The justice of heaven and hell

hell by bosch

Hell. Right panel of Haywain Triptych / Hieronymous Bosch, ca. 1516

I recently came across a Christian teenager who posed this theoretical situation: a person who never sinned, did everything perfectly according to the Bible, but didn’t believe in God. Why, he asked, would God want to send anyone to hell just for that?

Once upon a time, churched and unchurched people alike recognized God as the judge of mankind. They recognized that he stood against a category of behavior called “sin.”

Much of discourse within the church centered on how to be good enough to avoid going to hell.

Nowadays, churched and unchurched people alike are more likely to regard God as the defendant who must justify his opposition to sin. And how dare God sentence anyone to eternity in hell!

Some of these human judges seem willing to let him make his case, but they’ll listen only with great skepticism. Others enter a guilty plea for him and consign him to non-existence.

In neither older or newer mindset have most people thought through the meaning of sin and hell, or for that matter, heaven and God.

What is sin?


Society acts like it’s a good thing!

I grew up listening to commercials that claimed, “Weight Watcher’s soft drinks are sinfully delicious.” So sin must be some kind of pleasure.

And indeed, many people limit their definition of sin to sex, drinking alcohol, and other forms of enjoyment.

The church in the Middle Ages invented a distinction between mortal sins and venal sins.

Mortal sins led to hell. Venal sins apparently didn’t matter as much. So fuzzy thinking about sin is certainly not limited to modern times!

According to the Bible, sin is much more pervasive than particular things that people do. But for the moment, let’s think of sin as some kind crime. The parallel goes only so far, but it can at least redirect our focus.

Suppose a burglar is ransacking a home and the homeowner returns. So the burglar shoots the home owner and escapes with an armload of valuables. He is eventually sentenced to prison to “pay his debt to society.”

Stealing, damage to property, and inflicting bodily harm are like individual sins. In the long run, they may not matter a whole lot. The police can recover the loot. The homeowner’s wounds can heal. The homeowner can repair damage to the house and furniture.

Maybe everything can be restored to what it was before, but how is it possible to undo the pain and inconvenience to the homeowner? Even if the burglar becomes truly sorry and does everything he can to restore the homeowner’s loss?

Sin, as opposed to individual sins, is like that permanent, irreversible hurt.

So is God like the aggrieved homeowner suffering something impossible to reverse? Bingo!

God created a man (Adam) and planted a garden for him to live in. While the garden was growing, he gave Adam the dignity of assigning names to other beings in the garden. He gave the Adam free access to everything in the garden except the fruit of one tree.

I’m not forgetting the woman. According to Genesis 5:1-2

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. (KJV)

“Adam” is the generic Hebrew term for human. And Adam—the entire human race—listened to the voice of the serpent (who was not one of the beasts Adam named, by the way) and ate the forbidden fruit.

In choosing to obey the serpent, who had rebelled against God already, Adam committed high treason. God had a plan for Adam to run the world and eventually defeat the serpent. Adam chose to run the world under the serpent’s authority.

Adam’s defection forever destroyed any possibility of God carrying out his original plan. And Adam’s new master sought only to steal, kill, and destroy. Death had entered the world.

What is hell?

Last judgment, heaven or hell

Last Judgment / Jean Cousin the Younger, late 16th century

God immediately came up with a new plan. At a particular point in history, he became a human, a second Adam, to ransom his creation from the serpent’s control. The plan required that he suffer and die a humiliating death.

It’s like a judge levying a hefty fine against an indigent defendant, and then paying it out of his own pocket.

The fine, by the way, is the “second death,” or hell. Yes. Jesus went to hell so we don’t have to. And Jesus had more to say about hell than anyone else in all of Scripture.

Matthew 25:41 expresses a key fact about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'”

Prepared for the devil and his angels. Not prepared, in other words, for humans. Now let’s take another look at the first paragraph of this post:

I recently came across a Christian teenager who posed this theoretical situation: a person who never sinned, did everything perfectly according to the Bible, but didn’t believe in God. Why, he asked, would God want to send him to hell just for that?

No one can ever qualify for that situation. On another occasion, Jesus said, “The work of God is to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28–29). The one who doesn’t believe in God therefore can’t possibly do everything perfectly according to the Bible.

After Jesus death and resurrection, God requires only one thing of us humans: believe not just in God, but in the one he sent (Jesus, then the Holy Spirit. In other words, the judge paid our fine. All he asks in return is that we believe that we owed it, we couldn’t pay it, and that he took care of it for us.

So what is this place reserved for the devil and his angels?

Elsewhere Jesus calls it the “hell of fire.” The Greek for “hell” in this case is gehenna. It refers to the Hinnom valley, which served as Jerusalem’s trash heap. Dead animals and dung were taken there to be burned, as well as anything that seems damaged beyond repair or reuse.

Hell was never intended as a place for humans, but humans chose to obey the devil instead of God. If nothing happens to stop it, humans will partake of his fate. In paying our penalty for us, Jesus has taken the necessary step to stop it. The church calls it the plan of salvation.

“Salvation” has become some vague religious term that means little to most people. So think of it instead as salvage. “Saved” means salvaged from the dump by a trash picker (Jesus) who intends to make something new out of what appears to be junk.

Salvaged from hell means fitted for heaven.

 What is heaven?

ascension into heaven

The Ascension / Dosso Dossi, 16th century

More people nowadays believe there’s a heaven than believe there’s a hell. And nearly everyone who believes in heaven believe they’ll go there.


Because they suppose good people go to heaven. Because they suppose they’re good enough.

If you follow the reasoning so far, we see that sin is not so much the things we do as the condition of our personality from which we do things.

We have no power in ourselves to undo that sinful condition and the harm it causes in the world.

So it’s not true that good people go to heaven. There are no good people.

From the beginning of the human race until now, only the second Adam has been good. Since we can’t possibly be good enough not to deserve landing on the junk heap, God requires only one work. As the only condition of avoiding hell, he expects us to believe in Jesus.

And in case you’re worried about all the people who haven’t heard about Jesus, worry about yourself instead. You can’t do anything for or about them. You can’t even know who they are. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (2 Samuel 16:7).

And whom does God want to salvage? Everyone. “The Lord is not slow about keeping his promise as some count slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Repentance means renouncing Adam’s deal with Satan and turning back to God.

What God salvages from the junk heap he takes home so he can enjoy his new creation. Heaven is not some place where everyone sits on a cloud playing a harp. Heaven is unbroken fellowship in the presence of God. And once he has snatched people from the junk heap, he doesn’t hang around there.

Although Scripture makes it clear that God wants to salvage everyone, some people will want nothing to do with him. They will not want to be taken from the junk heap to be remade.

God will not choose to send them to hell. They will choose to stay there. And he will give them their way.

Why, after all, should he inflict heaven on them or them on heaven?

Image credits:
Hell. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Sin. Some rights reserved by Corey Balazowich.
Last Judgment. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Ascension. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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