During my college years I attended a weekly Bible study group in my dorm. A member of the group said that He was disturbed by the Bible’s teaching about hell because, although his father was not a Christian, he thought very highly of his father as a very good person, and he could not believe that God would send him to hell. Even though I believe in God and in hell, this question has bothered me, off and on, my whole life. Does God send good people to hell? Following is my attempt to understand the issue for my own satisfaction, in a way that is true to the Bible, and hopefully in a way that might help answer my friend’s concern.
What does it mean to be a good person? I think what people generally mean by being a good person is someone who conforms to their society’s laws and customs. They mostly do what is fitting and proper because they inwardly possess and practice good-natured virtues such as loyalty, honesty, compassion, politeness, caring, and so forth. Good people don’t kill, steal, rape, or lie. In the religious realm the good person respects and lives by the laws and customs of their God. In the secular realm the good person respects and lives by the laws and customs of their society. Bad persons are those who do not abide by the accepted societal laws and customs. They do not exhibit good social virtues as do the law-abiding citizens who exhibit caring personalities and beneficial good deeds. In general, good people are caring and nice to others and contribute to the well-being of society and bad people cause trouble for society.
Humanly speaking, being a good person is a relative term - good compared to what? Obviously, persons consider themselves good when they compare themselves to the bad people of society. They are not bad like them. But even the best good people are not good all of the time. That means they are good somewhere on a scale of, say, one to ten. If persons are good most of the time, perhaps anything above a six or seven, even nine, they consider themselves to be good persons. But what if goodness is compared to God’s scale of good? What if God tells us to be perfect as He is perfect? (Matthew 5:48) Suddenly, our standard for goodness no longer fits. No one is good to the degree that God is good. In fact, if we are truthful, we find that even our best deeds are likely to be tainted by some form of evil. (Isaiah 64:6; Psalm 14:1-3; Romans 7:19, 21) If God requires perfect goodness in order to enter His kingdom, then where does that leave us? There would have to be another way apart from our goodness to enter God’s kingdom; and, there is.
Some say humans are basically good, and others say we are basically evil. Which is it? Perhaps the disagreement is because our nature includes both. (2 Chronicles 19:2-3) Does the Bible say that we, though not exactly like God, are a mixture of good and evil? (Genesis 3:22) Sven Wahlroos, a clinical psychologist, said this concerning his observation of people, “All of us have a good or kind and a bad or evil part of our personality and we do not readily admit the presence of the latter.” When we observe the world around us, what do we see? We observe that some people have good hearts and are nice. What determines this? Certainly, much can be attributed to their environment and by the fact that some were raised by a good, loving, and moral family. But, there are always some raised in good homes that turn out evil, and there are some reared in bad homes that turn out good. Does this mean there is something other than environment that helps determine a good or evil nature? Perhaps something in our personality that is in us at birth? Or, maybe it has to do with how each person responds to his or her environment? Such would be the case if they don’t like what they see in their bad home life and they choose to make their life different. We notice also that there are degrees of good and evil. Some good people are nicer than others and some evil people are more wicked than others.
In terms of God’s salvation, both good and bad people become saved. (Matthew 22:10) This helps explain the difference in Christians. Some who become Christians have been good people while others were not so nice. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Becoming a Christian does not normally, overnight, change a person from being nasty into being a nice person. This is because some who become Christians have more “baggage”, perhaps from their upbringing, and it may take longer to be rid of the rough edges so that they become nicer. Others, already good people when they become Christians, may not have so much to overcome. There are then, varying degrees of niceness among Christians, though all Christians ought to be making progress in maturity. (2 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 3:18) The fact that there are bad people who become Christians also explains why there are many non-Christians who appear so much nicer than Christians. All Christians are at different stages of development. I have heard many people say something like this: “Before I became a Christian I was pretty good, but after becoming a Christian, I have gotten a lot worse.” What they are experiencing is a relationship with God which they did not have before. They have gotten closer to God and when we do that, our imperfections show up more. It is like bringing something that we do not see clearly into the light of the sun, and now we can see it for what it is. God is perfection and to draw close to Him will reveal our imperfections. Therefore, we appear to be worse than we were previously. But God would have it this way because He now wants us to see the areas of our lives that need continued repentance and work so that we can become better people, people with character like His.
