Does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?

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CS Lewis is famous for saying, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside”. Lewis believes this truth, that “hell is locked from the inside”, because of the fact that “man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two-edged. From these premises it follows directly that the Divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul”¹. Of course, implicit in this statement is not just that God doesn’t lock the door from the outside. What Lewis is really saying is that God really wishes that every person could be saved, but his purposes are foiled by the free will of man. And so, in Lewis’s framework, man’s choice wins supreme. 

Is Lewis right in saying this?

Jared Wilson, a prolific author, doesn’t think so. He says, 

Does love demand giving the thing loved what he or she wants [i.e., hell]? The new inclusivists insist yes, and while their desire to maintain the biblical teachings on hell are admirable, we do not find much in the Scriptures to support the idea that, a la Lewis, the doors there are locked from the inside. The sentimental tail wags the theological dog when we say that love demands freedom, and that therefore when God cosigns the unrepentant to judgment he says, “Thy will be done” to them. In one sense, he is saying this, of course, but in the most crucial sense, he is not. In the most crucial sense, when God cosigns the ultimately unrepentant to eternal conscious torment, he is saying, “My will be done”² 

I like Wilson’s points here. What he is trying to point out is that, when we think over this issue, God’s will must be taken into account. Because of course, God is sovereign. He is in control. And so, if men go to hell, and if God is sovereign, it must be true that it is God’s will (however permissive that will may be) that those men go to hell. In this way, God’s will, as opposed to Lewis, is that not every soul will be saved.  

Of course with this whole conversation, questions of predestination, sovereignty, free will, and sin are necessarily brought up. And we could wade these doctrines to see what conclusion we would come up with. But we must, more than anything, understand how the scriptures address hell and condemnation.

And I think biblically, the answer to this complicated questions is yes: God sends people to hell and people send themselves there. What I mean is that biblically, the responsibility is given to both parties. And I believe that this testimony is clear from Romans 1. 

Paul tells us in Romans 1:24-32 that God judges guilty sinners by “giving them up”. Clearly then, God is active in condemnation. But, also, notice just exactly what God is giving them up to. Paul says that God is giving the sinner up to “the lusts of their hearts” and their “dishonorable passions” and their “debased minds” (vs. 24, 26, 28). In other words, God is not forcing the sinner into condemnation. Rather, he is leaving them to the sin they love so much. He is allowing them, permitting them, to choose what their hearts already want. And so, while God is active, he certainly isn’t twisting anyone’s arm. He is judging yes, but he is doing it by cosigning them to the same end they are passionately pursuing. He is nudging them the very direction they were already going. And so, I think that both man and God are active in condemnation. 

Douglas Moo says of this passage,

[The meaning of God “giving them up”] demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator in the process. God does not simply let the boat go [so to speak] — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin… 

[And yet, as Paul states in verse 32,] those who engage in [sin] know that what they are doing is wrong. They act “knowing the righteous decree of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death”… People generally, as Paul claims, have some degree of awareness that the moral outrages they commit are wrong and hence deserve to be punished by God³

Moo here demonstrates that, for Paul, and for the rest of the Bible, God’s sovereignty over those going to hell by no means diminishes personal responsibility. But also, personal responsibility doesn’t cancel out the sovereign activity of God in justly condemning man. God punishes the sinner, thus resulting in that person going to hell. But also, the sinner willfully and even knowingly rebels against God, thus sending themselves to hell. They want to go there. 

And in fact, I believe Romans 1:18-32 describes all of us apart from God’s gracious and effectual calling of sinners to himself. How else could it be? Without God’s intervening grace by which he opens blind eyes, gives a new heart, and accredits the merits of Christ to us, we are but sinners walking into “ever-increasing sin”. 

There is much mystery to this, especially when we consider how free will and sovereignty fits into it. However, it is certainly in Romans 1. And it is certainly in the rest of the Bible. And therefore, we must trust God with the mystery, and revel in the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, contributing nothing to God but sin and rebellion. 

