This past Saturday, we had our third “Skeptics Night”; this time addressing the question – isn’t it cruel of God to cast people into hell just for not believing in him? The basic response I gave is that God is not so much casting people into hell against their will, but letting them go. So that if heaven is the loving presence of God, hell is the absence of God’s love. And therefore, hell is simply God giving us what our rebellious hearts want – to flee from him forever. So that hell arises out of our own desires and therefore self-imposed. This is the passive wrath of God (see Romans 1:24).
But there is also the active wrath of God. David in Psalm 139 says, “where shall I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?” So that God is present even in hell, in wrath and judgment (see Revelation 14:10). God will forever be angry at evil and injustice, for he is a good and holy God.
And therefore, God will simultaneously rejoice with the saints in heaven and pour out his wrath on sinners in hell – for all eternity. This is a difficult teaching for us. Most of us cannot imagine being both angry and eternally happy, but God is infinitely complex and we will never plumb the depths of his being. We can only cover our mouths with Job and say, “surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3)
In the end, why is the doctrine of hell central to the gospel? Because hell tells us how much God loves us. For Christ, on the cross, drank the cup of God's wrath, to save us and love us. We can never know the love of God until we contemplate the wrath of God.