It makes sense that unusually evil people might deserve God’s judgment, but how could normal people deserve eternal punishment?
There are no “normal people.” Everyone deserves judgment. We are fallen creatures under a spiritual curse in a fallen world (Romans 8:18-23). Apart from God’s grace, hell is our natural state of being. Apart from God’s grace, this world would be a place of unmitigated horror and suffering.
In the natural world, a desperate struggle for survival defines existence. The strong survive by dominating or devouring the weak. Apart from God’s love, humans would never rise above the level of the law of fang and claw. An idealistic person might reject the natural order and try to establish a higher definition for good and evil than mere survival, but the weight of fallen reality would crush him. The meaninglessness of his efforts would be a vivid example of hell’s power.
Many people consider the ideas of heaven and hell too abstract to make a difference in their lives. They think it is hard to even conceive of hell and heaven, much less to be influenced by the fear of future punishment or desire for future reward. But before they dismiss the reality of heaven and hell, they should think a little more carefully. Heaven and hell are confirmed by daily experience.
Human experience affirms that virtue, honesty, and discipline are usually rewarded, while laziness, carelessness, and dishonesty bring trouble. Young children have a limited attention span with little capacity to be drawn to anything not of immediate interest. But when children become teens and adults, they are more aware of the future. The realities of life show them that the accomplishment of anything that matters requires faith, self-discipline, and work. An adult who lacks the imagination to be motivated by a vision of what he would like to do is likely to be stuck in a job he hates. Self-discipline in present time is necessary for future gains.
All human abilities, whether traits like intelligence and courage or skills like musical performance, carpentry, or golf, can be developed only through practice, and practice isn’t likely to occur without a vision of future reward. A person who behaves courageously and faithfully is rewarded with personal qualities of courage and faithfulness. Musical, athletic, mechanical, and other skills are rewarded to those who invest effort.
God created a world that rewards effort, faith, and self-discipline. But if God is concerned about the meaningfulness of life at the level of work and survival, is He less concerned about the meaningfulness of our lives in their entirety? Would He be likely to allow someone who has nothing but contempt for fellow human beings to escape the consequences of a long, vicious life? Wouldn’t He be concerned that the efforts of a person who has “by persistence in doing good sought glory, honor and immortality” be rewarded?
To everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:29-30).
Nothing about the likelihood of future rewards and punishments is inconsistent with our daily experience. Even so, why do normal people deserve hell?
Normal people deserve hell because they are willing participants in the events of a fallen, cruel world.
No one consciously intends all of the evil that results from their actions. The evil that each of us contributes to the natural and spiritual worlds would horrify us if we were capable of or willing to see it. Because we are fallen, we overlook our own sins and focus on the injustices we’ve suffered. We devise a rationale to claim we are “righteous.” We willfully ignore evidence that would shatter cherished illusions about our own goodness, along with the goodness of our family, social class, ethnic group, church, and nation (Jeremiah 17:9).
The Old Testament prophets brought awareness of this self-deception to the people of Israel (Exodus 22:21-23; Psalm 12; Ecclesiastes 5:8-11; Isaiah 1:11-16; Jeremiah 7:4-11; Ezekiel 22:5-12; Amos 5:18-24). The New Testament describes the nature of the evil world system to which we all contribute (Luke 4:5-7; Ephesians 6:12).
We are much worse than we think we are. We have a remarkable determination to deceive ourselves into thinking that the web of social and economic relationships to which we belong is positive or benign. In spite of millions of horrific deaths, we assume our wars are just. We think that we have no responsibility for the violence in the Mideast or for the sweatshops and squalid living conditions of workers in the “developing” third world. This determination to deceive ourselves and cloak ourselves in righteousness and spiritual pride is evil. This aspect of our sin, in fact, is like the sin of the self-righteous Pharisees (Matthew 23:7-15).
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:7-11).
The willful blindness of the Pharisees to their sin made them incapable of seeking mercy from God or granting mercy to others. Blindness fueled complacency towards, and support of, evil.
Our Creator designed the universe as a cradle for self-awareness and freedom. If we use self-awareness and freedom for evil purposes, we will reap the consequences. We are free creatures in a finite world where the effects of our conscious sins are endlessly multiplied by the laws of cause and effect. If God ignored the consequences of our deliberate decisions, it would violate justice and our integrity. We are all “war criminals,” worthy of the hell we have created.
Israel was our example. The prophets and the Messiah foretold the consequences of Israel’s determination to protect itself through worldly power rather than justice (Psalm 33:16; Isaiah 30:1-3; 31:1; Jeremiah 17:5; Matthew 5:39-47; Matthew 23:34-36; Matthew 26:51-52; Luke 21:20-24).
If we won’t acknowledge our sinfulness and the fact that we deserve punishment, we will rationalize our sins and harden our hearts against truth, grace, and spiritual rebirth. If we won’t repent, we choose to be hell’s citizens.
Hell is the natural destination for every normal person who sees no need for repentance and is unwilling to acknowledge his helplessness apart from God’s grace.
But repentance isn’t enough. No one is strong or pure enough to stand effectively against a fallen world order in the power of the evil one (Luke 4:5-6; John 12:31-32; Ephesians 2:1-2; Ephesians 6:12). Mere repentance can’t purify us or undo the evil we have done and continue to do.
How can we face the reality of such harsh facts?
How can we be delivered from hell?
Only by basing our righteousness on the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who alone can bear our sins and cure our spiritual disease.