So then, does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?

Yes. 

¹ Problem of Pain, CS Lewis

² Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson

³ The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo

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Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 2): Answering Objections

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In my last post, I said that even though God is sovereign over sin, he by no means causes, commits, or even condones those sins. I said,

Though God’s decree to permit the fall rendered it certain, it by no means makes him a sinner. And this can be said of all sin. Though God knew it would happen, planned beforehand to permit it, and even used it for his plan, it doesn’t mean he committed the sin, or forced anyone to sin

I think that if Christians affirm God’s sovereignty, this must be the case. God decreed to permit sin to enter and corrupt the world without himself efficiency committing any sin. This view of God’s sovereignty over sin is the classical Reformed view; it is a view that has been held by Reformed theologians for centuries — and all of these theologians affirmed that God’s sovereignty included the sinful actions of men; that in his wisdom, God decided beforehand to allow sin to enter the world, even though it goes against his holy character. And most importantly, he did it to bring a better good out of the situation.

However, many Christians who would not consider themselves Reformed think that this view of God’s sovereignty over sin makes him culpable in sin. Roger Olson, a theologian whom I truly do respect and have read many of his works (but obviously differ with on this topic), says:

Does God foreordain and render certain sin in general and specific sins? Calvinism says yes but then usually retreats into the language of “permission” which, non-Calvinists believe, is inconsistent with Calvinism’s divine determinism. If God “designs, ordains, and governs” sin and evil, then, as Arminius himself said (and Wesley agreed) God is the only real sinner. Adding that God does not “cause” sin but only “permits” it only raises the question of how God “ordains and governs” sin without causing it. (source)

For Olson, for God to decide beforehand (or ordain, or decree) to permit the sins of free moral agents makes him morally complicit in all sin and evil. I guess that doesn’t follow for me. Let’s start with a few presuppositions that I start with in making my own conclusions: First, God foreknows all that could, would, might, and / or will happen. Second, nothing will / would happen unless God permits or causes it to happen. Lastly, this means that God has the ultimate say in what will happen, even if he is not the immediate cause of it. So, with that, we can say that God decreed to permit Adam to choose sin, while not himself having committed the sin.

Olson obviously disagrees. He proposes his own view by saying,

Now, an Arminian begins with the fact that God only permits sin in general and specific sins and then says that, yes, God also uses sinners and their freely chosen sins for his purposes, but without sin being part of his antecedent will. Sin is only part of his consequent will—what God wills to allow because of the fall and its consequences. So, the men who crucified Jesus, for example, were only “destined” to sin insofar as they planned and carried it out freely and God permitted them to do what they wanted to do. But this was part of God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. And God did not render their sin certain. He knew what they would do, but he did not effectually manipulate them to do it nor was their sin part of God’s “design” except consequentially.

I don’t see a real difference between this view and mine, other than the fact that Olson believes that for God to decide / decree / ordain what will happen beforehand makes him complicit in sin.

But here’s where I have a problem. Even within the Arminian view of foresight-and-permission, God still foresaw the fall and all the consequent sins that would be committed, could have stopped those sins from happening, and decided not to stop them. If God dwells outside of time, and consequently can see free choices before they actually happen, why didn’t he stop those free choices which were sinful? Even more basic, why didn’t God simply not create humans if he knew they would sin? Both Calvinists and Arminians must answer that God decided to allow his free moral agents commit sins to accomplish a greater outcome. We may disagree on the reasons, but have to at least have an answer.

Here’s a helpful quote from Michael Horton on this issue:

[This issues is a] vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose. (source)

While Olson might be uncomfortable with God deciding what to permit / not permit before it happens, this is not really different from God foreseeing specific sins and allowing them to happen. In both instances, they happened necessarily because God decided to allow them.

With that said, God’s decrees do not make him the cause or originator of sin. Because God decreed to permit those sinful actions does make them certain — but it by no means makes him sinful.

I have two more posts on this subject here and here