It’s God Who Sends People To Hell – And The Bible Doesn’t Shy Away From This

I hear all the time now, almost entirely from those who believe in eternal conscious hell, that God doesn’t send people to hell. 1 This is most common in online discussions and very informal settings, moreso than in published literature. 2 Micah Ward, “God Does Not Send People to Hell,” Medium, June 28, 2020, https://medium.com/an-idea/god-does-not-send-people-to-hell-e15af001daf5 (accessed January 30, 2024. 3 Intervarsity, “A Loving God Wouldn’t Send People to Hell,” Intervarsity Evangelism, n.d., https://evangelism.intervarsity.org/resource/loving-god-wouldnt-send-people-hell (accessed January 30, 2024). 4 Sean McDowell, “Does A Loving God Send People to Hell?,” seanmcdowell.org [blog], posted
September 2, 2024, https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/does-a-loving-god-send-people-to-hell (accessed January 30, 2024).
Rather, people send themselves to hell. Many quote C.S. Lewis on this, while those who do not cite him directly still echo his general sentiments:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. 5 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 72. 6 Due to the fictional nature of The Great Divorce, some question as to what extent it reflects Lewis’s actual beliefs. But the quotation is commonly used nonetheless.

But according to the Bible, it’s God who sends people to hell.

Why Does This Matter?

Now, this isn’t an argument for annihilationism per se. Traditionalists, conditionalists, and even universalists could concede that God sends people to hell. It’s what happens to those in hell once they are there that determines which view is true. 7 Some, especially in the annihilationist camp, object to thinking of hell as a specific place, rather than a state/event. Either way, my point still stands.

The reason this matters to the doctrine of hell is because it has become part of an ongoing trend to soften the doctrine of eternal conscious hell to make it more palatable. For our purposes we will refer to this softened view as the metaphorical view.

Often it is annihilationists who are accused of trying to make hell more palatable, but this has been going on in the traditionalist camp for a while now. We have discussed this at length before, how those who have held to eternal conscious hell have historically believed very much in a place of fiery torture and God’s active wrath, and how if eternal conscious hell is true at all, this historical version is how the Bible would be describing it. 8 For more on this, see “The Many And Varied Problems With The Modern, Metaphorical View Of Eternal Concious Hell”. 9 See also, “The Traditional View Of Hell Is Rightly Called ‘Eternal Torture’ (At Least Traditionally)”. 10 For a sampling of church history on the issue, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief about Hell Have Church History on Its Side?” – Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Traditionalists are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Not that people are intentionally lying, but sometimes bad ideas make their way into the public consciousness and become normalized, and this softening of eternal conscious hell has done so to a great degree in evangelicalism and beyond. As such, those who hold this view want to say that they are being orthodox and holding to the tradition and to biblical teaching even when they don’t like it, while at the same time getting to defend God to unbelievers because “hell is not a torture chamber” and, along these lines, “God doesn’t send people to hell.”

But he does send people to hell. The Bible doesn’t hide away from this at all.

As annihilationists, it is increasingly essential that when a traditionalist holds to a clearly unbiblical happy-medium view like the metaphorical view, we challenge them on it. If someone is going to accept the traditional view of hell, then they need to accept all of it.

Yes, the unsaved deserve to go to hell. But while we may sometimes say “you did it to yourself” to a person who does a bad thing and gets punished for it, that isn’t meant as a literal statement. Their parents or the school or legal system behind the consequence fundamentally take ownership of the penalty they impose. And so does God in the Bible.

Some Key Texts 11 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 12 Scripture quotations marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.

The idea of God as an active judge who inflicts vengeance upon the guilty is something one can find throughout the Bible. Below are a few key New Testament texts that I think really drive the point home for our purposes here.

Mateo 25:41

Then He [Jesus] will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.

This passage is usually appealed to as a prooftext for eternal conscious hell because it describes hell as “eternal fire.” The Bible’s use of this phrase and why it does not indicate a fire burning people forever has been addressed here previously. 13 For more on this, see “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” – Parts 1 and 2. 14 The fact that even a separation-from-God prooftext shows hell as fire – and uses the “eternal fire” phrase as the basis for saying it is about hell in the first place – is a further strike against the fireless metaphorical view.

But this passage is noteworthy for our purposes because it features Jesus himself, who is supposed to be the nice one, the one who is supposed to be the truest revelation of God and therefore show us that God is actually loving and merciful (as if that wasn’t already shown in the Old Testament) – and yet he is condemning people to hellfire. He does not passively watch it happen as they choose to go away from him. He actively sends away – and into the fire. 15 Some point to the fire being made for the devil and his angels in order to somehow distance God from sending humans to hell, but that is irrelevant given that God is very much sending people there in this verse. It may have been made for the devil and his angels, but humans are being treated like them.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (HCSB)

It is a clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering, since it is righteous for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to reward with rest you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength in that day when He comes to be glorified by His saints and to be admired by all those who have believed, because our testimony among you was believed.

