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We believe that God is supremely good and merciful, far more than we are. At the same time, I see in myself that I would not condemn anyone to hell, even villains like Hitler and Stalin. Perhaps I’d have them spend a long time being purged and making up their faults, but at the end I’d let them into eternal happiness, assuming they want to be there, of course. The only case when someone would be “sent” to hell is if he simply wants to be there and is not willing to change his mind, even upon seeing the entire truth about all reality.

Then, if I feel this way, is it possible to imagine that the good God would be less merciful than this, and not somehow even more? Yet, various passages in the Bible (including Jesus' words in NT) as well as the traditional teaching of the Church suggest just that. That it’s not just total evildoers, people entirely corrupted, ones who would obstinately prefer eternal solitude to eternal connectedness - who go to hell. It seems that it’s also people who slipped up through weakness, who followed their sense of good even when knowing the Church teaches otherwise, or who were not watchful enough.

How to understand this? How to truly love and trust God in Whom there appears to be such a contradiction?

Note: This question seeks a Catholic perspective.

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  • 2
    A similar (but not a duplicate) question has received a very good answer from Caleb which points out that apart from being a God of love, God is also holy and just and that is why not everybody will be saved: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/7321/…
    – Lesley
    Dec 7 '19 at 13:48
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    You might be interested to see more of what the Bible says about who go to hell.
    – user32540
    Dec 8 '19 at 1:57
  • God is supremely good and merciful, far more than we are - Precisely. We aren't supremely good and merciful. So, if God's supreme goodness and mercy engender within Himself a heavenly state of mind, what does the absence thereof and/or the presence of its opposite generate within the souls lacking it and/or filled with contrary characteristics ?
    – Lucian
    Dec 11 '19 at 4:07
  • 'The only case when someone would be “sent” to hell is if he simply wants to be there and is not willing to change his mind, even upon seeing the entire truth about all reality.' That's effectively what the Church teaches. The only vague point in your explanation seems to be the limits of when repentance can occur.
    – eques
    Dec 11 '19 at 19:19
  • You might find this article here helpful. Dec 16 '19 at 7:45
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Most of the contradictions we perceive stem from a misunderstanding of the depths of the riches of God's goodness and his judgement along with a commensurate misunderstanding of our own fallenness. It is always dangerous for us to use ourselves and what good we think we are capable of as the standard against which we evaluate God. Paul Chernoch has given a good answer in regards to the love and mercy of God.

"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." - Romans 5:6-8

It is also good for us, in light of God's mercy, to deepen our understanding of our own sinfulness for it is "while we were still sinners" that God loved us through Christ. God's Grace is magnified by how far down it has reached to redeem us. Not that we should rejoice in our sin or sin more to highlight grace but that, recognizing the uncrossable chasm that exists between Righteous God and wicked mankind, we might repent and call on the name of the Lord for mercy and grace.

Some of the things Jesus said about our fallen condition are painfully illustrative:

"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" - Matthew 7:11

"There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." - Luke 13:1-3

"Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’" - John 3:5-7

God judges us according to the thoughts and intentions of our hearts and we are not qualified to accurately read what is going on at that level even in ourselves. Even the apostle Paul, though he lived very carefully and was unaware of any wrongdoing in himself, did not claim to be justified by his perceived innocence but acknowledged that the Lord is the judge.

Finally, look to Job who, in the midst of what he (and perhaps we all) perceived as unfair treatment, longed to put God in the dock and cross-examine him. When God showed up, Job was undone and God's merciful rescue of him began when Job prayed for the "friends" who had been tormenting him.

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The subject of hell disturbs everyone, except those who don't believe in it! Given that nobody warned more strongly about the need to avoid hell than Jesus Christ, it's important to study his words on the subject. After all, he should know better than any human what hell is all about! Read Mat. 5:21-30; 10:26-28; 13:40-43; 18:7-9; 23:33; 15:4; Mark 9:43-44; Luke 12:4-6; 16:19-31; Rev 20:11-15. In Revelation, where Jesus is spoken of as 'the Lamb', we are told about all those judged adversely by God on the Day of Resurrection and Judgment:

"And he shall 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 ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name" (Revelation 14:10-11).

This happens after an angel has proclaimed the everlasting gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and person on earth. They are commanded to fear God, to give glory to him, and to worship him, for the hour of God's judgment has come (14:6-7). So, before this hellish awfulness is poured out on those ones, they have the chance to avoid it by responding to the preaching of the everlasting gospel.

Now, what about God's mercy? The Bible states in James 2:13:

"For he shall have judgment without mercy that hath shewed no mercy : and mercy rejoiceth against judgment."

In other words, if you want to have God show mercy to you, show mercy yourself to others. Mercy exults over judgment, but God's judgment is always righteous. This means that when push comes to shove, those who trample on God's patience and mercy will experience his righteous judgment, and end up in hell. With nobody to blame but themselves.