When it comes to who God saves, being good or bad has little to do with it. Since both good and bad people are saved, it cannot be said that all good people go to heaven and all bad people go to hell. Something besides our goodness or badness determines our final destiny. According to the Bible, all people, whether good or bad, have a bad side that needs transforming. (Romans 3:23; 12:2) What is important to our ultimate destination is whether persons recognize, not only their goodness, but also their badness. It is because of the bad side of us that we need someone to pay for our sins in order to make us acceptable to God. (Romans 5:6-11) Becoming acceptable to God means that after repenting of our wrongs and receiving forgiveness, we come to be on God’s side and accept Him as the rightful ruler of our lives. Persons, whether good or bad, by not agreeing to God’s terms, are lost to God and His kingdom. Why? It is because our goodness is not adequate to enable a person to fit into heaven. The evil part of the person must be dealt with, and, the person must come to be on God’s side. People who do not admit to their evils are deceived about their goodness. (1 John 1:8) They also do not realize what God can permit, or not permit, in His kingdom. (Matthew 5:20; John 3:3; Hebrews 12:14; Revelation 21:6-8, 27; 22:14-15) If the good person is confronted with the fact of being a sinner, and denies it, and refuses to submit to Jesus as savior, then they condemn themselves, no matter how good they are. (John 3:17-20) Why? Because they are showing that in fact, they are against God, as demonstrated by not believing what He says, and by not submitting to His terms. How can anyone, no matter how good, be a part of a world that is under God’s rule, if they do not accept His rule? They would not fit in. All of us, no matter how good, seem to have the capacity to violate our own conscience and fail at doing what we know we should. (Romans 7:19) Therefore, unless the evil part of a good person’s nature is taken care of, there can be no admittance into heaven, lest heaven be like earth, a mixture of good and evil – with evil never eliminated. And we see what kind of a world that has made this one to be. It seems that no matter how we try to have a good world here on earth, it comes to be increasingly corrupt.
The question for all good people is this: Will they accept God’s assessment of them as sinners and will they submit to His way of salvation. (1 John 1:8-10) Or, will they try to save themselves their way, appealing to their own goodness? To refuse God’s truth and terms of salvation is to prove oneself to not be on God’s side, but actually to be enemies of God. Being good or nice doesn’t save anybody. It’s what is done with Jesus that makes the difference. (John 3:36; 1 John 5:12) The real issue is not whether a person is nice or not, or whether good deeds outweigh bad. The issue is whether the person’s heart is with God; whether the person will receive the love of God and do God’s will, or not. (Matthew 7:21)
How can one live under God’s rule in heaven when they will not submit to His truth and authority on earth? A person may be a very good and caring person, but the question is, who really is the ruler of your life – you or God? That is the issue that concerns God. We have the same concerns whenever we hire someone to work for us – we want a resume and references to determine if they will fit with what we are all about, or if they will be contrary to our purposes. In the Bible, there were “good” people who wanted to know how they could get into heaven. Jesus tested them by giving directions to follow to see whether their hearts were really with Him, or not. (Matthew 19:16-22) Many were willing to follow Him until it required something they did not like or want to do. (John 6:59-60, 66-69) Persons who consider themselves to be good persons need to read God’s instructions in the Bible to see if they are willing to comply with them, or not. If they are not, are they really on God’s side? Cornelius was a very good person. (Acts 10:1-2) But to have eternal life, he still needed to trust Christ Jesus to save him. Therefore, even though he was very good, and a well respected person in the community, he knew he needed God’s solution for eternal life. (Acts 10-11) Will we allow God to transform us so that we have a heart enabling us to live in oneness with Him? (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Matthew 18:3)
Hell is a very touchy subject for lots of people. Some people cannot believe in a God who would commit people to hell. To a sensitive person, hell is unthinkable. Who among us would send our loved ones there, even though they do commit wrongs against us – we still love them. Nevertheless, I am convinced there is a hell for one basic reason: Jesus claimed it to be so. As a teacher from God, He ought to know, and he mentioned hell numerous times. (Matthew 10:28) Of course to believe in what Jesus has said, I must believe that those quoting him are accurate in their reports of his words. And I do, for reasons that are convincing to me, but that is another subject left for another discussion. (see teaching letter #5) Yes, there is hell, but I would not wish it on anyone, and neither does God. He is very plain in His prophetic message: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)
One objection to hell is this: How can God punish for eternity, crimes that may not deserve such severity? Infinite punishment for finite crimes does not seem to fit the mold of true justice. But, what if punishment for specific crimes is not the ultimate reason that persons will be in hell? Is it possible that Christ Jesus, by His death on the cross, has paid for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 19; 1 John 2:2), all except one? (Matthew 12:30-32; John 15:26) Isn’t the basis for sending people to hell their refusal to repent of their wrongs and their rejection of Jesus Christ as the person God sent to save them? (1 John 4:4; John 3:16) Maybe hell is not a place of punishment for the sins of people, since they have been paid for by Christ; all save one, refusal to repent. (Mark 1:15) Nevertheless, everyone will be judged for their deeds, both the righteous and the wicked, and receive what is due. (Acts 17:30-31; Revelation 20:11-13) In that sense, hell might be seen as a punishment for our wrongdoing, but our deeds are not the primary basis for sending someone to hell. Such deeds are the product of a deeper issue, the rejection of God’s Son and His truth and authority in our lives.
