Question: I’m a Christian, and I believe in hell, but a friend recently asked me if God stops loving the people who are in hell… and I didn’t know how to respond. Does he? Does God’s love reach into hell?

Answer: Hello friend. It will be my pleasure to respond to your question today — and it’s a good one. If God is, as most Christians understand he is, infinite in all his attributes, wouldn’t God’s love extend into hell by virtue of his omnipresence… or at least by definition of the word infinite? Let’s begin by looking at an important passage about God’s love.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
(1 John 4:7–9, ESV, emphasis mine)

Now, we who are used to hearing and discussing Scripture have no trouble with the phrase “God is love.” But an outsider might stumble there… because what they want to read is, “God is loving” … and that’s certainly true. It just doesn’t go far enough. God is love itself… like God is justice itself… and so on with all his attributes. Now, we mortals may be loving and just — just like God. But none of us does this infinitely. Furthermore, none of us is the source of justice or love. Only God is.

So, what happens when God’s infinite love collides with his infinite justice in the soul of a sinful human being? They both yield to the person’s free will. A person decides to avail himself of God’s love (which manifests in his mercy) or God’s justice (which manifests in damnation) … and when a person chooses the latter, God’s love does not take a hit. The moral nature of the universe demands that the creatures made in God’s image are culpable.

“…. choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15, ESV, emphasis mine)

(See also Genesis 2:16-17; Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Isaiah 55:6-7; Ezekiel 18:30-32; John 1:12, 7:17; Romans 2:14-15, 13:2;  Galatians 5:16-17; Revelation 3:20)

I think the big lesson here is that, even though every one of God’s attributes is infinite, they are not flinty and monolithic. Instead, each of his attributes conforms to his purposes for creation by informing each other in a way that prevents them from affecting a person without the person’s permission. This accounts for the population of hell. If God’s love was not informed by his holiness and his justice, then hell might indeed be empty. But since his purposes involve volitional creatures and a moral universe, it is thus informed, and hell is well occupied.

This is because there are plenty of people who — in spite of adequate revelation (Romans 1:18-20, 2:14-15), overtures of salvation (John 3:16) and the wooing of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44) — will fight against God until they die. Jesus called this “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:31-32), and this is the only unforgivable sin.

But the fact that they rejected God throughout their lives is not a failure of God’s love. It is a triumph of free will. Just note that God is not defeated here. He set things up on earth so that our choices will either actuate or restrict his mercy or his judgment. Therefore, when people perish, they do so because of their choices, not because God’s love does not travel to where it was not designed to go.

Now, it’s a pretty common complaint — and interestingly, especially among people who don’t believe in God — that if he were indeed a God of love that he should save those who rejected him in spite of themselves. That, of course, would be universal salvation… and the Bible will have none of that. But why not? The way I see it, that would take care of God’s biggest PR problem! But God won’t do that. Given the world he created, even God will not mess with the free will of humankind because he created the human/God dynamic to be just this way. In fact, we are the point of creation — the reason he made anything.

But, God did not us makes to praise him. He made us so that we may choose to praise him… and there’s a huge difference between the two. If he created us so that no matter what happened we ended up praising him, then our praise would be of no more value to him than that of rocks or trees. We would have had the illusion of choice, but — at the end of the day — it would not have been an actual choice.

Now, God could certainly fool us into thinking that we were volitional creatures while our behaviors were covertly predetermined. But why would he do that? He could not fool himself… and he’s the only one who counts when it comes to validating praise. So, I ask again, what would such praise be worth?

This is why I assert in the strongest terms that any scenario with even a hint of determinism is not compatible with free will… and people must use their free will to believe unto salvation (Acts 16:31). But I also assert that free will is the reason God created anything. That is, if we humans were not to be truly volitional creatures as described in Genesis 2:7, then God would not have bothered to create the universe that supports us.

As to your question then, I do not believe that God’s love extends to hell… even though the hymn He Giveth More Grace insists that his love has no limit. But that’s poetry, not theology, and although it is poetically true, it is not true to the edges. When the New Heaven and New Earth arrive (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1), sin, death and hell will be removed from us to a point “beyond” God’s love. But at that time, we will be working under the rules of a new game.

Now, I do not subscribe to annihilationism — the doctrine that the unrighteous dead will be destroyed (made as if they never existed) rather than suffer eternally. But it might be helpful to think of hell like that in one aspect. Even though hell will continue to exist as an entity for eternity, God will no longer have the obligation of sustaining it in the New Heaven and the New Earth… because sustenance — even of something as negative as hell — takes love on some level.

Does this mean that God hates those who have chosen hell? Well… it depends on what you mean by hate.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26, NIV)

If you’re talking about biblical hate, then yes. But biblical hate is not the angry murdering hate that comes to mind in today’s culture. Biblical hate is all about choosing… and you cannot choose Jesus in a way that does not make him priority. Therefore, it’s Jesus versus anything you want to compare him to… including your family… and this creates a dichotomy.

So, you do not have to “hate” your parents (as a contemporary child might say he does) in order to love Jesus as he wants to be loved. It’s just that when you prefer Jesus, you are “hating” them by making them second.

So, in this sense, Jesus does hate the souls in hell. He merely prefers us who chose him over those who have not, and he brings us to heaven. Hell is more of a left-over — that’s the dichotomy. Since heaven and hell are the only choices for eternity, there are no spiritual reboots, no “this dichotomy does not apply to me” and no cessation of consciousness. People must choose heaven or hell… because there is no choice C… and choosing one is hating the other.

I pray that all this helped.