Can a Good and Just God Punish People?
When my son trespasses into his sister’s room and takes something of hers, he’s violated our daughter’s trust and broken our family rules. He knows he’s done something wrong and now he’s in trouble. That’s why we punish him with some sort of discipline.
If we fail to hold him accountable, my daughter is the first to protest: “That’s not fair! He stole something of mine, and that’s wrong.” She’d also add that we were horrible parents for letting him off the hook. She intuitively knows that it’s fair and good for parents — who are the authority in the home — to punish kids when they do wrong.
The house we live in is our jurisdiction. We have the right to manage it, and it is good that we do. She also knows that she’ll get punished if she does something wrong. I suspect most people would acknowledge that disciplining your kids is fair and good.
The Problem of Hell
That’s why I’m mystified by a common question: If God is good, how could He send someone to Hell? I often reply by asking them to consider a parallel question: If the government is good, how could it send someone to prison?
In one sense, this is a no-brainer. Most people realize that if someone has committed a crime, then they deserve to get punished. A person who breaks the law in any given jurisdiction is subject to punishment by the authority in charge of that jurisdiction. That’s why it’s just and good for the government to punish criminals.
If someone murdered your mother, you’d demand that justice be served and the guilty party be punished. A government that lets a murderer off the hook is neither good nor just. It would rightly be called corrupt and couldn’t be trusted.
In the same way, we live in God’s jurisdiction. God has given us laws that govern His universe. If someone breaks one of His laws, then they deserve to be punished. That is just and good of God. Failing to punish those who violate His laws is not noble, but negligent. We couldn’t call God good if He didn’t hold people accountable for their crimes.
That’s why I don’t think the right question is, if God is good, why would He send people to Hell? The more puzzling question is, how can God be good and just but not send people to Hell? After all, God would be immoral if He ignored injustice. Since all people have committed wrong (Rom. 3:23), all people deserve to be punished.
Forgiveness Through Jesus
Everything, so far, sounds negative. We’re all law breakers. We’re all guilty. We deserve punishment by a God who is good and just. If He were to render our judgment, we’d all be doomed. If He faltered in His responsibility to punish us — criminals — He shouldn’t be commended for it. He would be a deficient God, one who can’t be trusted to do what is right. Even though I’d be included in His judgment, I would still have to acknowledge that to punish me would be the just and good thing to do. This is bad news.
But there’s good news. Even though we deserve to pay for the crimes we’ve committed against God, He doesn’t want to send us to an eternal prison. Because we are His creation — special creatures made in His image — He loves us. He’s made a way for us to be pardoned from the punishment we deserve.
Here’s how the terms of the pardon work. God is willing to trade our guilt for Jesus’ innocence. Jesus is both divine and flawless, making Him a suitable candidate for such a transaction. God is willing to place Jesus’ perfect record into your “account.” By making this trade, though, we turn over the ownership of our life to God. We either accept the terms of that pardon and go free or we pay for our crimes ourselves.
Notice the significance of that deal. We, who’ve committed crimes against God our whole life, get the chance to be pardoned for what we justly deserve to pay for. If we really understood how bad we are and how good God is, we’d fall flat on our faces in awe.
It’s the best deal in the universe, and it’s ours for the taking. That’s why the Bible calls this the gospel, which means “good news.” It really is good. That’s because God is good (Mk. 10:18).
Now that we’ve been extended this grace, God asks us to extend that same grace to others. Since we’ve been forgiven for our crimes, we’re expected to forgive those who trespass against us (Matt. 6:12–15; Eph. 4:32). And, yes, that means my kids are supposed to forgive each other too.
Originally published at Stand to Reason. Reprinted with permission.