Many are offended at the idea of hell due to possible misunderstandings often presented by the church and Christians. For example, teaching that hell is a literal fire. Hell may not be a place of literal fire. Terms used to describe hell are not always literal. Consider this: If hell is a place of everlasting black darkness (Jude 13), then how can there be literal fire, which emits light, thus destroying the black darkness? Maybe fire is a figurative term for the mental anguish to be endured in that place. (Matthew 13:49-50) I once died in a nightmare and I went to hell. A dream is certainly not a source of how things really are, but I recall gnashing of teeth and no fire. The agonizing torture that I experienced was the all-consuming thought that I would be there forever and never be able to get out. I don’t pretend to have the ultimate answers to such a subject. Only God knows fully what this place is and what He intends to do, but I trust His goodness and fairness, and that He will do right.
How is it that those against Christ would make good citizens in a Kingdom of righteousness that He rules? Would it not make sense to have an alternative place for people to live who do not have a heart to follow Christ’s government? Jesus said, “Any kingdom…city or house divided against itself shall not stand…he who is not with me is against me…” (Matthew 12:25, 30) He makes plain that there are those for and against Him. My understanding of hell is that it is reserved for those who have chosen to walk away from Christ; those who have rejected His truth and Lordship.
We have a place in our world for those who refuse to walk by the guidelines of our society. We tolerate prisons. We lock people away for crimes they commit, some even for life. And some, we say, deserve the death penalty. Maybe these people did mostly good in their lives, but now have this one bad deed. Why not let people, if their lives are mostly good, run free and do what they want? Isn’t that the most loving thing to do? No. We say that the loving thing is to provide a safe society for people. Most people would likely agree that it would be nice if we did not need prisons. It would be wonderful if we did not have to protect our families from robbers, killers, child abusers, or rapists. Christ died for all persons, but that doesn’t mean all choose to walk Christ’s way. So what do you do with people who do not want to follow the rules that make for a safe society? Allow them to make it unsafe?
Is it possible that a person would continue to be against Christ and choose to never repent of their wayward life, never coming to terms with Christ? If a person in prison shows reform and no longer poses a threat to society, we allow for parole. But some people we keep locked up because they continue to be a threat to the well-being of society. Does God know that some will forever be a threat to His society and so must have an alternative place provided for them?
What if a person never chooses to be with you, but always against you? What will you ask of such a person? We experience this to some degree in divorce situations. One person no longer wants to live with another. Do we insist on forcing them to stay against their will? Two people who do not want to walk together are allowed to separate.
Consider the familiar story of the “prodigal son”. (Luke 15) This happens in many people’s experiences. A child does not want to stay with the parent, but wants to go away and live as she or he pleases. The parent may be too restrictive for them. In the story, the son discovers that life is difficult and destructive away from the father. In his case he chooses to return to the father. The father never stops loving the son, but he does not go out and force his return. The son must come to himself and realize where life is to be found – with his father. But what can the father do if the son refuses to return to his loving presence? He respects his son’s right to choose a separate life, though he does so with grief.
Although God tries to influence people to return to Him, hell results from persons choosing their own destination. God loves people and respects their choices enough to allow them to remain separate. Even if He knows it is not good, nor in their best interest, they will have it no other way. What if there are people who refuse God’s standards and, for them, there is no remedy? (2 Chronicles 36:16; Proverbs 29:1) What more can God do than what he has done? He keeps loving people and offers them an invitation to return to Him. He has sent His son, Christ Jesus, to pave the way home. But persons will not; and God seemingly will not violate their choice to remain separate.
No one can be the judge of anyone on whether or not they are bound for hell. Only God can make that determination. But I do believe, given the perfect nature of God, that He will not make a mistake and will do the right and fair thing for everyone. (Genesis 18:25; Psalm 9:7-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9) And there will be no arguments against His judgement – all will know that He is right. (Genesis 18:25) If there is any blame, they will have only themselves to blame. We have a good side to our personalities, but it is our bad side that needs to be taken care of so that we are fit for God and heaven. (Isaiah 53:4-6)