The “torment” of Hell does not involve God actively torturing those who choose to persist in their rebellion against Him. It is, instead, the natural product of separation from God, who is the source of all that is good. I’ve taken this position in previous posts, claiming that far from representing cruelty on God’s part, it is indeed the very least He can do. In other words, the torment of Hell involves nothing more that the fact of such separation, so that the image of souls eternally burning in a lake of fire is not one we should take literally.
A challenger to this view had this to say:
Hell works off of an overwhelming drive to be with God that is present in all humans and yet is separate from free will and individual desire. Under this point of view, separation from God would, by design, represent a state of eternal suffering. In this case, God cannot be excused for simply refusing to spend eternity with sinners (which would be His divine prerogative), as He designed their drive to be with him in the first place. Given this, if God truly is omnipotent then He would have the ability to stop such suffering, shutting off the drive with the ease of flipping a switch. By choosing not to do so, God is actively punishing sinners just as much as if he tortured them in a literal “lake of fire” for all eternity, thus reopening the initial criticism that eternal punishment necessarily becomes excessive at some point.
The challenger’s first sentence accurately conveys my view. It does not, however, explain its source, which I believe is important to supporting this point. God is that Being who possesses infinite greatness. Whatever qualities we find attractive in another person, whether simply a friend or an intimate partner, is but a dim reflection of God’s glory. Whatever joy we derive from any Earthly pursuit, whether it involves the grandeur of nature, the beauty inherent in art or music, or the joy of doing something well, that too is a shadow of what God in his infinite perfection represents. When we, here on earth, find people or things that give us joy, we naturally want that state of affairs to continue. Indeed, we want things to increase, and we are troubled – terrified in some cases – at the prospect of losing what we have, or what we’ve worked to gain.
I do not think, however, that it is accurate to say that God “designed” people to want to be with him. This creates in my mind the image of someone doing something with the specific intent to cause someone else to feel envy. For example, it conjures up the image of eating chocolate in front of children and refusing to share, knowing that they would really like to have some. It seems to me that built into us is an appreciation of things that are “good” and “beautiful” and otherwise pleasing. I don’t know if I can imagine things any other way, where I deliberately seek broken, imperfect, poorly made, badly operating things. If we were built that way – to seek the bad, the defiled, the ugly and to find joy in such things – I think it would be right to conclude that something is wrong with us. We may all define beauty in slightly different ways, but it is beauty that we seek, not its opposite.
God, as the ultimate expression of not just “good” but of perfection, is therefore a being that we cannot help desire. Our fallen nature perverts this desire, causing us to worship and desire to possess the created thing, rather than to give glory to God and to submit to his kingship. The challenger does not want to “excuse God” for making us this way. To the contrary, the proper response should be to thank him. He did not make us mindless robots, after all, but gave us a divine spark and the opportunity for relationship with him. In other words, he gave each of us the opportunity to be made perfect through Him in such a way as to allow us to spend eternity with Him. He gave us the opportunity to experience infinite joy eternally, making even the best of experiences here on Earth essentially nothing by comparison.
But could he simply flip the switch to off? The answer, I suppose, is yes, if by switching off one means annihilation. Why he chooses not to do this says something about his view of justice, which should come as little surprise to anyone who has contemplated the harshness built into nature. God, it seems, is not to be trifled with. But I do not think he could turn off the switch if by that is meant turning off the desire to draw near to him. I say this because a free will being will naturally seek perfection. To flip the switch, as the challenger contends, would be to eliminate free will. God, it seems, sees value in creating free will beings, and once created, those beings persist eternally.
So, why doesn’t he annihilate those souls in hell? I’m not sure that I can answer that, although I think it has to do with the nature of “being” generally, and to God’s justice. Time is a function of this present physical universe. Remove the universe – or more precisely remove the soul from the universe – and there is no longer an “end” because ending points are a function of time. Perhaps to annihilate in that setting would be to undo the life from the beginning. Perhaps it is an all or nothing proposition.
I don’t expect to ever fully understand such things, but of course my adherence to Christianity isn’t based on fully understanding them. No, my faith in Christ stems from believing in the truth of the historical evidence of his life, death and resurrection.
Posted by Al Serrato