This is an important question, and the short answer is “yes.” God does love people in hell. But explaining this answer is fraught with difficulty on at least three points. First, hell is caricatured as silly or trifling in modern Western culture. Just think of how often hell is portrayed as an underground network of caves in which a bright red, horned devil lurks with a pitchfork.
Second, the concept of love has been contorted into an omnibus feeling-based idea to fit any fleeting object of human desire.
Third, many people conceive of God as a bearded old man sitting somewhere in the clouds, like a human with extra powers. We must disabuse ourselves of these points before we can understand how God can love people in hell.
Let us begin with the last point. If God is conceived of as a finite, creaturely personage, then the doctrine of divine justice will make little sense. His omniscience, perfection, justice, holiness, and goodness are not possible if God is not infinite and transcendent; finite beings cannot be essentially perfect, etc. But making God in the image of man is, unfortunately, what many people do. When we think God is just like us, but with superpowers, we commit a great error. God is not a being in the cosmos, He is being itself (Exodus 3:14; Acts 17:24–29). He transcends the cosmos. This is critical to the question of God loving people in hell, because, when 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love,” it means the very essence of God is love. It does not mean that God loves His creation because it does something for Him or that He goes through mood changes having good days and bad days. It does not mean that God is impacted by what happens in time. Rather, God loves people because that is just simply who He is. Because of this, God’s love is not affected by our actions or our location. God loves the people in hell.
The term love, in the Christian sense, concerns the willing of what is good for another. To will the good of someone is to first discern what would be good for him and then act toward that end. Love is not a passion or emotion, per se. When we say that God is love, we mean that the very nature of God is self-sacrificial love for others. This love was exemplified on the cross, where Jesus gave His life to give us eternal life (John 3:16). The divine essence knows and wills the good of all creatures.
Pop culture takes a cavalier approach to hell. People will casually tell people to go to hell or assume that hell will be a big party. From the biblical standpoint, what is broadly called “hell” represents something quite abhorrent. The Bible says that, upon death, the wicked soul subsists in conscious torment until the future resurrection (see Luke 16:19–31). After the resurrection and final judgment, the wicked are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11–15). Whereas the righteous dwell with God eternally, the unrighteous are separated from God. This does not mean God’s presence is unknown or absent; rather, the experience of God is different.
So how is it that God loves people in hell? In what way is He willing the good of those who are separated from Him?
From an absolute standpoint, it is good for the creature and Creator to be united, such as it was in the beginning (Genesis 1—2). Sin causes a fracture in that union. Sin can thus be seen as the inward turning away of creatures from their own good. Habitual sin becomes a reinforcing cycle of bending away from God. Without the healing and redemptive love of Christ bending the creatures back toward God, they will persist in their ruinous state. The creature can come to hate God in that he chooses to love himself and seek everything but God despite the reconciling goodness and grace extended to him in countless ways.
God loves His creation—His nature is love—but this love manifests itself differently to the impenitent creature than to the penitent. It is the same love, experienced from two perspectives. As an analogy, two people outside on a bright, sunny day can have very different experiences, if one is in the sunshine and the other is in the shadow. In both cases, the sun is the same; it is the experience of the creatures that is different, depending on their situation relative to the sun. In a similar way, the creaturely experience of God is different in hell than it is in heaven. Instead of experiencing the fullness of God’s grace, one gets the fullness of divine wrath.