“How can a good God send people to hell?” This age-old question has fueled the discussion about God, His goodness, and the nature of fairness since the beginning of time. Oftentimes, we think that we are in fact good people who do more good than bad and do not deserve hell. What is so dangerous about this accusation against God is that it carries a pretense of pride.
When asked this very question during a question and answer session at a conference, R.C. Sproul replied, “Why do bad things happen to good people? It only happened once and he volunteered.”
Here, R.C. Sproul points us to a beautiful and humbling truth: only God is good and no one else. God has set the standard for what is good, and no one can reach the standard of goodness. God is good. Therefore, the standard of goodness is God. So if the standard of goodness is the holy perfection of God, we must recognize that we utterly fail to come anywhere close to God’s standard. In fact, we are the opposite of what good is. We are bad. And although we are bad and fully deserving of God’s wrath, Christ took our place. He took God’s judgement upon himself so that we could be forgiven by God. Christ was resurrected three days later and through his victorious atonement those who have been drawn toward Christ are now seen as good by God due to Christ’s imputation of His righteousness to us by grace. But what does this actually mean?
God is Good and Righteous
Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
sing to his name, for it is pleasant!
As the psalmist David repetitively proclaims, the Lord is good. Throughout all of the Bible, this is a common praise from man to God. That He is good. Many worship songs today also proclaim this—from Carl Boberg’s “How Great Thou Art” to Bethel Music’s “King of My Heart”—we are surrounded by praises to God that exclaim that He is good. But what does it mean for God to be good? What is goodness?
1 John 1:5 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
God is perfect.
There is no darkness in Him. God is our standard of perfection. He need not appeal to any greater standard. God is not defined by perfection. Perfection is defined by Him. Within His perfection lies every attribute of God in divine, perfect form. Since God is perfect, He cannot sin (1 John 1:5). God is the Creator of the universe and everything in it. There is no fault in Him. He is completely perfect. Paul says in His letter to the Romans:
But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument). Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world?
God is just.
Because God is a just God, His law is perfect. His law must be obeyed if we are to live justly. Since God loves us, His justice must be enacted upon those who break His law. The sentence for sin is death and the punishment must be borne by those who have committed sin in order to rightly appease the judgement of God. The disobedience of God’s law cannot go unpunished.
Psalm 145:9 says, “The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made.”
God is merciful.
He is full of mercy. God’s mercy reaches to the depths of the sea and to the heights of the sky. He is merciful to both the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). His mercy is evident in the fact that each day we wake, we are experiencing a mercy that transcends all bounds. God’s mercy does not make sense to us; it has no rhyme or reason by our standards. Yet God delights in freely and gracefully extending His mercy upon those who have nothing that they could ever bring to the table.
Psalm 107:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!”
God is love.
Not only is God a loving God, but He Himself is Love. His love is eternal and first rooted in the love of His own goodness, and then in His love for the creation when they participate in the pre-existing, eternal union of the Trinity. His love is displayed through His continual extending of both judgement and mercy upon humanity. Because He loves us, He must enact His wrath upon those who break His law. Because He loves us, He freely places His mercy upon those whom He saves, although all who break His law are undeserving of mercy and fully deserving of His holy judgement.
Psalm 34:8 says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!”
God is good.
We cannot experience good things apart from God because He is the only thing that is good. Our definition of good will never suffice if it is not centered and focused in on the eternal character of the one true God. Only through God’s Word do we have an accurate picture of goodness because God and God alone is good. Goodness is not an adjective. It is who God is. What joy it is that mere humans cannot define or even portray goodness due to our brokenness but that goodness is instead defined and portrayed by the God that created us! We can find and abide in everlasting joy when we come into fellowship with God. This should bring us great joy that our only lasting fulfillment in life comes solely in the goodness of a God who promises Himself to us.
The Unrighteousness of Man
They have all turned inside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good, not even one.
