Have it your way

If you believe that God is Love, how can you believe that there is a hell?

Ah yes. Time for the essay in which I dig around through infuriating topics. Last week I posited that God is Love, and that he loves everyone, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done. Which sounds all well and good when you put it in terms like that; we nod along and say, “Yeah, of course.” Until you start elaborating, and saying things like “God loves Republicans/Democrats” or “God loves pedophiles” or “God loves Nazis.” We jump in, going, “Whoa, there, wait a minute…”

But our problem is looking at it mathematically, thinking there’s some kind of condition to Perfect Love. Which would be like asking a good parent why they love their child – it’s their child. Kid’s done nothing to deserve it, couldn’t do anything to change it either way. The good parent loves them for the mere fact that the kid is theirs. There’s any number of things the kid could do to change whether the parent is proud of him, or approves of what she does – that’s not the same thing. You love someone sincerely enough, they will make you that much more furious for being cruel or idiotic. Because you care.

Still, saying “God is Love” and that he loves everyone is something not unique among people claiming the Christian faith. But the people who go out preaching it the most tend to be Universalists, or people who don’t believe in eternal punishment. How can Hell even be, if God is Love, and loves everyone? And I’m no Universalist. I’m a flamin’ Fundie. I go to a church with “Evangelical” in the name. How do I get off saying “God is Love”? Aren’t Conservatives the ones who go around telling people that God hates them and will send them to burn in hell?

(We have a lot to apologize for, us Christians.)

If I believe that God is Love, how can I believe in a hell? How can I believe in eternal condemnation? If God loves us, wholly and completely, why would he let us suffer?

Go back to the parent-child analogy. We recoil at the idea of a parent letting a child suffer. It’s cruel. It’s horrible. Why would anyone do it? Yet if the parent is loving and kind, and has done what he or she could do to provide, and teach, and love the child, and the child decides to reject the whole thing and doesn’t want to ever see the parent again, and cuts him or herself off from all that – yeah, what’s the parent gonna do? You can’t force a relationship. You can’t make someone be your loving child. You can leave the door open, make it clear the child is welcome, but if the kid never wants to come home again?

Every parent’s worst nightmare. I don’t have children, but I can imagine that rejection on that level probably ranks up there with “found dead in an alley” for things that put a rusty knife right through a parent’s heart.

Parents are relatively harmless creatures. That is to say, if we fear them, it’s either because we love them and don’t want to ruin the relationship, or they’re bad parents and we probably shouldn’t be around them anyway. But the point is, they’re human. They have weaknesses and limitations. We can relate to them, as we’re made of the same stuff. Good or bad, they’re living in the same world we are, experiencing it like we do. They are governed by the same laws, subject to the same authority. If they are good parents, it’s plain stupid to reject them, or to fear them.

But this is God we’re talking about. Almighty, infinite God. The all-knowing and ever-present. The God who can speak the universe into being. The Universe. I like looking at pictures the Hubble takes of the depths of space, stars and lights and things so distant that only undiscovered laws of physics could ever bring us to them. I’m not too conversant in the languages of math, but I know enough to glimpse the sheer complexity of how the universe works. And that’s before we get into sentient life, and the richness and variety and sheer infinitude of a single human mind. God created all of that. He imagined it all and caused it to be. You don’t need the evidence of Scripture to imagine that a God on that level is terrifying by definition. It’d be bad enough to stand before a dictator who reserved the power to nuke your hometown if he didn’t like you. God could make the entire planet cease to exist.

And that’s before we get to the part about God knowing all our thoughts, all our motivations, all the stuff about ourselves that we might not even be aware of. Think about that for a moment: there is no thought we have ever had that God does not know about, nor fail to understand. I can’t say that about the thoughts I’m having right now.


And he tells us to do things a certain way. Human nature in a nutshell: make a rule, and everyone in earshot will immediately want to break it. We do not want a ruler. We do not want a judge. We want to do things our own way. We want to determine what is right and good. Failure in logic there: God created the world, he knows how it runs. God created us, he knows how we run. He does not make mistakes. But try suggesting to anyone that someone else knows better. Okay, maybe they’d believe you on subjects where they’re weak. But on everything? “You’re not the boss of me.” “Who died and made you king?” “How do you know, you weren’t there!” “You don’t understand.” “It’s more complicated than that.” “I know what I’m doing.” “You and who’s army?” “It’s fine the way it is.” Etc. (I am a little surprised at how easy it was to come up with ‘defiance phrases’. But there you are.) We have our will, and some measure of knowledge and wisdom, and the ability to learn. So who is this invisible Deity coming along telling us to do one thing and not another?

And then he dare suggest that he can “make us better”? That we can be “redeemed”? Who said we needed redeeming? Who said we needed help? Who’s this guy calling himself the Potter and making us into funny new shapes? Who’s this idiot who wants to put us in the fire to get rid of this thing he calls “dross”? Aren’t I good enough as I am? There are people worse than me. There are people who really don’t have their act together. Who needs healing? I’m not that sick. I’m fine the way I am. I’m doing the best I can.


And so we are faced with this God, this powerful, terrifying God, who tells us what to do. Scripture tells us that looking on God’s face meant instant death. For all our pride, we know that we’re small, frail creatures, full of faults and problems, with a breath for a lifespan. If we walk into the presence of a God like that, unconvinced of his love, unforgiven and unprepared, soiling our shorts and running the other way seems like a reasonable response.

Funny for our tinyness that all our fear and pride should be so strong. And God, not wanting a nation of puppets, has let us have our will whether we love him back or not. He will not force us. If we don’t want him, we’re free to go that way. We’re free to leave. The loving parent doesn’t lock the doors. He doesn’t beat us down or tie us up. We are free to accept him, and free to walk away. He may court us – the good parent will still send notecards or make phonecalls. He may persuade us – the good parent will try an argument if he thinks it’ll help. But we reserve the right to stop listening.

The visions of hellfire and brimstone that some are so fond of stick in our minds ’cause they’re so vivid. But I wonder if the prophets were just trying to convey something else, that the fire and torture are the nearest the mortal mind can reach to a single simple concept: existence without God. We were created by him, for him, with him as our purpose. I don’t know that the fire and torture are literal. I have other visions: of a book unread. Of a painting unseen. Of a computer unused. Of a house, empty. Each of these things is beautiful in and of itself, but only reach their true glory when they belong to someone. God is Love. We reject God, we reject love itself. I do not think that God ceases to love a person who has rejected him, but I do think the person who did the rejecting is, finally and totally, given exactly what they want. They are cut off from love.

What else do you call life without love, but hell?