Sunday, July 12, 2015

Love and Hell

Hell is Not Contrary to God’s Love

One of the things people in modern times find hard to reconcile is how God can be love (1 John 4:16) and the existence of Hell. The general assumption is that Hell is an arbitrary, disproportionate punishment tacked on to a crime—something like shooting a person for jaywalking. Because of this, it is assumed that God, being “good” (in an undefined way) would not really send them to Hell for their own actions. Maybe Nazis, but not “good” people. I suspect this is where the whole “God doesn’t care about X!” attitude comes from.

But this is to miss the point about what Hell is about. It is not an arbitrary sentence to a crime like, “If you commit theft, I will punish you with Prison.” It is more like, “If you jump off of a cliff, you will die.” In other words, Hell is the logical consequence for choosing to do what goes against what God has called us to be. As Peter Kreeft put it:

Take as an example God’s command to Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit. If this is a positive law, it is like a mother threatening to slap her child’s hand if he takes a cookie. If it is a natural law, it means that if we eat the forbidden fruit of disobedience to God’s will, divorcing our will and spirit from God’s, then the inevitable result will be disaster and death, for God is the source of all joy and life.

In a natural law ethic, virtue is its own reward and vice is its own punishment. Virtue is to the soul what health is to the body. It has its own intrinsic, necessary and unchangeable structures, such that all good deeds help the doer as well as the recipient and all evil deeds harm the doer as well as the victim.

The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law. Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable punishment.

[Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 293.]

Essentially the Scriptural passages of Hell are not there as a threat, but as a warning. If we know that what we want to do goes against what God commands, and we choose to do that evil anyway, we are choosing something that will cause harm to our relationship with God. Because we have an immortal soul, it stands to reason that what damages our relationship with God will have consequences after we die.

Thus we see the concept of Jesus saying “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Those who turn away from their sins and towards God with His help can be saved. Those who refuse to turn away from their sins have turned their face from God, and so long as they do so, they cannot be saved. When one thinks of it this way, we can see that the defensiveness of those who say “God doesn’t care about X!” really want things both ways. They want to be able to reject God when it suits them without the consequences of that rejection. But since Hell is a logical consequence of rejecting God, and not an arbitrary punishment, people who want the Church to declare certain things are not sins are actually wanting the impossible. 

What Follows From This

Once we understand this, then the point of evangelization and speaking out against sin is clear. In doing this, Christians are not being intolerant or judgmental. They seek what is good for others. As the future St. John Paul II put it:

This is a “divine” feature of love. Indeed, when Y [he] wants the good “without limits” for X [her], then properly speaking he wants God for her: God alone is the objective fullness of the good, and only he can satisfy every man with this fullness. Man’s love through its relation to happiness, that is, to the fullness of the good, in a sense passes as close to God as possible.


[Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. Grzegorz Ignatik (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2013), 119-120.]

To love someone is to desire their happiness through what is truly good—and that true good is God. To desire a “good” for the beloved that goes against what God has designed us for is destructive. So Christians, in desiring that all people be brought to Christ, is not being hateful in saying things are sinful and endangering the soul[*]. They love the sinner and desire their greatest good, which is their being in right relationship with God.

Being human beings and sinners, we recognize that we may express ourselves poorly. We may lose our tempers or become frustrated. These things do hide the love of God from those we are trying to show it to. Popes like St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have expressed apologies for this failing by members of the Church—including those who were in positions of authority.

But it is important to remember that despite these sins and failings which mar the message we give, the Christian message is motivated by love and not hate. That message is both a warning—that our sins alienate us from God, and a promise—that God loves us and wants us to turn back to Him. It is important to remember this and not lose sight of it when the messenger expresses himself or herself poorly.


[*] Oh sure, I recognize (sadly) that there are people who miss the point of the Christian faith and think that hostility to the person who commits sin is the same as speaking out against evil. But Christianity, properly lived, rejects this because they recognize that we are called to love each other as Jesus loved us (John 13:34), and even when we think the actions of a person are wrong, we are still called to love the sinner.

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