Now, this is where your comments show the tendency of those who do not really understand the righteousness of God. You said, "I would not condemn anyone to hell, even villains like Hitler and Stalin. Perhaps I’d have them spend a long time being purged and making up their faults, but at the end I’d let them into eternal happiness, assuming they want to be there". If you think that, after physical death, there is a place for souls to be purged - purgatory - then you need to ask yourself, "Why then, did Jesus have to suffer and die? If what he did was insufficient to spare people hell, given there's supposedly another place where they could eventually get out of purgatory and into heaven, what does that say about Jesus being insufficient to save sinners?"

During his Hell's Best Kept Secret teaching, Ray Comfort speaks of people who say things like

"I don't believe that a loving God would send me to hell. My God is a God of love, not wrath and judgment." Ray says "If they ever tell you that, say, 'You're right. Your god would never send you to Hell because he can't. He doesn't exist. He's a figment of your imagination. You created a god in your mind in your own image. That's called idolatry, it's the oldest sin in the book, and all idolators are condemned to Hell.'".

Likewise, regarding Rev. 14:10, John Metcalfe writes in The Revelation of Jesus Christ p392 (The Publishing Trust 1998) – now only available through Amazon :

“He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone… smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever…” ‘Tormented’ At its strongest, this word means ‘tortured’. With what torture? ‘Fire and brimstone.’ ‘Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup’, Psalm 11:6. Thus it fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah, a sign of the wrath to come. But in the wrath to come it falls out of eternity, unto everlasting, ‘the vengeance of eternal fire’, Jude 7.

"Oh, says one, This is too terrible; too severe. I answer, Then heed the first angel, and obey him, if you would avoid its severity. Oh, no, comes the reply, But I could never worship such a God as this. But I answer and say, Then who or what do you worship? Oh, you cry, But my Jesus, and my Spirit, are nothing like this! Then what Jesus is this? What spirit is this? It is ‘another Jesus’ and ‘another spirit’, just as you hold ‘another gospel’ than that preached by the apostles at the beginning, II Corinthians 11:4. The Jesus of John and the apostles gives you the lie, saying, ‘I Jesus have sent mine angel unto the churches’, and again, John’s Jesus ‘sent his angel to signify these things’, namely the things in Revelation 14:10,11. As with all the Book of the Revelation in every jot and tittle, called ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ’.

"Here the truth brings out the enmity of false religion. False religion, under the guise of the acceptance of premillennialism and futurism, beclouds these things, and takes away the word of the Spirit... with their easy-believism... these Brethren prefer to charm people, to avoid the negative, to obviate fear, hence they put the ointment of soft sentiment and the convenience of disappearing ink, to hide such places as Revelation 14:9-11. Look and see. Therefore in all fidelity I am bound to call their system, Heresy."

The greatest mercy in the entire universe is to be found, alone, in God, its creator. His mercy is staggering, but his righteousness is never compromised. When the Day of Resurrection and Judgment comes, and everything hidden is revealed (Matthew 10:26-28) we will all see that the punishment of hell has been given to every single one that rejected the gospel of Christ and had contempt for God's righteousness. And they will have nobody else to blame but themselves.

There is no contradiction between God's amazing mercy and the Son of God's clear warnings about those who despise it, or those who contemptuously presume upon it.

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  • You had my vote with the first sentence : The subject of hell disturbs everyone, except those who don't believe in it!
    – Nigel J
    Aug 14 at 18:48
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The Apostle Paul outlined for us a definition of Love. Mercy falls under that larger category. So can we measure the degree of Christ’s love by that standard? If Jesus perfectly exemplifies love by his actions, then we must conclude that the motive behind his admonitions about Hell was one of Love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV)

  • Patience. While hanging on the cross, did Jesus call for legions of angels to rescue him and destroy his enemies? No, he prayed for forgiveness. How long has Christ’s patience persisted? 2,000 years! Yet he says that he will return and execute judgement at that time. Why the delay? Saint Peter told us:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9, NIV)

  • Kindness. A pastor once told me that kindness is seeing someone else in need and acting to meet that need. What did we need? A savior to take our place, pay for our sins, and rescue us from Hell. We did not need someone telling us lies, like God is not just and will overlook all our sins without anything being done about it. Jesus did the most that anybody can do for another person: he gave his life. No greater sacrifice can be made. No greater mercy can be shown.

  • Envy, boasting, pride. Jesus refused the devil’s tempting appeals to pride: you deserve an easy life, well protected, in command of the kingdoms of the world. He was silent before his accusers. As Paul said in Philippians:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8, NIV)

Who ever gave up so much privilege to serve others as Jesus? That is humility.

  • Honoring others. Whom did Jesus honor? A tax collector. Women of ill-repute. Peter, who denied him, yet was appointed head of the church, and Paul, a persecutor Of Christians.

  • Unselfish. Christ was not self-seeking. First, he sought to accomplish his father’s will. Second, he said:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13, NIV)

Jesus told us how to measure Love. He lay down his life for his friends, thinking not of what it would cost him (selfishness), but what it could accomplish for those he loved (selflessness). He demonstrated ultimate love in two ways: he gave all his life away, and that life, being the life of God, is the most valuable life in the universe.

