Yesterday the pastor at my church preached on the reality and eternality of hell in light of the recent popular controversy surrounding its existence. I agree that hell is a very frightening place, yet a place whose existence we must embrace just as we must with any other inconvenient truth. But the paradox that remains in many of our minds is this: how can God allow, let alone send people to, a place of such tortuous proportions as hell?
One might argue that even a loving God must send people to hell because he is also a just God. He is a God who must exact payment for sin just as a judge, no matter how much mercy he might have on a sinner, must sentence him to punishment for what he has done. But I think that with hell, there might also be a simpler answer: if hell is by definition a place apart from Christ, then ending up in hell is simply the natural result of choosing not to follow Christ. In other words, we might say that those who have chosen to reject Christ, to turn away from rather than follow him, are getting in hell exactly what they want--to never ever have to be with Christ. In fact, we might wonder whether for them, to be in heaven would be a hellish experience, for they would have to be with Christ, the very one whom they wish not to be with, for all eternity.
If so, God is not being malicious or cruel by sending people to hell. On the contrary, we might argue that he is being merciful and gracious by giving people what they want. So what then about the fire and brimstone of hell portrayed in the Bible? Does he not appear to actively and excessively punish people in hell, rather than merely allowing them to go where they please? I wonder if the fire and brimstone of hell may not be so much a depiction of God's active punishment. Instead, it may be describing what it sees as the end result of being apart from God--a feeling akin to what we may feel on earth when distant from someone we should be with, a feeling of emptiness and loneliness and dissatisfaction, something we might almost describe as a burning longing. Multiply this feeling by eternity, and the product is a gnawing and agonizing sense of discord, what we might even call a fiery feeling, a hellish experience.
As Christ himself tells us, "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). He did not come to punish, to send us to torture, but the very opposite--to provide for us a new relationship with him, a way out of this eternal loneliness. Instead of judging those who choose not to be with him, he simply asserts, "This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light" (v.19) Rather than coming to condemn or to judge, he allows us ultimately to choose our paths for ourselves, and if we could not stand to be with him--even then he gives us what we love.