In a previous post, I reflected on a way of considering Hell in terms other than the imagery of a literal “lake of fire.” My thoughts led me to conclude that separation from God – from the source of all that is good, all that can bring awe and joy– would leave people in a state of despair beyond anything we can presently conceive.
One person responded with a thought-provoking comment. If Hell works off of an individual’s personal desire to be with God, Hell would have
“little to no meaning as any person who legitimately had no desire to spend time with God.” Such a person “would be nonplussed by the possibility of spending an eternity away from him. While you could argue something akin to ‘deep down everyone wants to spend time with their creator,’ this is simply not true. I’ve met a fair number of people who either genuinely despise God or else are purely disinterested in Him. For such individuals, this “hell” would be the fulfillment of their deepest wishes, thereby negating its role as a punishment altogether. The only ones affected would be those who actively sought God but did not find him (mostly people in what turned out to be false religions), effectively punishing them for their desire to be with God.”
There is an assumption underlying this conclusion that is worth identifying and considering. It is certainly true that many people are at present free to despise God and do so happily. Knowing that the Bible sets forth standards for right living, they choose instead to follow the desires of their own hearts, angry that a creator would dare to prevent them from fulfilling those desires. If God is such a rule-maker, such a disciplinarian, then they want no part of him, or his “afterlife.” The image of floating around the heavens, wings affixed to their backs, chanting endlessly God’s praises, is a fate worse than Hell, in their view. Such people seem increasingly bold in their rejection of God, and in their efforts to make the case for atheism, or secularism. Some go even further and attempt to restrict the expression of religion in the public square. Despite this rejection of God, it seems rather obvious that such people are not being punished by the God they have rejected. Indeed, many such people seem to have lives abounding in riches – material success, health, and friendships – all the things that make life here so rewarding. On further reflection, it is also obvious that many committed believers by contrast experience much suffering in their lives.
What, then, is the assumption underlying the comment? It is that life on Earth is the same as life in the hereafter. That the “rules” that allow for people to “shake their fist” at God will be the same rules that God applies to those who have left this physical and temporal universe. But why should that be so?
Consider: the people who are perfectly content away from God are interacting presently with God’s handiwork, in the form of other people who were created by God and who are at most a dim reflection of God’s actual beauty and glory. They are also experiencing and interacting with the beauty and order of the created world. As the Bible says, the rain falls on both the wicked and the just. But if Hell involves God finally separating himself from those who reject him – building and enforcing a wall between Him and them – then Hell would be more akin to a modern prison, where a person’s liberty is confined to a particular place and where he is no longer able to make choices affecting whom he associates with and what he does. The challenger’s view assumes that people will go on experiencing good things, but once separated from God and his handiwork, this will no longer be true. The “God-haters” may indeed be in store for a surprise. They were given freedom here, and the ability to do as they please within very broad limits. But, like the convict, their freedom to act as they please does not mean that the law-giver will never take action. The law seeks to balance freedom and order, and it does so by punishing wrongdoing after the fact. It would be foolish indeed to conclude that crime pays and to increase one’s wrongdoing, simply because one “got away” with the offenses they have committed so far. The Bible warns that something quite similar will occur at our deaths – we will face judgment, once and for all time. And unlike here, there will be no appeals, no possibility of a hung jury or an acquittal. For we are all sinful and lost, when we stand before a perfect God.
The risk, then, for those who die in rebellion against God is they will face spiritual “confinement” – an eternity spent alone, in a state of solitary confinement, either fully walled off from God (the source of all that is good and pleasurable) or aware of God’s presence but unable to draw near. The people and things which gave them pleasure and happiness here will be removed from them, just as a convict is given little choice as to his surroundings and belongings.
The challenger’s final comment is more troubling. It would seem unfair that someone who loves God and seeks to serve him should be punished simply for “getting it wrong.” Christianity teaches that Jesus is the only way. He is like medicine – to cure what ails you, it is not enough that you are sincere about finding help. You must also “get it right” by choosing correctly. Insulin can keep a diabetic alive while potassium will kill him. But I have no evidence from which I should conclude that God lacks the power to bring such people to Christ before their deaths, to allow them to see and accept the true God that they have all the while been seeking. I don’t know to what extent this case can be made from Scripture, but it stands to reason that an omnipotent God can break through mistakes in judgment or gaps in knowledge in order to get to the heart that is in truth seeking to align with Him.
After all, that is why Jesus came in the first place.
Posted by Al Serrato