  • Protects. I skip ahead to get to the point of the discussion. Jesus protects. What do we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer? Deliver us from evil. The church is always at prayer, saying “protect us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day...” Those who trust in Jesus are protected from the destructive evil within our souls by the sanctification purchased for us. We are also protected from the evil of all who reject that sanctification, hence remain a source of deadly peril. God’s mercy to us is to protect us from all who cling to evil. Imprisoning the unrepentant in Hell enhances God’s mercy, it does not take away from it.

The final question is always: but maybe if people were given just a little more time?

“If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. (Mark 13:20, NIV)

If the wicked are given too much time, then the suffering they cause will become so severe for God’s children that some of them will fall. In engineering, we call this the point of diminishing returns. God will not let that happen.

On a personal note, when I was younger, a Christian urged me to stop rebelling against a God and warned me about the consequences: I would go to Hell. I needed that warning, and I heeded that warning. Those harsh words saved my soul and set my life on a new path. Which would be more merciful, to be polite and leave me to die in my sins? Or “rejoice with the truth”?

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The entire topic of eternal punishment is an unsettling one; as humans, we are not acquainted with personal rewards--or punishments--that extend beyond our lifetimes.

Please allow me to offer a few thoughts for your consideration.

  1. Invariably, the serious queries regarding hell involve words similar to, "I wouldn't do that, and I'm just a human. How could God?"

Such statements reflect our [inaccurate] concept of God as simply a "better" version of us:

  • He thinks like we do, only on a [much] higher plane;
    - He acts like we do, only with [far] fewer mistakes.

  • In fact, God is very little like us.

Isaiah 55:8, 9 makes this point best: "8For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." [MEV]
- We may boast of the technological magnificence of our buildings; however, from the vantage of our sun, there is no discernible difference between the Burj Khalifa and a grain of sand.

  • Much of the progress of humanity is temporarily on hold because of a virus--not even considered "alive"--that is estimated to be 70-90 billionths of a meter [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7045880/]

  • What then, can be said of the power of the God who can raise the dead, and asks, "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" [Genesis 18:14, MEV]

  • Job 40:8 [MEV]: "Will you indeed annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me, that you may be righteous?"

Everything God thinks, says or does, is on an infinitely higher plane that we can conceive, or understand; including how much He loves holiness; how much He hates sin, and how He will ultimately judge each of us.

  1. In the "neat and tidy" theology of many Christians, who is going to hell--and, by extension, who is going to heaven--is a relatively simple decision: if you agree with me, you'll spend eternity in heaven; if you don't, you'll spend eternity in hell.

    • Jesus addressed this issue head-on with His disciples in Luke 9:49, 50 [MEV]: "49John answered, 'Master, we saw a man casting out demons in Your name and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.' 50Jesus said, 'Do not forbid him, for he who is not against you is for you.'"

    • This is not to suggest that any belief or practice is acceptable with Jesus; only that we aren't qualified to intrude on what God has plainly declared is His right.

    • Someone wisely once said, "There will be three surprises in heaven: the people who are not there, that we thought would be; the people who are there, that we thought would not be; and, how we ever made it.

  2. If the preceding thoughts are correct, there may be only two relevant questions about this issue we might reasonably expect to answer correctly.

    • Will there be people in hell?

    • Jesus, from my study of the Scriptures, plainly taught the existence of hell; that it was not initially created for humans; that it will be a place of torment; that it will last eternally, and that, by clinging to Him in faith, no one had to go there. [Matthew 5:22; 25:41; Mark 9:43-49; Luke 16:19-31; John 5:24-30; 6:40, 47.]

    • Will I be in hell?

    • There are, no doubt, people who--in their misunderstanding of their wickedness, God's holiness, and the brevity of their lives--desire to go to hell, plan to go to hell, and live out their desire.

    • There are people who, it might be argued, should be in hell: Adolph Hitler is the classic example.

    • In reference to your earlier opinion about whether he should first be "purged" before entering heaven, may I suggest he may still not want to spend eternity with a full-blooded Jew; even one who died for him?

    • Whether I will be in hell depends entirely on how I live out what I believe is necessary to avoid it.

    • If I think I will escape hell--and enter heaven--because my good deeds "outweigh" my bad deeds, I am guilty of pressuring God to think like I think.

    • According to God, my sins are so heinous, no good deed I will ever do, will ever erase them; only my lived-out faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ will ever address my sin problem thoroughly enough to help me avoid hell.

May I suggest you put this matter to rest in your mind by allowing God to be God, and concerning yourself rather with those issues over which you have full control.

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God is not good. He is Holy.

Jesus didn’t say “God is good”. He said “God alone is good”. There is a subtle difference there.

Isa 20:26 puts it:

I am the Lord, there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

The author of Lamentations came to the same conclusion:

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come. (Lam 3:38)

But if God is not good, but good and evil. What is the one single word that can be used to best describe him?

The word we are looking for here is the word “Holy”.

Isaiah’s relates how he witnessed angels sing:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty. (Isa 6:3; NIV)

Thus, God is not good. He is Holy.

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