This passage is often appealed to in order to show that hell is separation from God, although even that is questionable as it depends on certain renderings of ambiguous Greek. 16 For more on this, see Peter Grice, “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence“, 17 The above citation of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, a highly literal contemporary of my preferred NASB 1995 translation that I think gets Verse 9 correct in this case.

But rather than being a passive separation, where God just graciously says to those who don’t want to know him “thy will be done,” instead it describes Jesus himself coming in flames and fury and delivering vengeance unto the wicked (Verse 8). Paul even makes sure to emphasize that Christ pays back those who persecuted his people affliction for affliction (Verse 6). God is shown here as an avenger, not just a passive respecter of free choice.

Romans 12:19

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

Here we again see the Bible embracing God’s vengeance. He avenges. He repays. He doesn’t merely cut himself off from those who want to be apart from him anyway.

Mateo 13:40-42

So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

After telling a parable where wheat and weeds are harvested and the weeds are burned up, Jesus explains the meaning to his disciples.

It’s hard to say that God doesn’t send people to hell when his agents, the angels, at Christ’s command take the wicked and throw them into the fires of hell like throwing away refuse (a form of refuse that quickly burns up to ashes, for good measure). 18 Comparing the wicked to weeds that are then burned up also doesn’t sound very much like the unrepentant wicked being in made God’s image makes them too valuable to destroy – a philosophical argument made by some traditionalists – because you don’t put easily combustible weeds into an incinerator if you don’t want to destroy them. Keep in mind that I am not describing the parable, but Jesus’s explanation of the parable. Other than maybe speaking of hellfire in a slightly figurative manner as “the furnace of fire” (to play off the furnace in the parable), this is a straightforward clarification of a symbolic story.

Matthew 7:21-23

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Here, hell is not mentioned explicitly. However, Jesus does command these people to depart from him at judgment. And yet, rather than embracing the fact that the God they hate has sent them away, they are trying to plead their case and are denied.

It sounds a lot like Jesus is, again, sending them to hell (and for good measure, they are not getting the outcome they wanted).

Revelation 14:9-11

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

This is, of course, a major prooftext for eternal conscious hell – which is the main reason I brought it up – and we have addressed it here previously as well. 19 For more on this, see “A Primer on Revelation 14:9-11”.

But its use in demonstrating eternal conscious hell seems very odd for adherents of the metaphorical view in general. Revelation is very symbolic, of course, but nevertheless one must say that physical torment (i.e. torture) with fire, in the presence of Christ and the angels, is meant to symbolize fireless, non-physical anguish away from Christ.

And while it doesn’t specifically show people being sent to hell by force, it also seems quite odd to describe the internal, self-inflicted torment of being separated from God as being the full-strength wrath of God, culminating in being burned alive with fire and sulfur.

God’s Active Role in Final Punishment Is Frequently Referenced in Scripture

These are among any number of relevant passages in the New Testament alone. Matthew 10:28 reminds us that God can actively destroy both body and soul in hell (as opposed to just passively letting the wicked go there). 20 There is a small minority (albeit with at least one well-respected adherent) who hold that Matthew 10:28 is speaking of the devil, not God. This view is really hard to defend under scrutiny. For more on this, see “Matthew 10:28 Is About God, Not the Devil“.  James 4:12 is similar. Matthew 25:46 reminds us that hell is the “eternal punishment” of the wicked, which would mean it is the opposite of what they desire. 21 For more on why “eternal punishment” does not imply etrrnal conscious hell, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment” – Parts 1 and 2. Hebrews 10:30-31 mimics Romans 12:19 and also reminds us, regarding those who deliberately continue to live in wickedness, “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” 22 The fact that Verse 27 also says that the enemies of God also look forward to a raging fire that will consume them also certainly doesn’t hurt the annihilationist case. The wicked have every reason to fear God, not just to fear that they will be separated from him – as they had already desired anyway.

Conclusión

I accept that God sends people to hell in Christian theology. I can own what my own beliefs entail. God sends people to hell because he is just and they deserve it. They don’t want to go there, and they don’t send themselves there any more than a prisoner who is shackled at gunpoint sends himself to prison. They may not want to be with God but they certainly don’t want the eternal death penalty either. And while I don’t object on principle to universalism and God showing eternal mercy to everyone in the end, I certainly can hold no objection to God sending the unrepentant to be destroyed in hell in both body and soul (cf. Matthew 10:28) because that is the righteous and just wages of sin (cf. Romans 6:23). God sends people to hell because he is a just judge who will give the wicked what they deserve (if they remain impenitent). 23 Universalists should likewise have no trouble acknowledging that God sends his wayward children to the temporary place of severe discipline so they can stop being bloodthirsty rebels and be ready for eternal life in his kingdom.

