This is why the gospel is such good news, and why we sing about grace as being amazing. It’s why we would call something as horrific as the day Jesus died for the sin of humanity “good” Friday: because of our sin against an infinite God, He did something incredible for us: Jesus died for sinners! We can be rescued from hell and judgment by trusting Jesus alone for salvation, and we can be His instrument to rescue others by sharing this good news!

[1] The sermon is entitled “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/je-justice.htm


Alvin L. Reid (@alvinreid) is senior professor of evangelism and student ministry and Bailey Smith chair of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. He loves encouraging the younger generation to live for Jesus. Learn more: www.alvinreid.com