Recent posts on this site have discussed the Christian conception of Hell, as a place of eternal torment. Probably the most difficult doctrine to embrace, the believer must often confront angry responses, and attacks, like one posted recently by a skeptic who said:
“The Christian description of hell generally includes active torments. Separation from the vile being described in the bible, in itself, would be no punishment to me.”
While emotionally charged, this conclusion betrays a lack of meaningful reflection as to what separation from a perfect being would entail. Consider: we are emotional creatures made for relationship. It is only through interacting positively with others that we derive meaning and value and pleasure from our lives. While some may manage the life of a hermit, for the vast majority of human beings, fellowship and community are essential. That is why the love of family resonates with all people, regardless of time, place or culture. It is why the breakup of close relationships is so painful, why the loss of a loved one can lead some to contemplate suicide.
And what characterizes most relationships? What is it about other human beings that a computer simulation or a pet cannot provide? Many might be tempted to respond that physical intimacy is a large part of the equation. But this is but a lesser part of what is at play: interaction with another mind, the opportunity to get to know another person at a deeper level, to share experiences, to be understood, to grow together. This is what makes a long term relationship so valuable, so rewarding, so difficult to replace – and so devastating when it is lost. Moving a step further, what types of relationships are most valued? Why is it that we are drawn to the individuals like the "most interesting man in the world?”
I submit that it is a particular type of relationship: one characterized by virtues such as loyalty, patience, devotion to the good of the other, selflessness. We are drawn to the good, the excellent, the one capable of great feats, the one willing to share of himself for the good of others. Relationships that move in the other direction – toward increasing selfishness – or involve others who lack any positive qualities usually end in separation, either voluntary as in the case of an amicable divorce, or enforced, as in the case of restraining orders or incarceration.
Now, applying these basic concepts to the eternal, we must take these positive characteristics and begin to multiply them. The best people – the most loyal, virtuous, interesting, stimulating, engaging, exciting people you can imagine – are a mere shadow of their Creator, who embodies all these perfections to an infinite degree. Simply contemplating such a being should make our knees wobble; angering him should make us tremble in terror. But receiving his love, his devotion, his willingness to give us an eternity of joy interacting with him at a deeper and more intimate level? That should make our hearts and souls soar. Words simply fail us in attempting to capture the essence of what this means.
Do you remember your first love, or the way you felt when you beheld your first child? Can you recall the joy of reuniting with your spouse after a period apart? Conversely, can you recall the first time you were homesick, or the first time you experienced the death of a loved one? Now magnify these feelings – not by a hundred, a thousand, or even a billion, but by infinity, and by eternity. The reality of hell - of eternally living this loss of relationship - should begin to emerge. If the “goodness” of the people we love can cause us such torment when we are separated from them, and if that goodness is a mere shadow of the infinite perfection of God, that I shudder to imagine what knowing but not be able to experience God would be like.
The challenger may conclude that “separation from the vile being … would be no punishment to me.” But he has not yet grasped what God is. The Lake of Fire is but a candle to the torment that awaits those who choose to spend eternity isolated from Him.