Most Christians have not shied away from this fact. Many traditionalists today likewise do not shy away from this fact. Nor should they – several of the passages I cited above are among the main texts used to demonstrate (albeit unsuccessfully) that the Bible teaches eternal conscious hell in the first place.

So if you believe that the Bible teaches eternal conscious hell, then own it. Own what that means. Own everything that such a view entails. Own that people aren’t asking to go to the fiery furnace of weeping and gnashing of teeth forever, but that they are cast there by the word of God. If evangelical conditionalists are not free to soften the Bible’s teaching on hell, and I agree that we aren’t, then neither are you.

If God’s active role in final punishment and him sending people to hell feels unconscionable, then you need to ask yourself why. If God being an active avenger seems wrong in either view of eternal damnation (annihilationism or eternal conscious hell), then I highly recommend seeking the joint counsel of scripture, prayer, and trusted believers in your life who can walk you through this time. 24 In universalism, God may actively send people to hell but he is ultimately disciplining them, not inflicting retribution on an eternal scale. That has gotten me through similar issues in my Christian walk.

If it specifically seems unconscionable that a loving God would actively send people to eternal conscious hell, and you feel like your thoughts and feelings aren’t aligned with the biblical truth, then perhaps the problem isn’t the biblical truth of God as the holy avenger, but rather, it seems unconscionable because eternal conscious hell isn’t the biblical truth in the first place.

References
1 This is most common in online discussions and very informal settings, moreso than in published literature.
2 Micah Ward, “God Does Not Send People to Hell,” Medium, June 28, 2020, https://medium.com/an-idea/god-does-not-send-people-to-hell-e15af001daf5 (accessed January 30, 2024.
3 Intervarsity, “A Loving God Wouldn’t Send People to Hell,” Intervarsity Evangelism, n.d., https://evangelism.intervarsity.org/resource/loving-god-wouldnt-send-people-hell (accessed January 30, 2024).
4 Sean McDowell, “Does A Loving God Send People to Hell?,” seanmcdowell.org [blog], posted
September 2, 2024, https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/does-a-loving-god-send-people-to-hell (accessed January 30, 2024).
5 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 72.
6 Due to the fictional nature of The Great Divorce, some question as to what extent it reflects Lewis’s actual beliefs. But the quotation is commonly used nonetheless.
7 Some, especially in the annihilationist camp, object to thinking of hell as a specific place, rather than a state/event. Either way, my point still stands.
8 For more on this, see “The Many And Varied Problems With The Modern, Metaphorical View Of Eternal Concious Hell”.
9 See also, “The Traditional View Of Hell Is Rightly Called ‘Eternal Torture’ (At Least Traditionally)”.
10 For a sampling of church history on the issue, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief about Hell Have Church History on Its Side?” – Parts 1, 2, and 3.
11 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
12 Scripture quotations marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
13 For more on this, see “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” – Parts 1 and 2.
14 The fact that even a separation-from-God prooftext shows hell as fire – and uses the “eternal fire” phrase as the basis for saying it is about hell in the first place – is a further strike against the fireless metaphorical view.
15 Some point to the fire being made for the devil and his angels in order to somehow distance God from sending humans to hell, but that is irrelevant given that God is very much sending people there in this verse. It may have been made for the devil and his angels, but humans are being treated like them.
16 For more on this, see Peter Grice, “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence“,
17 The above citation of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, a highly literal contemporary of my preferred NASB 1995 translation that I think gets Verse 9 correct in this case.
18 Comparing the wicked to weeds that are then burned up also doesn’t sound very much like the unrepentant wicked being in made God’s image makes them too valuable to destroy – a philosophical argument made by some traditionalists – because you don’t put easily combustible weeds into an incinerator if you don’t want to destroy them.
19 For more on this, see “A Primer on Revelation 14:9-11”.
20 There is a small minority (albeit with at least one well-respected adherent) who hold that Matthew 10:28 is speaking of the devil, not God. This view is really hard to defend under scrutiny. For more on this, see “Matthew 10:28 Is About God, Not the Devil“.
21 For more on why “eternal punishment” does not imply etrrnal conscious hell, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment” – Parts 1 and 2.
22 The fact that Verse 27 also says that the enemies of God also look forward to a raging fire that will consume them also certainly doesn’t hurt the annihilationist case.
23 Universalists should likewise have no trouble acknowledging that God sends his wayward children to the temporary place of severe discipline so they can stop being bloodthirsty rebels and be ready for eternal life in his kingdom.
24 In universalism, God may actively send people to hell but he is ultimately disciplining them, not inflicting retribution on an eternal scale.