Not too long ago, I was faced with the question of whether God is active in sending people to hell, or if he is passive, choosing instead to allow unbelievers to send themselves their through their free will. “God does not send people to hell,” the common saying goes. “They choose to go there themselves.” When reading The Great Work of the Gospel by John Ensor I found that he has also faced this question. Here is his explanation. I found it very convincing.
Several years ago I attended an evangelistic crusade. The preacher wanted to affirm the loving-kindness of Christ and at the same time affirm the reality of hell. The two appeared incompatible to him. So he explained, “God does not send people to hell. They choose to go there.” This statement has a certain attractiveness to it. It affirms the reality of hell but appears to take God off the hook in terms of being personally accountable for the actual damnation involved. But is this a biblically accurate explanation of the tension? I think not. The statement is distorted in several ways.
First, it uses the term people in reference to God’s final judgment. The Bible does not generally use the term people with reference to God’s judgment. The term people is used to describe what we have in common with each other as created beings, without any reference to our moral character. We talk of the people in our neighborhood. Our coworkers are people. People make up a crowd gathered in a football stadium, or an entire city or nation–the Chinese people, for example. No moral distinctions are made. Nothing is known or stated about any individual’s moral goodness. It is people we see dying of starvation. We are moved because we see them as fellow human beings made in the image of God.
When speaking of God’s final judgment, the Bible uses a variety of terms that reflects the substance and foundation of or moral nature. We are called the “righteous” or the “wicked.” God’s judgment is not on people but on the wicked. So we read, “The wicked will be cut off from the land” (Proverbs 2:22) and “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blessed the dwelling of the righteous” (Proverbs 3:33)…
When we hear about a planeload of people dying in a crash, without knowing any of them personally, we grieve. We think of their pain, the sorrow of their families. Suppose, however, that we know what young twelve-year-old Susan knows–that her father, the man in seat 23C, has been molesting her for two years and plans to do so that evening when he gets home. If we did know this, we might weep in relief that a wicked man is no longer alive to destroy an innocent young life. Our ability to sympathize or grieve over someone’s death and judgment is largely guided by this judicial sentiment.
When we speak of God’s wrath coming on people rather than on the wicked, we invariably sense a oneness with them rather than with God. But this puts us in opposition to God and the righteousness of his ways. Therefore, this difference in the language we use is important. We ought to take our cue from the moral and judicial language of Scripture; that God loves the humble but opposes the proud (James 4:6), that he honors the tearful (Isaiah 38:5) but warns the obstinate (Isaiah 30:1), and so forth. The judgments of the Lord are right, true, and truly praiseworthy. The people of God will rejoice when God brings an end to the wicked. This is not beyond our current judicial sentiment. Law-abiding, peace-loving people rejoice when the corrupt are judged and removed from power or the violent are judged and removed from the presence of the community. How much more will we say of the perfect Judge, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty…for rewarding your servants, … and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Revelation 11:17-18).
The wicked do not choose hell. It may be more accurate to say they choose to reject heaven. If we reject God and his supremacy, if we live to deface his glory, then heaven is the last place we would enjoy. But the wicked never choose hell. They go there against their will, “weeping and gnashing [their] teeth” (Matthew 25:30). In all of his judgment, God, boldly and without apology, takes an active role, not a passive one…The wicked do not leap or fall into the lake of fire. They are thrown into it, on purpose, according to the perfect righteousness of God. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Sobering, to be sure. May it also be motivating.