Can I believe in heaven without believing in hell?
Is hell real? Or, is it just a scary story made up to get us to live right?
Agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that Jesus’ moral character was seriously defective because he believed in hell, and no one who is humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Is Russell right?
If God is good, how can He send anyone to such a horrible place? And, if hell is real and God puts people there, doesn’t that make Him hard-hearted and unloving? Would a caring, imperfect human treat someone like that?
God can't be good without being just, and He can't be loving without also punishing evil.
If you’ve ever asked these questions, you’re not alone. Most of us don’t have a hard time believing in an after-life, or even heaven. But hell, the idea of eternal damnation, that’s a harder concept to accept.
One way people solve this dilemma is to stop believing in hell. The problem is that’s not biblical. Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven. Avoiding the topic of hell gives us an incomplete picture of God's character. God can't be good without being just, and He can't be loving without also punishing evil.
Why Does Hell Have to Exist?
In Jeremiah 9:24, God describes Himself as the Lord who has steadfastly shown love, justice, and righteousness on Earth. He delights in these things. These three attributes of God are key to understanding why hell exists.
God created us in His image, meaning, among other things, He lovingly gave us free-will and rational minds, in spite of knowing ahead of time we wouldn’t do everything the way He wants us to. If we didn’t have these abilities, which enable us to make our own choices, we wouldn’t be responsible for our own actions. What truth is there in a machine programmed to say, “I love you” repeatedly?
God says in Jeremiah 9:24 that He always shows us love. The biggest proof of God’s love is Jesus. Everyone since Adam and Eve was born with sin, a rebellious condition that separates us from our holy, perfect heavenly Father.
The penalty for sin is death, but God loves too much to leave us in our terminal state. He set up a sacrificial system that allowed people to pay the penalty for their sin. Then, when the time was right, God sent His Son, Jesus, to be the perfect sacrifice that would pay our sin debt once and for all (Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23).
If we choose separation from God, we’ll get it.
Jesus made this substitutional sacrifice so we don’t have to spend eternity separated from God. Jesus says that greater love has no one than one who lays down his life for his friends, and that’s what He did for all who come to Him (John 15:13). God’s love for us is real, and it cost Him dearly.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).
If we choose separation from God, we’ll get it. God doesn’t force us to choose Him. Because God respects our free-will and will not take it away from us, hell exists. It’s the place we choose when we decline God’s ongoing invitations to spend eternity in heaven with Him (Romans 1:20).
A Good God Is a Just God
Another reason for hell is justice. Justice means good is rewarded, and evil is punished, fairly and impartially. God is the best person to execute judgment because He made it all — the heavens, the earth, plants animals, and all of humanity (Genesis 1). God designed the world we enjoy, and He knows how it functions best.
When we live according to God’s design, we reap the benefits. When we disregard or rebel against His design, we pay the penalty. God treats everyone justly and fairly (Romans 2:6-8). Without punishment for wickedness and rebelliousness, the good and righteous would be treated the same as the wicked — a great injustice!
The Compact Bible Dictionary defines hell as a place of eternal punishment for the unrighteous. Without Jesus, we would all spend eternity in hell. Only God is completely righteous. He is perfect and morally good, free from guilt and sin. He can be no other way.
To spend eternity with God, we need to become righteous. The only way we can do it is to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. God created hell for the unrighteous, for those who don’t want to be with our righteous Lord.
We have free-will and the ability to reason. We have countless opportunities to say, “Hey, God, I want to live life your way.” God is not the one who makes the choice to put us in hell. If we end up there, it’s because we’ve chosen it over heaven. In “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis writes that in the end there are only two kinds of people: “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, … ‘Thy will be done.’”
What Will You Do With the Reality of Hell?
Not believing in hell doesn’t make it any less real. The Bible is the foundation of all truth, and hell is a real place that the Bible refers to frequently:
- In Psalm 88:4, the psalmist says in despair, “I am counted among those who go down into the pit …”
- In Luke 12:5, Jesus says, “Fear Him who … has the authority to throw you into hell.”
- In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says that on this rock “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
- In Mark 9:47-48, Jesus tells us that it’s better to enter the kingdom of God with parts of our body missing because they’ve been cut off to keep us from sinning than to have our whole body “and be thrown into hell” where the worms don’t die and fire burns continually.
Hell is not for those who repent and turn to God. It is only for those who don’t. God, who is loving, just, and righteous, provides a way for us to avoid hell and spend eternity with Him. All we have to do is ask Jesus into our hearts. If we haven’t already done so, it’s a decision we need to make before we no longer have that opportunity.
One day, one of two things will happen. Either, we’ll die and step into eternity, or we’ll face Jesus when He returns to provide eternal victory over evil (Revelation 19:20, Revelation 20:10, and Revelation 20:14-15). Where we spend eternity will depend entirely on what we do with God’s offer of salvation.
Peter, one of Jesus’ close friends and disciples, writes, “The Lord is not slow about keeping His promise as some people think. He is waiting for you. The Lord does not want any person to be punished forever. He wants all people to be sorry for their sins and turn from them” (2 Peter 3:9, NLV).
We know what God wants for us. The question is what will we choose?