Hell And A God Of Love (2)
It would be no exaggeration to say that both within and without the church many people – not just those who call themselves Christians – now see the doctrine of hell as indefensible and obsolete. They would hold that the whole idea of eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions. Is hell a punishment, a consequence or a choice? If it is a choice, whose choice is it? Why would a loving God send people to hell? Is hell punishment or annihilation? Or something else entirely?
Is there surely not a grave disproportion between crimes committed in a single lifetime and some kind of punishment administered for all eternity? Is it not enough that a person intended to obey God and that what was done was done from pure religious motives and with a mind fixed on God? Let’s consider some of the thinking that some writers have with regard to hell.
According to John Hick, since the sufferings of the damned in hell are interminable, they can never lead to any constructive end beyond themselves and are thus the very type of ultimately wasted and pointless anguish that should be avoided. He therefore believes that the needs of Christian theodicy compel us to repudiate the idea of eternal punishment. His position is that God will eventually succeed in his purpose of winning all people to himself in faith and love.
Hick would certainly ask what useful purpose could be served by God’s sustaining the unrighteous in continual torment? He would ask if the concept of unbelievers being tortured unendingly by their Creator is one of vindictiveness and cruelty, which is not compatible with the love of God in Christ? Indeed, what then is love?
Love is the very nature of God, according to Scripture, and not merely an assumed attitude. With regard to our human selves, we tend to regard love as something we do, but with God, love is what he is. To say that God is love may be a nice expression and a comforting thought, but the outworking of that love-nature is difficult to define and quantify. To illustrate the point, Paul, in his well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13, writes more about what love is not, rather than what love is.
What is abundantly clear from that chapter is that love is outworked and finds its expression in relationships, and love can only be understood in terms of relationships. Love means nothing outside relationships. God is love precisely because God the Father, Son and Spirit are, always have been and always will be, in love relationship. Yet love relationships involve choice. God created: He caused things to be other than himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness.
Is the notion that a God of love must ultimately save all people flawed? Does love always get what it wants? Consider that, as Paul wrote, love does not insist on its own way. If love does not insist on its own way, then another way is surely possible; perhaps not another way that is outside love, but perhaps a way that is outside the community of love.
Human beings are not themselves love. They are, however, capable of love relationships. But nothing is guaranteed in human love relationships. There is always the element of choice with regard to consequences. A choice that can only end in one set way is no choice at all. When love presents its choices, they are real choices, with consequences that can lead to real ends. That in itself proves that God is a God of love, precisely because he presents us with very real choices.