This question reminds me of Bertrand Russell, Why I’m not a Christian –“I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment (referring to Jesus)”. Is the very notion of hell immoral? Should we discredit someone who thinks hell exists? Is love incompatible with punishment?
Ok I need to preface this with the fact that each issue is really deep so forgive me if I appear to skim over any area, this is not my intention. Also these are theological questions so I will go to scripture for definitions and clarity.
Let’s look at the questions more closely and draw out some assumptions. Assumptions: (A1) God is loving and eternal punishment is not loving. (A2) God happily SENDS people to Hell. (A3) God made a broken world.
(A1) 1 John 4:8 captures it well – “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” That is to say that, God’s very essence is love. Is there any conflict between God’s love and His Holiness? I define holiness simply as a separation from evil (being set apart). So to restate the assumption, can God be both loving and holy? I would argue in the affirmative. (Premise 1) Love can only exist if freewill exists. (P2) If freewill exists then evil is possible. (P3) If Evil exists then God must separate himself from Evil. Premise 3 follows logically from premise 1 and premise 2.
Freewill finds itself in the equation; let’s look at what freewill is. Freewill is something intrinsically valuable to mankind, it’s part of what makes us human. This simply means we get a choice. Though it pains God, He cannot violate our choice to seek Him or reject him.
From freewill we also derive human freedom, and freedom is an unsuspecting sobering thing. As a child I would demand freedom from my parents, freedom to see my friends, and go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do. But the truth is I didn’t want freedom, I just wanted to rebel against the rules, as long as they were paying the bills that were fine, I didn’t want to end up on the street. With increased freedom comes increasing responsibility.
Scripture teaches that we are eternal beings with a finite past; therefore, the outcome of our choice has major consequences. Think of a young girl who gets pregnant, the actions from, perhaps, a single event will affect her entire future. God allows us freedom to choose, in love, but He doesn’t violate his holiness by removing the consciences of our free actions, therefore; God’s love and punishment are not opposed to one another.
(A2) The major assumption is that God SENDS people to hell, the minor is that He does so happily. Does God send people to hell? I think C.S. Lewis captured it best in the Great Divorce when he wrote:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
God does not send people to hell against their will, people choose it. God will not force you into his presence against your freewill. God holds human freewill with high regard and will not violate our choices.
Now, on the minor point, God is not happy when we choose to separate ourselves from His love.
~Ezekiel 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”~
That affirms our freewill and God’s holiness. It also affirms that God finds no pleasure in the matter, not even for the wicked.
(A3) God made a broken word? I would say that the world is broken; we know this from turning on the news… The scripture gives insight into the world God made, and how His intention was for personal relationship with His creation. In the Garden of Eden, all that God had made was “very good -Gen 1:31”. But when mankind rebelled against God brokenness entered the world. The point is the human heart is broken and that separated us from a Holy God. God’s restoration plan involved Jesus’ life, death and resurrection which created a bridge for mankind to know God personally once more (Romans 5:1, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 9:15). Eternal life is knowing Him.
John 17:3 ~Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. ~
This brings up a key point and Dallas Willard sheds light on this fundamental principle, “the aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God Himself at the very heart of this community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant”. Would you like it in heaven? What is your idea of heaven? Do we even consider that heaven is full of God’s presence? Or when confronted with the thought do we feel like Thomas Nagel in the Last Word ~ “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
In summary, if you love someone, can you make them love you? What if you love them more and more? What if you make every effort to be with them, will they love you in return? What if you died for that person, can you make them love you? If we force our love on others or force them to love us that is immoral and we would go to jail for forcing ourselves on others like that! God cannot force His love on you, but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t make every effort to have a relationship with you and that He loves you immeasurably and that He even died for your love.
Therefore, God can be Holy, Loving and allow people to choose to know Him, if they so wish.