The Bible says many bold things. And it raises all sorts of heavy topics and perplexing questions for us to consider. And one of the heaviest questions is this: In comparison to eternal judgment on many, wouldn’t it have been more loving for no one to have been created in the first place? It’s a question from a podcast listener named Jonathan, and certainly a question others have wondered about too. “Hello, Pastor John. I know there are some questions we will not get answered on this side of eternity, and I believe my question may be one of them. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: If God knew that the majority of humanity would reject him and end up in eternal torment, wouldn’t it have been kinder or more merciful to not create them in the first place?
“I suppose the apostle Paul’s response would be Romans 9:20: ‘But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”’ So, I guess Paul is saying, in other words, ‘God is not taking a vote on what he should or shouldn’t do.’ And I guess that leaves us to simply trust and believe that his foreknowledge of most of humanity’s future eternal damnation doesn’t compromise his character in creating them anyway. Is there anything more to say here?”
I think where Jonathan ends up is where we will end up — namely, with our hands on our mouths and our knees on the ground and our heads bowed before the wisdom and holiness and righteousness and goodness of God in choosing to create a world in which he knew that millions of people would reject him and suffer eternally because of it.
There are things hidden from us now, according to Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord.” And 1 Corinthians 13:9–10, 12 puts us in our place, where Paul says,
We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. . . . For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
I think that this limitation that Paul’s talking about refers not only to our knowledge of facts about God and his ways, but just as importantly, this limitation refers to our capacities to evaluate accurately and feel appropriately the kind of emotions that are suitable to the facts. That’s a limitation also on us. In other words, we may see a truth more or less clearly, but not have the emotional wherewithal to feel what we ought to feel or to process the truth in relation to other truth so that it has the emotional effect on us that it ought to have.
When that’s the case, then Jonathan’s conclusion is, I think, exactly right. These instances of revelation that leave us emotionally off-balance are occasions for trust in the fullness of divine wisdom — wisdom that we cannot fully see now.
No System Explains It All
But Jonathan asks, “Is there anything more to say?” And the answer is yes, there’s lots to say — more than we can say here that would inform how we think about such questions. So let me just say a few things.
“We are not in a good position to pass judgment on the wisdom of God.”
The first thing that probably we ought to say (which might be the most important thing in this APJ) about this problem of why God would create a world that leads to so many people suffering in hell, is that it is a problem shared by Calvinists and Arminians — and even open theists, who don’t even believe that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of what will happen when he creates the world.
Calvinists, of course, have the question because we believe that God has planned everything — all things that come to pass — and that includes eternal judgment. So we’ve got the question.
Arminians have the same question because God foresees fully the effects of human self-determination (as they believe it) — namely, eternal judgment is going to happen, and God creates the world anyway, evidently thinking that the cost of self-determination is worth the gain. Is it? So they have the same question.
Open theists have the same question because, on their view, even though God doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, God considers it worth the risk to create the world anyway, knowing all possible future worlds. And if it turns out that it wasn’t worth the risk, that reflects pretty badly on God’s wisdom and goodness in moving ahead with the risk.
No Solution Satisfies
Now, of course, you can get rid of the problem entirely by being an atheist, so that we have no God to reckon with at all. Or you can be a universalist, who believes that there is no judgment and everybody gets saved in the end. Or you can be an annihilationist, who believes that judgment consists in putting people out of existence who don’t believe in Christ. Or you can believe God is evil, bad. Those seem to me to be the options in front of us. None of these is a very happy solution.
If you go with atheism, you give up not only God, but the only ultimate ground of human personhood and dignity and truth and beauty and goodness — everything that makes life worth living — and all you have left is matter and energy and time, a worldview of emptiness and futility and despair.
If you go with universalism, you give up the deep-seated human conviction that there is such a thing as impenitent evil that ought to be punished.
“The display of the fullness of God’s glory for the joy of his penitent people is the ultimate goal of creation.”
If you go with annihilationism, you have to convince yourself that nonexistence, being put out of existence, is a suitable punishment for such impenitent evil when, in fact, it’s the very thing that impenitent evil people want to happen. That’s what they’re hoping for: to go out of existence.
If you go the route of believing that God is evil, then you embrace a worldview that is not only despairing and meaningless, but terrifying, since there is no such thing as grace or any foundation of goodness or hope or mercy for any of us.
Supreme Word, Unsurpassed Worth
In the end, it comes down to whether you have seen the compelling, self-authenticating signs of God’s glory and truth in the Scriptures, and in its center, Jesus Christ, winning you over to the trustworthiness of God’s word. All these worldviews stand or fall, not finally by whether we can think up enough negative or positive consequences for each worldview to arbitrate between them, but rather, which of them accords with the word of God, the Bible. It’s because of the Bible, because of Jesus in particular, that we believe in hell as everlasting torment. Jesus is the one who made this so clear in his teachings in the Gospels.
It’s because of Jesus and what he taught that we believe that God’s judgment will be perfectly proportionate to a person’s impenitent sinfulness. Jesus is the one who said there were degrees of punishment, and everything will be impeccably, perfectly meted out — no injustices, no wrongs done (Matthew 10:15).
It’s because of Jesus and his word that we believe that the way that leads to destruction is broad and many there be that find it (Matthew 7:13). We’re not doing the math; we’re just listening to Jesus.
It’s because of Jesus that we believe not one dot, not one iota, of God’s word will fall to the ground (Matthew 5:18). And this word teaches that God is righteous and good in all his ways (Psalm 145:17), and that the display of the fullness of his glory for the joy of his penitent people is the ultimate goal of creation (Romans 9:22–23; Ephesians 2:7). And according to Romans 9:22–23, this glory includes his wrath and his power and his mercy, in proportions that are just and right and good, even if we can’t see it perfectly now.
It comes down to this: the truth and authority of God’s word and the supreme worth of God as the golden thread that runs through the Scriptures. So, Jonathan is right. We are not in a good position to pass judgment on the wisdom of God given the limits of our minds and the weakness of our hearts. We do well to humble ourselves with trembling, and to be amazed that we are vessels of mercy (Romans 9:23), and to bend every ounce of strength that we have, while we have breath, to bring others out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).