Recently, I asked a friend who used to believe in God how he lost his ‘faith’. He told me that two people close to him died in quick succession, and he realised that the idea of God sending those good people to hell was so ridiculous that the Christian god was obviously false.
So, how do we respond?
The first thing to appreciate is that whenever we talk about death and hell, we should do so with utter sensitivity. This is not just a theological issue, but also a deeply emotional one. We are trying to communicate the message of God’s love, not simply a brusque,‘Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in’ message.’ We should convey news about hell, perhaps, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The crux is the question, ‘What is good?’ And here we’re dealing with the key issue for the modern western world. The consensus opinion in our society would be that people are inherently good. If you stood on any high street and surveyed people about their sense of morality, you would probably sustain some kind of brain injury. But you would also likely hear people saying things like: ‘Well, you know, I’m not perfect, but I’m alright really. I’m a good person deep down. I’ve never murdered anyone.’
We have in our minds a sliding scale of goodness, with murderers, rapists (and, in my case, Tottenham) at one end, and people like Mother Teresa and Lenny Henry at the other.
We develop a sort of internal quasi-equation: If God is good + I’m alright = God wouldn’t send me to hell.
But that falls down when you come to Christianity (and as you know, we’re all about that here). The biblical elephant in the room is that there are no good people. This sounds cruel and harsh and a bit intolerant, but we need to be clear about what we mean by ‘good’. Good compared to whom? To a murderer? Sure. To God? ‘Fraid not. With Christianity, the view is not that there are good people and bad people: there’s Jesus, and then everyone else.
Romans 3 says ‘There is no one righteous, not even one…there is no one who does good, not even one.’ That doesn’t mean that we are all evil Childcatchers from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We might think we come off OK on our own scale of good/evil, but however you cut it, compared to Him, we are not good.
So God doesn’t send good people to hell, because there are no good people. At this point, someone might say, ‘Well the God I believe in is much nicer than that,’ or ‘If there is a God, he wouldn’t send anyone to hell.’ And that’s fine, but that’s not the Christian God. And besides, you actually won’t find this other God anywhere – he’s just a placebo.
If Christianity is true, then the idea that you try to live a good life and God rewards you for your efforts is false. Jesus didn’t come to tell us that we were all doing fine. He didn’t go willingly to his death because nothing was wrong.
Next week we’ll look at the fact that God doesn’t send people to hell. We choose it for ourselves.