This is one of those questions that tends to come up a lot in conversations with people in the community around me, even amongst professing Christians. When it is raised, it is not typically meant as an exegetical argument that challenges the Christian doctrine of justice, but it is a question that comes from a more emotional level. The reasoning looks something like this. “I don’t think that I could condemn anyone to Hell and God is more merciful than I am, thus he must not send people to hell.”
In my late teens and early twenties, I went through a number of years of rebellion against the church and the things that the church taught. During those years I never became an atheist per say, but I became a universalist based on the above idea. I used to say, “God is love and he is the perfection of love; hence, he must love even those whom I cannot find it in myself to love and surely love would not condemn someone to hell.” I used to tell people that I did believe that a hell existed, but I considered it vacant.
There error in this line of thinking is two-fold. First, it demands that God define norms and actions on the basis of my preferences and standards. Because I could not condemn someone to eternal fire, then God must also not be able to do so. Secondly, it ignores the idea of justice, magnifying one attribute of God over and above all other attributes. In theological terms, God is “Simple,” meaning that not one aspect or attribute of God can be understood outside of the context of all the others — he is indivisible and perfectly consistent in himself.
The thing with justice is that it demands that punishment be given that is suitable to the crime that was committed. In addition, wherever possible, justice also demands that restitution is made. The example that I often give is that if I were to steal something from you, it is not good enough that I be punished for the theft, but you also want your things back (or appropriate compensation so you can repurchase that which was taken). And Biblically, were we to follow God’s established laws for Israel, restitution ought to be greater than the actual value of what was taken, depending on how important that thing happened to be. This greater restitution is designed both as a deterrent for those considering said theft and it is meant as a way of ameliorating the hardships caused by the theft.
And this has to do with theft. What of a more heinous crime like rape or murder? Certainly the punishment must be suitable to the crime. And, while no amount of money could ever atone for a crime like this, it would not be unreasonable to demand a certain degree of restitution from the criminal to compensate the family for medical bills, funeral expenses, etc… Further, a judge that decided to be merciful to a rapist or a murderer out of his or her love for the criminal, would be considered unjust and corrupt. He would be, in fact, promoting that which he should be punishing.
And now, we multiply. You see, all sin that is committed, is not only committed against others, but it is committed against God himself. And, as God is infinitely greater than man, the sin is infinitely more severe. Further, not only must sin be punished to see that justice is satisfied, but restitution must be made for justice to be fully done. Yet, how can man make restitution to God? Indeed, a perfect sacrifice had to be made in addition to the wrath of God being poured out in proper judgment over sin. And since you and I cannot make either the sacrifice nor endure the wrath of God, that is why Hell is our only proper and just punishment.
Does that mean that God is not merciful? That, of course, is the question that the Heidelberg Catechism poses on Day 4 (Question 11). The answer, of course, is to assure us that God’s mercy does not contradict his justice, that both are intertwined in and inseparable from the person of the God we serve. And so justice is served but mercy is shown through the suffering and death of his Son, who was sinless and could thus make a perfect sacrifice (restitution) and could suffer the weight of God’s wrath for all of God’s elect. Mercy, then, is seen in the giving of Christ for all who confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Justice melted out on the Son on behalf of those God has chosen since before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) means that mercy can be given to that same body of people.
And, what of those for whom Christ did not die? Justice must still be served and Hell awaits all who are outside of the body of Christ. Interestingly enough, even in this context, God gives a degree of mercy even to those who are reprobate and headed for punishment in Hell. How so? They have a life here on earth marked by many good things — friends, the joy of holding a child in your arms, the love of family, the simple joys of good music and good food. It is a small consolation, indeed, for eternity in Hell; nevertheless, even to those outside of God’s saving grace, God’s mercies can be seen (or at least ought to be seen).