A lot has been going on in the Christian blogosphere regarding Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins." It has inspired post after post from some of the leading evangelical voices about the doctrine of hell, and why it is essential to the gospel. I've even posted on Bell's book here and here. It turns out that Bell is headed smack dab into universalism, which is exactly where one tends to turn when one has rejected the doctrine of hell.
One of the main questions that Bell brings up in his book (it should be noted that I have not read his book, nor do I intend to, but I have read several reviews, such as this one, and have even heard from Bell's own mouth what he thinks, and I think I've got a pretty good grasp of what the book is all about) is, "If God is loving, then how can he send people to hell?" Bell says that if we say that God loves us so much that he wants to save us, but if we are tragically killed by a bus or something, that same God would then send us to an eternity of punishment and suffering. For Bell, those two ideas don't jibe. In fact, he says that the God who loves a sinner before death, but would punish a sinner with hell after death are two different gods altogether. From what I gather Bell believes that, in the end, "love wins" and God saves everyone.
For me, and the way I understand scripture, the idea that God loves everyone (since God is love) and yet will send those who have rejected him to an eternity of torment and punishment are not opposed to one another - in fact, they are essential to each other. That is to say that God's love cannot be separated from his justice (the fact that he will judge some for their sins and send them to hell). Moreover, I would say that God sends people to hell because he is love. Try wrapping your mind around that. Here's how you do it.
Mark Driscoll makes the excellent point that if God were going to save everyone, and that if in the end "love wins" (note: the kind of "love" that Bell is talking about when he says "love wins" is not the love of God), then that means that everyone will end up in heaven: you, me, pimps, thugs, child molesters, rapists, murderers, and the list goes on. That doesn't seem very fair, does it? Would a loving God let a child molester's sins go unpunished?
Here's the crux of the issue: if God is love, then he must punish evil. In fact, if he did not punish evil but instead allowed it, and moreover, rewarded it (by giving the wicked the promise of heaven), he would be unjust. And injustice is one of the most unloving things anyone can ever do. Therefore, since God is love, he must judge and punish sin. God's love and justice are inextricably linked - they cannot be separated.
If a child molester faced his day in court and was found guilty but was not punished, we would consider that to be a travesty of justice. So it is with God. God cannot let the guilty go unpunished. To do so would be unloving. So he condemns sinners to hell.
The catch here is that all human beings in one way, shape, or form, are guilty. No, you may have never molested a child or physically murdered someone, but you have undoubtedly stolen, hated, coveted, disrespected parents, lusted, etc. These are all damnable sins according to God's scales of justice. So then, every person who has ever lived is deserving of an eternity of punishment and torment in hell - everyone. You, me, the child molester, the murderer, the nice old lady next door, my kids - everyone. The real question isn't "How can a loving God send people to hell?" but rather, "How can a just God allow people into heaven?" Try wrapping your mind around that (and read the book of Romans for help)!
This is where Bell's example of God loving the sinner until he is tragically killed by the bus breaks down. It assumes that the person is not deserving of eternal punishment, when in fact he is. So when he is tragically killed by the bus, God doesn't flip a switch and become a vengeful, angry God. He remains who he is: loving and just.
The answer from scripture is that God made a way for those who would believe to be justified through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus took the punishment that sinners who believe so richly deserve, making them just in God's sight and removing them from judgment. The righteousness that was Christ's now belongs to us, and the judgment that belonged to us was given to him. That's the beauty of the gospel. And it's not that we believe out of fear of a vengeful God, but rather we believe out of gratitude for, you guessed it, his great love! God is love. This is why he sent his son as a sacrifice for all those who would believe, and why he justly punishes sinners. The Christian realizes the severity of his or her own sin and the depth of his or her own deservedness of hell, and then looks at the cross and realizes the debt has been paid. What love!
One of Bell's follow up questions to that, however, would be "What about those people who have never heard of Jesus? Like people in the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa? Would God send them to hell because they've never heard about Jesus?" Well, first of all, I reject the question, because the Bible never says that people who have never heard about Jesus will go to hell, it says that people who have sinned will go to hell. And the Bible also says that all people have revelation from God in two ways (Romans 1), whether they live in the metropolis or in the deepest jungles of Africa. God has made himself plain to all people through his acts of creation (the creation proves there's a Creator) and he has written the law on all hearts (people inherently know right from wrong because God has shown it to them). This revelation, I believe, is enough to cause someone - anyone - to realize that GOD IS. And it is also enough to condemn them to judgment and punishment. That being said, I believe God is a kind and merciful God, not willing that any should perish. In other words, I believe that if there is someone in a deep dark jungle somewhere who connects the dots (realizes that creation proves the Creator, and that he has a moral standard given by a Moral Lawgiver) that God is powerful enough to direct that person to the gospel (through a missionary, or through the westernization of the world - Bibles are constantly being published in new languages, and churches are being built all the time all over the world for people who have never had them before).
It is in this sense that the question "Why would a loving God send people to hell?" is faulty to begin with. In one sense, God does not send people to hell - people send themselves there by rejecting the revelation of truth that has been given to them. True, God is the one who is sovereign over their punishment, but the sin of a person is what induces God's judgment. God doesn't send people to hell - he judges their sin, which is deserving of hell.
At the same time, I personally believe (and this is my personal belief - not something I would die for) that there are and will be levels of punishment in hell based upon the amount of divine revelation a person was exposed to in this life (Luke 10.10-16). This means that those in the deep jungles of Africa who have never heard the gospel will receive a lesser judgment than those who live in America, own a Bible, have heard the gospel numerous times, gone to church all their life, etc. but still do not believe the truth. This lesser judgment will not be desirable, to be sure, but I think that those who have been so exposed to the truth and have still rejected it will be held even more accountable than those who have not (I would also argue that this is why babies or children who die at an extremely young age will not be sent to hell - God is a kind, merciful, and graceful God).
This is just a small taste of this discussion, and I would recommend that you check out the articles I linked to earlier. These are just some of the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head lately.
The doctrine of hell is essential to the gospel. Without it, the gospel loses all value (not to mention that if everyone is saved, and if in the end "love wins," then why bother preach the gospel at all? It seems to devalue the Great Commission to me). Again, I think the real issue here is trying to understand how a just God can allow me - a sinner - to be justified, and to spend my time trying to figure that one out. And to praise and glorify God that I have not received the punishment that I so richly deserve; and to magnify Christ, who would take my place on the cross and bear the full force of God's wrath in my place. "O how marvelous! O how wonderful! And my song shall ever be, O how marvelous! O how wonderful! Is my Savior's love for me."