Q: Can a sane person believe in Hell?

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A:Well, what do you mean by “Hell”? If you mean a vast medieval torture chamber staffed by hungry demons, the answer is “no”. 

God is not a vengeful sadist.  Jesus compared eternal punishment to Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, where idolaters used to sacrifice to strange gods. The people of God could not go there because it was ceremonially unclean. He also compared eternal punishment to being shut outside a great feast. So, for Jesus, eternal punishment is being banished from God’s presence. Eternal torture, by demons or the like, never gets a mention.

But why wouldn’t a good God simply accept and forgive all his creatures?  Wouldn’t a good God provide eternal bliss for us all?

Well, that’s a nice picture, and one well suited to Hollywood fantasies. But the real world isn’t like that.  God can’t have a relationship with us all by himself. If we freely refuse to enter into a proper relationship with God then we have to live with the consequences.

Why is Hell a consequence of refusing a relationship with God?

Hell isn’t a Medieval torture chamber; but the New Heavens and New Earth won’t be a Disney theme park. Heaven is (at the very least) fellowship with God. If we don’t want God to have his rightful place here and now, then we will not want him to rule our lives for all eternity. Christopher Hitchens described Heaven as a kind of Spiritual North Korea, and he wanted nothing to do with it. After all, God would know everything about us, inside out, and demand total obedience. However, unlike North Korea, one must accept an invitation to enter heaven; no-one is compelled to live there.

Loving God for who he is  means accepting him as he is. Accepting God as  he is means accepting that he owns you – every thought and particle. There is not one moment of your entire existence that God cannot claim as his own . So if you want to love God you have to surrender your freedom to him completely, and take only what he gives back to you.

Furthermore, it takes two for forgiveness. One to give it, the other to accept it. Accepting forgiveness means that we need to accept that we need to be forgiven. That’s a lot to ask of ourselves, especially when we consider that Christianity teaches the death of God’s Son was necessary for our forgiveness. Do we really want to believe that we are that bad? Quite naturally, we don’t want to lose our freedom and our self-respect. So, for many, Heaven comes at too high a price.

But if we opt out of Heaven, and life goes on past the physical grave,  all we have left is ruin and misery. They say the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. Nonsense. It’s paved with our intention to remain free and self-righteous; God delivers his most terrible punishment when he gives people exactly what they cherish most.

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