Is God unfair to condemn sinners to hell?
Many people — even many members of many church denominations — will say, “Yes, that is unjust of God. How could God be less kind than me?…”
Yet Paul answers very differently. In Romans 9, interacting with the question of theodicy — God’s righteousness is judging the sins of men — he says, “No, God is not unjust” (vv. 14-24). In fact, one of the arguments he uses is that evil (and God’s judgment against it) is necessary to demonstrate the greatness of His mercy and grace (v. 23).
John Piper has helped my thinking about this passage more than anyone, and his comments on this verse in his sermon, “How God Makes Known the Riches of His Glory to the Vessels of Mercy” are particularly helpful:
There are three purposes mentioned and the first two serve the third. First (v. 22) God acts to show his wrath against sin – that he is a holy God who hates sin. Second (v. 22) God acts to show his power in judgment. Third, (v. 23) all of this self-revelation is to make known the riches of his glory (including his holy wrath and mighty power) for the vessels of mercy. In other words, the final and deepest argument Paul gives for why God acts in sovereign freedom is that this way of acting displays most fully the glory of God, including his wrath against sin and his power in judgment, so that the vessels of mercy can know him most completely and worship him with the greatest intensity for all eternity.
Edwards on Why God Ordained That Evil Be
Now listen to one whose insight and understanding of these things is far beyond mine, Jonathan Edwards, answering the question why a good and holy God would decree that there be hardening and evil. Listen carefully. Think hard. This is not the Bible. This is a man who I believe understood the Bible correctly on this point:
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent [=radiant], that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . .
Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired, and the sense of it not so great . . .
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect. (Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 528)
So I ask, “Is God less glorious because he ordained that there be real evil and real guilt and just punishment?” Paul’s answer is, no, just the opposite. God’s glory will shine the more truly and brightly for having decreed and governed this universe as we know it. The effort to rescue God from his sovereignty by denying his foreknowledge of sin or by denying his ultimate control over sin is destructive for faith and hope and worship. It is a great dishonor to his word and his wisdom.