The truth hurts, especially when it tears down the facade that we put up to coddle our prideful sense of sufficiency as humans. We are a prideful people in that our natural desire is to rebel against God and His rule because we believe that we can be the rightful rulers of our own lives. The consequence of this pride is eternal damnation and separation from God (Romans 5:12). We seem to believe that we are good and in doing so we are crowning ourselves with selfish glory and sitting upon a throne of arrogance, pride, and delusion.
When sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden, death, decay, and destruction cursed every living soul that will ever exist. This is God’s wrath. His judgement upon the soul of every human being, as we are all under the bondage of sin (Romans 3:9). Our God is a just God, and in Genesis 2 we see that God gave humanity a command to obey, but when humanity did not obey (Genesis 3), it was given a just punishment for its disobedience.
Since we have fallen short of God’s glory and sinned (Romans 3:23), we are consequently under God’s wrath. We are under the law, always. And since we are under the law, we are to receive God’s holy wrath upon our physical death which will result in our eternal separation from God. However, for those of us in Christ, Christ’s obedience to that Law is sufficient to cover us. Since God is good, His law must be good. In other words, God’s law is perfect and righteous because God is perfect and righteous. This points to the humbling truth that we are in fact unrighteous, wretched sinners with no claim to goodness in any sense of the word. As Aristotle once wrote,
From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature.
Not only are we unrighteous, but we are evil by nature due to the Fall. When sin entered the world, all of humanity adopted a sinful nature. Therefore, we are by nature sinful beings who cannot do good or uphold a standard of goodness. Nothing that we do can justify us or make us righteous. As Paul writes in Romans 3:20, “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Christ Our Righteousness
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.
What radical love this is! We have sinned against God and therefore forfeited goodness out of our lives. We are due for a just and fair punishment of death and separation from the one holy and perfect God. There is nothing that we can do to get out of this and redeem ourselves. But God, rich in mercy and love (Ephesians 2:4-5), sent Christ to be the payment for our sins. Jesus came and lived a perfect life that upheld the law in every way on our behalf because we cannot do good and uphold the law. He then took our place on the cross to die the death that we deserve and are rightly due for. Three days later he rose from the grave in victory having broken the bondage which sin and death has on humanity. This is the good news of the gospel!
They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
We must have faith in God and enter into a relationship with Him in order to be saved (John 3:16). When God saves us, He transforms our old, unrighteous heart into a heart that desires Him. We have a yearning to know more of who God is and to worship Him as our sole purpose in life. This is only possible, however, by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-9) through Christ making us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Only when we are in Christ does he impute his righteousness to us. By the indwelling of His Spirit, God changes us in every way, from the inside out. We are good only in Christ!
Only Christ can redeem us. There is no other way. God’s wrath enacted upon Christ in our place allows us to receive His grace as the undeserved gift of salvation. This is only available for us to receive through the justice and grace of God. Only by the power of God can we be saved and transformed. Colossians 3:9-10 says that if we are saved then we must put on our new self and put off the old self. We must abide in Christ and have faith in Him alone to transform us and make us new.
This is true for those who are saved: through Christ’s death and resurrection, God imputes His goodness to us so that now God sees Christ in us. Salvation is not dependent on our goodness (which we have none of) or our work, but fully dependent on Christ’s goodness, his accomplished work on the cross, and His resurrection from the tomb. All praise be to God for this! Only He is good and only in Christ can we be righteous in God’s eyes. What a beautiful gift of grace—the ultimate gift of grace—from a good, good God.
So How Can A Good God Send People To Hell?
The question that has kept so many people captivated for so long is one that is answered by the very character of God. The question that might be more helpful to those wrestling with the question is not “How can a good God send people to hell?” but instead “Why would a good God send people to heaven?” The reason that people go to hell is because God is good. But, in Christ, we are given unmerited and amazing grace by which this good God can also look on us with delight rather than displeasure (Isaiah 53:6). The reason that people can go to heaven is because God is good. Justice and love meet at the cross. Through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone, we are made new and seen as good through Christ’s righteousness, forever allowing us to delight in God and His goodness.