“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Romans 6:23 ESV)
A lot of people get stuck on the concept of hell. Some theologians have built a whole theology based on the assumption that a loving God would never send people to hell, so therefore hell must not exist. But they are forced into all kinds of mental acrobatics in order to make their arguments.
The Bible clearly teaches that hell is a real place, and that those who do not put their faith in Jesus for salvation will spend an eternity there (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 21:8).
The first important thing to note is that God doesn’t want anyone to end up in hell: “‘As I live,’ declares the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11). God is merciful and loving, and he longs for people to know him so that they can live. Paul wrote to Timothy that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
But we have to be honest about the wages of sin. God is holy and infinite. Our sin is an affront to him, a violation of his righteous requirements, and a rejection of his love. God is also just, and the punishment for sin needs to fit the crime. Rejecting the lordship of the infinite Creator who has sacrificed everything for us merits an eternal penalty.
Thus the harshness of hell is a just punishment for the horror of rejecting God. If it seems extreme to us, then we don’t understand how perfect God’s standard of justice is.
But isn’t God loving? Yes! He not only desires us to turn to him so we can be saved—he also died in our place to make that possible. Jesus willingly took on himself the terrors of hell so that we could be saved simply by believing in him. He endured the wrath of God so we wouldn’t have to.
Perhaps a more accurate question than “How can a loving God send people to hell?” is “Why would a holy God save wretched sinners who have rejected his love?” That’s the real picture: we rejected God and were in fact his enemies, yet he sent his son Jesus to save us. We can never understand God’s justice without considering the gift of his grace through the Cross.