What Kind of God Do We Believe In?
Jerry Nelson February 2023
The following is addressed to Christians who struggle with the concept of what happens to unbelievers when they die. This is not for those who do not believe in God or do not believe what God has declared in the Bible.
“What kind of God do we believe in?” seems to be the question some ask when considering the millions of people throughout history who have died or will die without knowing or trusting Christ? The question is most troubling when the biblical teaching of “hell” is considered. Do we have a God who consigns millions of people to eternal punishment (of some kind) for not knowing or trusting Christ? And the concept of “eternal conscious punishment” seems, to some, to most violate the idea of the goodness and justice of God.
The question is less troubling to some, if they assume the “punishment” is temporary, such as in the theory of purgatory. But the question remains, “How could a good and just God allow such suffering, even if only for years, especially for those who never even heard of Christ? Where is “love” in that?
The question is even less troubling to some, if they assume that people who don’t trust God simply cease to exist upon physical death. At first blush this might fit with the concept of the love of God (or does it?), but it is something of an assault on our concept of the justice of God – what about justice for the victims of Stalin, Hitler, or unrepentant child abusers? This proposed solution also lacks in another way which I will address below.
Some others try to lessen the problem by speaking of “free will.” Surely, they propose, God is not unjust if those who are punished or annihilated have refused God’s grace. After all, they are getting what they deserve. While that might satisfy something of our sense of the justice of God, it does nothing to answer the question of the love of God.
Then there are others who think they mitigate the problem by proposing “universalism” – the theory that all humanity will, sometime after physical death, be granted an eternal glorious relationship with God. But as you will read shortly, while it may address the issue of everlasting punishment or annihilation, it doesn’t address the issue of justice and it does nothing to address the character of God in the light of thousands of years of human suffering on earth.
The difficulty with these proposals is they don’t solve the basic problem – “What kind of God do we believe in?” We may be uneasy with the idea of eternal conscious punishment for rejection of God’s grace, but each solution still leaves a God who acts in ways contrary to our sense of love and justice, even if less egregiously, from our perspective.
Less time in “punishment” might seem kinder than eternal conscious punishment but still leaves a God who punishes many (millions?) who never heard of Jesus.
Annihilation (eternal nothingness) might seem to be kinder than punishment of any duration, but what kind of God gives life to millions of people knowing that their end is nothingness?
We might judge universalism (all eventually live in paradise) to be more loving but what kind of God do we believe in who would allow thousands of years of human misery (think Pol Pot’s “Killing fields” or Hitlers “Final Solution” or Stalin’s 1930s starvation of Ukraine or Genghis Khan’s rape and pillage of the known world or the savagery of tribal warfare for thousands of years or “The Black Plague” or the abuse of children and the list goes on). The depth and extent of such suffering is beyond imagination. What kind of God allows such misery to continue?
In all of this we are merely restating the age-old issue of theodicy – the providence of God and the existence of evil.
Is there a solution?
The truth is we don’t fully understand God. Please notice I did not write that we don’t understand God at all, but that we don’t understand him fully and certainly not enough to explain the providence of God and the existence of evil. God has not given us sufficient knowledge to reconcile these realities.
The biblical authors, especially Job, wrestled with the issue. It seems they had the same issue of not being able to fully reconcile the miseries and injustices of life with their concept of a benevolent and just God. Evil seemed to win, God was too often silent, and suffering was unmitigated, even amidst God’s chosen people. Job, and I think we, come face to face with our inability to know the mind of God. We are given a choice: “curse God and die” (otherwise known as giving up and becoming cynical) or humbly acknowledge our inability to fully understand and affirm our trust in God (otherwise known as actively obeying and depending on him).
“What kind of God do we believe in?” The books of Job and the Psalms make me think it is perfectly acceptable, to God, that we ask questions, that we wrestle with the hard things of God, and that we even question God himself. But far more important is that we don’t allow our question to become our answer. Instead, we should know when to fall silent and, as my friend said, bow and worship. God has shown me enough in his Word and in his Son to know I can trust him even when I don’t understand him.