BY BOBBY PERETTI
The logical conclusion of most conversations on the topic of hell between a Christian and a more nebulously “spiritual” person is as follows: the spiritual person will say she believes in a “God of love” who would not send people to suffer for eternity, and the Christian is unable to either think of or articulate a solution to this problem. The Christian might walk away from this exchange very puzzled. He knows the Christian God is said to be a God of love, and he may even be able to point to Biblical or experiential examples where God as presented by Christianity is shown to be so. But he is stumped as to how this God could permanently condemn people he is supposed to love. That is the fundamental question this essay seeks to address. This essay will address that question by discussing what it really means to be a “God of love,” how God’s love necessitates hell, our deep-seated misunderstanding of the concept of hell, and how God’s love is able to render hell obsolete.
The first key to reconciling a loving God with the notion of hell is to identify just what we mean when we say “a God of love.” It is important to note that the description of God as all-loving, and in fact as love itself (“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” [1 John 4:8]), are thoroughly biblical. Passages ranging from, “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39) to, “He has remembered his love and His faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 98:3) that confirm the biblical view of God is one of insurmountable love. If God were not loving – if He were not perfectly loving – then the premise of Christianity would be compromised, Christian doctrine, particularly that of the crucifixion and resurrection, would cease to cohere, and Christians would have no reason to follow God. Humanity would be left with the God of Christopher Hitchens, whose Old Testament exploits become companion pieces to Nero and Stalin. The doctrine of hell, then, seems like a rather daunting threat to the very core of Christianity, as sending anyone there seems, to modern Western culture, just about the most unloving, and perhaps even spiteful, thing God could do (another common challenge put to God’s love, the existence of evil, is addressed elsewhere in this journal). However, this is not the case. Hell is instead necessary to the doctrine of God’s love; to understand how this apparent oxymoron is possible, we must, as mentioned previously, define just what exactly a “God of love” is.
Consider for a moment a world in which God exists as omnipotent, omniscient, but not as love. In this world, there is no reason at all for hell to exist. Certainly, He would be able to do anything He wanted, which could perhaps include smiting and condemning (though blessing is off the table). But really, it would be impossible for him to do so. It would be impossible for him to do anything, because it would be impossible for him to want anything without love. As Elie Wiesel so famously put it, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” If God is an infinite being, then he must be all that he is infinitely. If an infinite God has any love, then He has infinite love. If He lacks love in any way, then he lacks it infinitely, which makes him infinitely indifferent. And a being of infinite indifference is a being catatonic. Without God’s love, God’s omnipotence rots, useless. Without God’s love, it is easy to suggest that there would be no creation at all, because why bother making a world in the first place if not to love it? Without God’s love, there is no gospel and no salvation through Christ, that much is clear, but what is less obvious is that there is also no condemnation and therefore no hell. Because why would God care what any of us does if he did not love us? Why craft hell if you are unbothered by evil? What is genocide to a God comatose with apathy, and why in the world should it be punished? Even the deist notion of notion of God, wherein he creates the world and withdraws does not pass muster here, as an apathetic God has no onus to create anything. Of all God’s attributes, only love is a verb. God must be love if he is to be truly God at all.
Three attributes of God then ride in on the coattails of love: justice, and righteousness, and grace (this is not a exhaustive list of God’s attributes, only a list of those necessary and sufficient for our discussion of hell). We will return to “grace” later on, but for now, it is the other two of these attributes that combine to necessitate hell. A God who loves perfectly is defined to be righteous and guaranteed to be just by the fact that love is at the root of all biblical notions of virtue, morality, and law. Jesus identifies love as the greatest and second-greatest commandments (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind…. And the second is like it: ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” [Matthew 22:36-39]). Therefore, someone who loves perfectly fulfills the law and with it the biblical paradigms of righteousness and justice. Now, for justice to be maintained, injustice cannot be passed off as “fine.” That is an obvious contradiction of terms. There is a cost incurred for even the smallest instance of injustice that must be accounted for, or else justice has not been done. Likewise, in order for perfect righteousness to be maintained unrighteousness cannot be present to any degree. Therefore, in the simple act of being who he is, God is existentially opposed to injustice and unrighteousness, which is to say sin. They cannot coexist. This means that one must at the very least banish the other from its presence. Either God will drive out all sin from his presence, or sin will drive out God. Which of those two scenarios seems more likely? In a dark room, a candle causes darkness to retreat, a lamp pushes it to the brink, and a light switch destroys it altogether. Darkness can make no offensive. This mutual exclusivity between God and sin necessitates hell as a place of God’s absence, where sin can freely exist.
