Eternal punishment of humans in a place of fire, darkness and extreme torment may be accepted as a necessity of justice but can it really be a good thing? More importantly, can one be good who would condemn a person to unending torture? This issue has been offered by some skeptics as conclusive proof the God of the Bible is not real. This issue has resulted in Christians suggesting varieties of universal salvation (Recently seen in the book, “Love Wins”), views of mitigated judgment that results in a near universal salvation (purgatory), and pithy statements declaring it’s really men who choose to go to hell (“God doesn’t send anyone to hell, people choose to go there”). Variants of these themes abound attempting to show that God is not the bad guy.
Understanding this difficult question begins with the reality of justice. Justice is not a social construct that institutionalizes or rationalizes revenge. Justice is the proper moral response to evil. Justice measures the moral weight of the wrong done and responds with an equally weighty consequence. Justice is based on an absolute standard of morality- God’s character. God’s justice is always a reflection of God’s character. If God’s justice is capricious, excessive or petty then God Himself is capricious, excessive or petty.
Since all justice is based on the character of God and God’s justice is a reflection of His character none can argue that God’s punishment of sin is arbitrary or excessive. When God created people He warned Adam and Eve they would die if they sinned against Him. The death foretold begins with separation from God. Separation from God is the natural result of sin because God is holy to such a degree that He cannot possibly have any fellowship, friendship or relationship with that which is tainted by sin. (Leviticus 20:7; Psalm 5:4-5; Habakkuk 1:13; Revelation 21:27) The infinite holiness of God demands His wrath be leveled against all who commit sin. (Psalm 11:4-7; Psalm 34:15-16) Eternal suffering is the inevitable result of separation from God and falling under the wrath of God. God’s justice is not an arbitrary determination but the logical consequence of sin against the infinitely holy God. For God to change these consequences would be to violate His own justice. If God is in any way unjust then He cannot in any way be good.
Some will concede that God is just for punishing sin but it would be better if He were merciful to all men. The assertion effectively becomes that God is not good because He insists on justice. God would be good if He overlooked what is just to do what is loving. This argument falls down on the premise that something can be unjust and good. Injustice is never a good thing. Injustice may have a show of kindness to some, but it is inherently cruel to others. The response to recent officer involved shootings of children and adolescents illustrates this very well. Supposing an officer of the law carelessly caused the death of an innocent child, it would be evil to allow him to escape the legitimate consequence of his actions. The parents, the community and the police force would all be harmed by the denial of justice. If there are no consequences for ones actions and no retribution for the great wrongs done in this world then a persons actions in life are ultimately meaningless and God is the most evil being imaginable. For God to be good, He must also be unfailingly just.
Some believe that in making the promise of salvation God is promising to be unjust. A famous preacher recently said that God “broke the law for love”. Salvation in not unjust. The justice of God is in no way compromised by His promise of salvation. Salvation is not God’s promise to ignore a person’s sin if that person asks for forgiveness. God has never offered to forget about evil. God always punishes evil. The justice of God that always punishes sin and the mercy of God that offers salvation to men has provided a substitute to bear the punishment of sin so that sinful men will not have to bear that punishment themselves. The cross is the place where God’s mercy and justice are perfectly mingled. At the cross, God’s justice was satisfied and God’s mercy overflowed to all who would believe. At the cross mankind sees the full extent of the goodness of God goodness that is in no way contradictory to justice. A God who does not always punish evil is not the god of the Bible. A God who would not send men to hell would be unjust and evil.