Why Does God Send People To Hell If They Don't Believe

This is the next in our series of sessions inspired by Marty Sampson's excellent questions. You can find the series home page here. This session was led by Andrew, an elder at Cafechurch.

The Hell Question


It can have a devastating impact on how people think about the character of God. People rightfully walk away from Christianity because of it. Though they don't always have to—I hope Marty doesn't.

Marty's question is something that has given me a lot of theological anxiety over the years. I spent my twenties increasingly preoccupied with it. Though it's obviously not a thorn in the same way, nor might it be equally relevant, for everyone.

The question is complex, though I think Marty does adequately presume the majority position. There are many good and bad responses. But I'm not concerned with any one answer (though I do present my thoughts at the end). I'm particularly concerned with the question. And the many questions behind this question. Because even if we can't find a satisfactory answer, I hope we can find better questions at least.

Many of you might know Rob Bell. He sparked a controversy when he asked questions about hell in his then forthcoming book 'Love Wins'. It was a ridiculous controversy because the book hadn't yet been released. The controversy was essentially over a promotional video.


I haven't read 'Love Wins' and I'm not suggesting Rob Bell has the answer. But he does have some excellent questions: "How could [the God that sends people to hell] ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?"

I assume that one of Marty's questions, much like Rob Bell, as a Worship Leader is: "why am I actually worshiping God if that describes God?"

It's the crucial part of Marty's Question. The how can bit. Marty is obviously not worried about mechanics. Marty values God for a reason. There's something to God that Marty considers worshipful, or worth seeking out. And that something cannot be reconciled with Marty's view of hell and how people get there. There's an intolerable tension between God and the sending, that Marty invites us to resolve.

I think what is worshipful is one of the most important questions for Christians to ask themselves. Because accepting or ignoring this tension with Hell makes no difference to its implications for your worship of God. Because it's one thing to say that a god exists. Or even that God is best understood by a Christian tradition. It's another thing to worship that God if that God isn't worthy of your worship. It would be foolish to praise that which is not praise-worthy. It would be irresponsible, even dangerous, to follow someone that is not trustworthy.

Some Christians may believe that a God with brute power can do whatever God wants. It is power that evokes worship. Hell in this scheme is not a bug, it's a feature. It may even make things better for God, or for those not sent there. There's no theological tension to Marty's question for Christians of this ilk.

Other Christians will say that the how can simply isn't relevant. They might claim there's no value by which we can presuppose to judge God as worthy of worship. God defines what is, whether that is reconcilable with our human sympathies or not. This is pretty disingenuous because they've already rejected a whole pantheon of other Gods on the religion-marketplace for some reason. You always have at least one presupposed reason why you didn't reject the Christian God too.

If those views don't resonate, that's okay. There's never been a homogenous block of Christian thought. There are diametrically opposed views within Christianity. And some of these views, one should probably turn away from in disgust anyway. William Blake expresses this sentiment in his pertinent poem 'The Everlasting Gospel’:

“The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy […]
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates […]
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.”
—William Blake (1867) ‘The Everlasting Gospel’

Why do you worship/follow/seek out God?

If you think perfect goodness, or something analogous or compatible to that, is the value by which you esteem God as God, it would seem that this God cannot "send people to Hell because they don't believe". It seems categorically not good for one to force or give up any of one's children to eternal suffering.

But one might be able to resolve the tension by looking at the other terms. Send. Hell. Don't believe. These things have multiple senses. Their definitions are controversial. It's worth asking questions about them.

What does it mean for God to send people to hell? Does God send people there? Does one freely depart? Or is one cast out? Or both? Are you sent away, or into? Can one be recalled?

What is hell? Is hell the presence of God, or the absence of God? Is it eternal conscious torment—an endless period of torturous suffering—the majority view? Is it annihilation—the complete deletion of someone from the universe? Or a temporary purgatory—a place where people can be sufficiently healed and perfected so they can properly enjoy God and others? Is it shame, or some other negative experience, in this present life only? Or a past event or place? Or multiple things depending on the context of the question? Or something else entirely?

What does it mean to believe and not believe? Would the belief in another religion or worldview qualify as belief—pluralism? Or could you have belief in Christ whilst in another religion or worldview—inclusivism? Or do you need an explicit belief in Christ, according to Christian traditions—exclusivism? And if so, which Christian tradition? Does belief mean trust—and what exactly would one be trusting in, especially if God doesn't seem very trustworthy? Faithfulness—ours or Jesus's? Intellectual assent? Can we do anything about it? Can God? What's the default—believing or not believing?

If you understand these terms differently, you might have something quite different to what Marty means by his question. But if you still cannot reconcile what you know of God, with sending people to Hell because they don't believe, no matter the parsing, so much the worse for "sending people to Hell because they don't believe". The goodness of God seems to be the more important truth. It would be better to jettison what one finds to be not-good. It demands a bit of care, of course. We shouldn't believe as true what we have good reason to believe is false. But it's responsible to order our truths well. Not all propositions are of equal value. The Christian faith can survive the rejection of what is intolerable with our conscience, reason and experience.

George MacDonald turns William Blake's insight into a recommendation. It's better to read white where others read black. Insist on light, where others (or even yourself) would insist on darkness:

"Let no one persuade you that there is in God a little darkness, because of something God has said which God's creature interprets into darkness. The interpretation is the work of the enemy—a handful of tares of darkness sown in the light. Neither let your cowardly conscience receive any word as light because another calls it light, while it looks to you dark. Say either the thing is not what it seems, or God never said or did it. But, of all evils, to misinterpret what God does, and then say the thing as interpreted must be right because God does it, is of the devil. Do not try to believe anything that affects you as darkness. Even if you mistake and refuse something true thereby, you will do less wrong to Christ by such a refusal than you would do by accepting as God's what you can see only as darkness… Above all things believe in the light, that it is what you call light, though the darkness in you may give you cause at a time to doubt whether you are truly seeing the light."

—George MacDonald, Sermon on Light

There is a more affirmative answer to Marty's question.


Hope in "the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).

Hope isn't good wishes. It's an expectation.

One can expect that all will ultimately find their home in Christ. God loves every single person. All death and mourning will be swallowed up. All shall be well, to use the ancient utterance.

This view is universalism, broadly speaking. It's an old and venerable Christian tradition. If the Bible is important to you, there's a strong white reading for this view.

It's been the only salve to the intolerable problem of Hell for me. The alternatives are indefensible, not because they couldn't be true (they are only significantly less likely to be true), but because if they were true, they would be incompatible with my authentic worship of God as good, and thus, would be incompatible with my choice to be Christian.