The biblical doctrine of hell is often badly misunderstood. Certainly, if God arbitrarily and unjustly punished His creatures for eternity, He would be evil rather than good.
Luke 12:47-48 , however, shows that punishment will depend on a number of factors, including one’s knowledge of truth, one’s intent, and one’s rejection of the good news and “light” of Christ. Jesus denounced the cities in which most of His miracles were performed ( Matthew 11:20-24 ) and told them they would be judged more harshly in the day of judgment than Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. Jesus displayed compassion toward sinners. Even when He was on the cross He said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do” ( Luke 23:34 ).
It is wrong to think of hell as a place where sinners will receive horribly disproportionate punishment for their sins. Certainly, there is an element of coercion. Justice and retribution are involved. But a person’s presence in hell is also the result of a long series of choices. As a person passes through life he either becomes more open to truth, love, and spiritual life or he willfully withdraws from the light that God has given him and begins a descent towards spiritual darkness and death.
Hell is necessary in a universe where genuine free will exists. C.S. Lewis has written a remarkable little book on the subject of hell called The Great Divorce. While we do not endorse all of Lewis’ imaginative descriptions of what hell might be like, the value of his work is in his explanation of the need for hell and eternal punishment. It can be purchased at most bookstores.