God is a loving God; and God is also a just God. These two characteristics often seem contradictory, but they are not. Because God is just, all sinners must receive the due punishment for their sins; which demand an eternity in hell because the sins are against a perfect and sinless God (perfect beyond our imagination and understanding). God cannot deny, or overlook, His own perfectly just character. This is why He cannot simply forgive us without justice being served. Christ had to die for that very reason; that unless there was a propitiation, or a kind of "satisfaction" for sins, it would be unjust to merely ignore the sinfulness of man. Christ is the propitiation for sins on our behalf. God is just, but God is also loving beyond our imagination and understanding. His love is so great towards us that He sacrificed Himself and suffered the punishment that we deserve, on our behalf, so that we might escape His own righteous judgement.
On a YouTube video of "The Atheist Experience", one of the hosts argued that since God created hell and the rules by which we go there, it is God's fault alone if anyone goes there. But that's not the case; not when you yourself know the rules that God has set. This is like saying that the government established prisons and the rules by which people go there, so it is not my fault if I end up in prison for breaking those rules. What this man wants is to get off scot-free without justice being served. He thinks God ought to simply pardon him. But I can’t imagine that he himself would simply pardon someone who wronged him in some grievous manner. He wants God to simply change the rules, but God is bound by His own character; He cannot be unjust.
Now, the Book of Hebrews says:
Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:9-11)
For believers and unbelievers alike, there are consequences for our sin. We often bear the consequences now in this lifetime. If you cheat on your wife, for example, you will pay the consequences of that sin; and not only if your wife finds out and divorces you, and takes your children away from you; but even already, your heart is not loving towards your wife as it should be, and that is a terrible consequence of your sin. There are consequences for sins, but if it were not so it would show God to be altogether unloving, as the above passage illustrates. It would be unloving of God to let us get away with sin, rather than dealing out the consequences to us so that we might be corrected.
Thus far, people will probably object saying "This is corrective, but hell is forever; and prisons are corrective, but hell is forever. You're not talking about like things." No, I've been building an argument. Prisons may be corrective, (though even prisons aren’t when we're talking about a life sentence). But if you find yourself in hell, it will have been after a lifetime of "corrective measures", and you will have refused time and again to be corrected.
Now justice is right; we all want those who sin against us to receive the just consequence of their sin. When we’re the one who sinned we might not want justice, but that doesn’t mean justice shouldn’t be served; it means you ought not to have sinned. But justice doesn’t only deal with sin. When a person does good, it is just to give them their due reward. It is because of the just nature of God that the wicked are punished, but it is because of the same just nature of God that the faithful are rewarded. The Bible does not teach that every sin we commit will receive its consequence in this life; or that every good thing will receive its reward in this life. The Bible speaks about the injustice of the wicked prospering, and the good going unrewarded. But we see enough of the consequences of sin in the world to get the message that there are consequences for sin, even if we don't personally feel them immediately. When we get away with sin, we know that we're getting away with something. And when we’re wronged we long for justice. But there will be a time when all things will receive their just reward...
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Romans 1:18 says:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
Let's think about this... how is the wrath of God revealed from heaven? And how does one suppress the truth if they don't know the truth? Well, Romans goes on to say that God has put the truth into the hearts of all people...
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15)
God gave the written law to Israel, but other nations never had that. How can they suppress the truth if they didn't have God's written revelation? Here it says that, rather than being completely corrupt and doing heinous evil all the time, they still do good. “They are a law unto themselves”, meaning that their “version” of the written law is their own innate knowledge of good and evil. But, as we read in Romans 1:18, “by their unrighteousness” they suppress the truth. It is when we do wrong that we consciously and deliberately “suppress the truth” which is “written on our hearts”.
Romans 1 goes on to say that when mankind does suppress the truth through their sinfulness, that God “gives them up” to their sinfulness, which, as I have said before, carries its own judgement or consequences. This is how “the wrath of God is revealed” to us all. We all know, or should recognise, what God is showing us... that sin is judged. The present day consequences of sin are, however, merciful “corrective measures”, being a mere foretaste or warning of the final judgement for sin.
If sin were not judged, then nothing would be either right or wrong. When somebody murders your children, you could only say “Well, that's just something that happened, no different to the birth of those children; I cannot be either upset or happy.” But you are upset because it was evil, and your heart longs for justice. When you hear of what Hitler did, you probably desire for God to make him pay for his sins in hell. We want justice, it is a good thing; and a loving God will judge the wicked for the sake of those He loves. That's not to say that God doesn't love all people – we have all done wickedly to someone whom God loves, for He does love all people. How will we escape the justice of God? Only by “joining ourselves” to Christ who has borne the punishment we deserve.
Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. (Isaiah 30:18)