"How can we believe in a God who, if His children (us) don't believe in Him, he just "lets" or "relinquishes" them to hell? As a parent who, no matter what, desires to be with his children even if they don't obey, it's hard to comprehend why God lets that happen"
"Ever since I became a father, I have struggled with the fact that God can allow His children who do not accept Him as their personal Saviour go to hell. As a dad, there is nothing my children could ever do, even denying me as their father, that would let me have them suffer for all eternity. I would still want to be with them and I would not allow them to suffer after their earthly death… I don't understand how God, whose love is so much greater than mine can allow His children to go to hell when I, in my love that is not even close to the goodness of God's love, would never allow that to happen… If God's love is unconditional, then why is there a condition that one must accept Him as Saviour to go to heaven?"
I want to thank the two individuals who posed the questions above. Clearly, you are both loving parents and the experience of becoming parents has brought this question to light for each of you.
Let me deal with a couple of presuppositions I hear in the questions from the outset and then move on to the question that remains after we deal with those.
PRESUPPOSITION #1: God allows His children to go to hell
It is assumed by both questioners that God condemns some of His children to hell. But that just isn’t the case. The simplest answer to the question of why a loving God condemns His children to hell is, “He doesn’t”.
God doesn’t send His children to hell. Jesus doesn’t lose any who are His (John 6:35-40; 10:27-30; 17:9-12). But those who are not His are not children of God because they have denied Christ and rejected God as Father.
Romans 5:12-21 clarifies this familial presupposition for us. We are descendants of Adam, born into sin. The remedy is accepting the free gift of grace of our true elder brother, Jesus.
So who are God’s children? Those who believe in and accept Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord are adopted into the family of God (Gal 4:4-5; Eph 1:4-6; 8:15). God looks at our elder brother’s spotless record, His only begotten Son, and adopts those who trust in Jesus into the family of God on Christ’s account.
PRESUPPOSITION #2: God’s unconditional love
God’s love is often pitted against and above His other attributes. We say, "a God of love would never do this or that." But in making statements like that we often have to write off His justice, His discipline, or one of His other attributes we're de-emphasizing.
Parents have rules and teach their children to obey their instructions. A parent’s love can be unconditional in the sense that if the child disobeys the parent still loves them. But the parent is also loving for requiring conditions for the child. “Don’t touch the element on the stove, you’ll get burned!”. Parents don’t make rules like this to hurt the child but to help the child.
This is where the presuppositions meet. God’s love for His children is unconditional. Even when we disobey, He forgives. God is a God of grace. But God has always put conditions on humanity. From the very beginning He declared to Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17). God’s love is unconditional for those who are His and yet His love does not come without conditions. Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
Lets be sure that we don’t throw out the whole council of God for the sake of a particular presupposition. In this case, using the term of unconditional love the way it is framed in the question, leads to universalism and that is an unbiblical view of God, responsibility, love, and His other attributes.
HELL IS REAL AND OUR DECISIONS MATTER
As we raise children we teach them about right and wrong. We don’t want them to become jerks or criminals! We want them to learn to be moral, kind, compassionate, loving people who make positive contributions to society. Even more comprehensively, we want them to come to understand that what they do with Jesus is the most important thing about them.
To reject Jesus is to choose hell. Heaven is where God is. Why would someone who has lived their lives rejecting Him want to spend eternity with Him?
As parents we are to put the Gospel before our children over and over again through teaching and modelling.
In the end, when all is said and done, God gives people the desires of their hearts. If Jesus is the desire of one’s heart they get Jesus. As Timothy Keller put it, “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity” (The Reason for God, 78). That certainly isn’t the desire of God’s heart.
Peter tells us that God is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Pet 3:9). But, of course, the human responsibility we have been given matters. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Believe it.
Believe also that Jesus beckons us to come and rest in Him for His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matt 11:30). This rest in Jesus also leads us on a trajectory into infinity.
FOR THOSE ENTRUSTED WITH CHILDREN BY GOD
Becoming a father or mother is a spectacular gift as well as an enormous responsibility. A recent study done in Canada called, Haemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church, revealed that the #1 predicative factor for whether or not young people stayed in or left the church was whether or not their parents not only taught but modelled faith.
This is critical. The greatest gift we can give our children is clear teaching and authentic modelling of faith. The possibility of our children eternally separated from God is sobering and should compel us to invest our lives in discipling our kids.
In a former blog post entitled, "4 Ways to Grow as a Dad" I asserted that we ought to 1. Delight in our kids; 2. Correct and discipline our kids out of that loving relationship; 3. Model authentic faith; and 4. Pray for our kids. We do all of these things because of, and in light of the fact our loving Heavenly Father has done all of the above for us.
This is no easy task. But it is the critical work of Christian parents. Our loving heavenly Father delights in His children and has made the way we should go clear through His Word. In Jesus we see obedience to the Father, authenticity modelled, and self-sacrificing love on display, most namely on the cross.
May we lead our children in the way they should go, taking our cue from God’s Word, dependant in prayer over our children and their souls, and modelling authentic, dependant faith in Jesus with everything we’ve got. There is nothing more important for parents than giving our children every opportunity to put their trust in Jesus for themselves.
"Father, we pray for the children that you have entrusted in our care. May they see an authentic faith in us, that our great hope is in You and You alone. And we ask that you would draw our loved ones to yourself (Jn 6:44). In Jesus name, Amen."
RECOMMENDED READING FOR FURTHER STUDY
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism — Timothy Keller (spec. chapter Five: How can a loving God send people to hell? - available in our library)
Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things we Made Up — Francis Chan
Articles regarding “Unconditional Love”
Is God’s Love Unconditional — Howard Snyder, Christianity Today
Is God’s Love Unconditional — John Piper, Desiring God