Having established what a true God of love is and what that designation really compels us to conclude, we reach another question: if hell is so essential in the paradigm laid out above, then what do we know about it? Typical depictions of hell in both ancient and modern culture show a place rife with brimstone and torment. Dante describes an inverted ziggurat where sinners are dealt punishments custom fitted to their crimes. These depictions are woefully incorrect, and have done great damage to the western understanding of hell. The notion that the wages of sin is sulfur is rather a dramatic misreading. Rather a better estimation, one that holds with the reasoning for hell in the above paragraph, comes from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. In his book, Lewis describes a city full of ghosts who grow more isolated and removed from reality with each passing moment as they try to convince themselves the perpetual dusk in which they live is really the beginnings of a dawn (Lewis). They fight with each other constantly and are entirely insubstantial beings, physically unable to bear full reality when a few of them encounter it on a visit to the outskirts of heaven. While the specifics of this view are fictionalized, they have rationale behind each of them that aligns exactly with the reasons for hell that we have already established. The impetus for hell is to be a place completely separated from God for those who are likewise (it should be noted that, and this point deserves a paper all its own, many people would not enjoy heaven and thus would prefer to be completely separated from God. I mentioned Christopher Hitchens earlier. Would he have chosen to be surrounded by the glory of the God he hated and compared to fascist dictators, or would he have jumped at the chance to sever all ties with Him, to send himself to hell? Many atheists openly take this position)
Hell’s residents are both without God himself and without all the things the character of God espouses. This means that the fury of hell is not third-degree burns but that it is entirely devoid of God and His love. God’s love is what establishes the need for hell, and hell’s lack thereof is what makes it the anguish that it is. Though justice and righteousness are the two central reasons for hell, there is not one iota of either to be found within its borders. There is only one example in all of human history that can be called upon to encapsulate this experience. It occurred in roughly 27 AD, when Jesus Christ was being crucified. After being sold out by his friend, rejected by his people, beaten, flogged, pierced, mocked, and just moments before being killed, Jesus cries out not, “The horror! The horror!” but “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)” The physical suffering he experienced was no match for the desolation he felt when God the father turned his back on his son as he became the embodiment of sin on the cross, replacing what had been a perfect harmony with an infinite separation.
That is the experiential essence of hell.
As we reach this paper’s final point, recall the three attributes of God that piggyback on His love: justice, righteousness, and grace. Two of those have been addressed and were identified as the reasons why hell is a necessary result of an infinitely loving God. Grace, however, has not yet been discussed. It is the most obvious expression of God’s love, and is vital to a proper understanding of hell. Much has been made here about the strange way in which love gives the onus for hell, but leaving the analysis there is both unduly brutal and patently wrong. Ask anyone whether love desires the suffering of others and they will say no, of course not. God’s love is no different. It loves humanity in a way that truly wants eternal happiness for everyone. But justice and righteousness demand parameters to exclude sin, which is as universal to humanity as breathing, from God’s presence. No one in the world can ever meet the criteria for earned admission to heaven, for evasion of hell. But God does not want that fate for us. He wants to love and live in relationship with us always. God has something of a problem here, which means we have an enormous one: God’s righteousness demands He stay separate from sin, and His justice demands wrongs are punished. God cannot disavow His own character. Enter grace as the solution. To reconcile us to Himself, God sent his son, Jesus, to bear our sin and be cut off from God the father in our place so that we could be united to him. The full scope of the sin that God could not abide was laid on Jesus, and as John Piper put it in Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, “The wisdom of God devised a way for the love of God to deliver sinners from the wrath of God without compromising the righteousness of God.” In Jesus’ crucifixion, God gave us a way out. As necessary as hell is made by God’s love, that same love is strong enough to render hell obsolete. Hell, then, is an exit, not the main road. But it is an exit all too frequently taken.
To the conversation between the spiritual person and the Christian, we can see now that the “God of love” described is not loving but merely passive. He does not judge because he does not care. He cannot have relationship with humanity, and as defined as he is by passivity, it is impossible for him to even create. He is no god, only a cosmic spectator. But we have seen more than just the negation of a myth. Rather, we have seen the way in which love leads to the creation of hell and to an avenue of escape from it. We have seen how a true God of love was able to overwhelm even the constraints of His own character in order to love us, how a single attribute of God both required and obsoleted hell. It is a difficult idea, one that seems wholly unnatural. But I am reminded of the closing lines of “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”