So, how are we to understand the nature of God’s love and hell? This post cannot provide an exhaustive answer to these questions, but it does hint at a few possible avenues of response that the Christian might pursue.
We often ask, ‘how could a loving God send people to hell?’ We seldom wrestle with the question, ‘How could a holy God let sinners into heaven?’ This may hint at one of the reasons modern people, including Christians, have such a difficult time with the doctrine of perdition. We believe that God is love. But we don’t truly believe, at a heart level, that God is holy. We are assured that God is gracious, but we don’t really believe that we are sinful. In other words, we don’t take God’s holiness and our sin seriously enough and this is one reason why hell seems like an overreaction on God’s part.
Here is an odd question: have you ever sprinkled a slug with salt? Sadly, I have. And I’ve noticed that if you assault a slug, there are no real consequences. The police don’t knock on your door, reporters don’t congregate in your front yard, and animal rights activists aren’t up in arms. On the other hand, you kill a dog and the consequences are more severe. You kill a Lion and Late Night hosts will tear up publicly. Murdering a person is even more reprehensible and the consequences are even more extreme; in some places it may cost you your own life in return. What is happening here? Clearly, the more valuable something is the greater the consequences are for assaulting it. Now, to guard against a potential confusion, I am not saying that killing a Cocker Spaniel is more tragic than killing a German Shepherd, or that murdering a king is more terrible than killing a peasant. Rather, I am speaking about different orders of being, not different types, or positions, within an order of being.
God can’t force us to freely love Him. We might as well insist that God exist without existing.God is the most valuable being in the universe. God is the source of all goodness and the locus of all value and, as such, nothing is more praiseworthy than Him. Our sin, therefore, is an assault on God’s worth, His glory and His right to be worshipped as the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos; and, again, the greater the value of the offended the greater the offense and the greater the consequence. Our sin is high treason against our Sovereign king, it is a transgression committed against our eternal God and, therefore, it can have eternal consequences.
To say it another way, all sin is at its core a no to Him, and to continually say no to God results in no God and no eternal life that flows from God. Thankfully, the good news of the Gospel is that the eternal God, in love, steps in to pay the debt of our sin on the cross. And this amazing act of God’s love hints at the nature of heaven and hell. Both of these realities can be described in relational terms and our willingness to accept or reject the love and salvation that God offers.
The Nature of Love
George MacDonald once wrote these words, ‘the one principle of hell is I am my own.’ He is right in part. Hell is a freely chosen identity apart from God where the worship of self is primary. Moreover, heaven is a world of love and this statement is antithetical to love. A core principle of heaven is in direct opposition to the autonomy of hell; it goes like this, ‘I willingly belong to another.’ Incidentally, this is why I doubt if we can ever truly scare anyone out of hell. Fear of the sort that only clings to heaven to escape the clutches of hell is ultimately rooted in self-preservation, not the love of God. Heaven is not about preserving oneself, but giving oneself away to God, throwing oneself on His mercy in Christ, as well as giving oneself away to others in service and mutual enjoyment. This all requires a free choice on our part.
And, as C.S. Lewis once wrote on the topic of freedom, heaven and hell:
If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to say truthfully, ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’
We are tempted to resist this explanation. After all, if a child is freely running into a busy street isn’t the parent duty bound to, in love, override the little one’s will and rescue her from perishing? I certainly think so. But the problem for us is we are not children running ignorantly into the street. I do believe that actual children who die young are welcomed into the presence of God based on indirect scriptural evidence. But this is not the situation of those who ask these types of questions. Admittedly, to explain the existence of hell based on the free nature of love breaks down if we assume we are simply victims refusing rescue because our sin makes us act irrationally. If our sinful state as human beings is akin to a drowning person fighting their rescuer, then the rescuer is duty bound to override our will to save our lives.
The problem, of course, is that we are not just victims drowning in sin, we are perpetrators; we are rebels refusing to lay down our arms; we love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil. And God can’t force us to freely love Him. We might as well insist that God exist without existing. So, in the end we must turn from our sin to Jesus and receive the salvation He offers us as a gift of grace. This remains an option we can refuse. As J.I. Packer writes:
Hell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.
To conclude this short post, it is important to note that God does not desire any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Moreover, God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). To this end, God so loved the world that He sent his one and only Son, so that whoever should believe on Him would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus tasted the relational dynamic of hell on the cross when he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus was rejected so that we could be embraced. Jesus endured hell on our behalf. Why? Because he loves us and he doesn’t want any person to perish, but all to receive life.
In the long run the answer to those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing over every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. Forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone. Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.
– C.S. Lewis