God’s ways are not ours, and so like Job we sometimes face an intellectual and moral conundrum, or even what seems to be an outright contradiction, when pondering Him. Perhaps the most famous question along these lines is: Can God create a stone that is too heavy for Him to pick up? Any answer seems to be a limit on his omnipotence, and since by definition God is absolute omnipotence we are confronted with what appears anyway to be an absurdity.
The question we are considering now seems to pose the same problem: If indeed God is all loving, then why would He condemn a soul to everlasting hellfire? The connotation of everlasting hellfire is that the prison door has been latched shut and the one key thrown away forevermore. The sentence cannot be appealed, for there is a limit to God’s mercy. Even if the condemned soul sees the error of his ways, and has a change of heart, he will not be able to plead His case anymore before God.
The short answer is that God does not condemn a soul to everlasting hellfire. Rather, He allows a soul to choose everlasting hellfire for himself.
What most distinguishes man from the animals is that man alone is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). There is much that may be said about what this really means, but for our purposes now we can say that man shares in some of the attributes of God. Man has these attributes derivatively, whereas God alone has these same attributes in virtue of Himself. Man has these attributes partially, and because of sin he falters when he tries to put them into action, whereas God is the absolute definition of these same attributes. Man is capable of love to some degree, but only God is love (1 John 4:8). Man has some measure of free will, but is also enslaved to Original Sin (Psalm 51:5), while God alone is absolute freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).
God gives us free will, for He wants us to love Him and to love one another (Mark 12:30-32 and Matthew 22:37-39). The very essence of love is voluntary sacrifice of oneself for the betterment of someone else (1 John 4:10). If we sacrifice something of ourselves for the betterment of someone else, but do so because we have no choice in the matter, we cannot say that we have acted out of love. On the contrary, if we are free, then whatever we may sacrifice for this purpose is indeed an act of love (Romans 6:22); and the more we love the more we become like God (1 John 3:1).
Therefore, even though our freedom is derivative, it is in God’s eternal plan for man to be free and, as such, capable of love. Freedom is a double-edged sword: Man may choose to follow Christ, or he may choose to reject Him. He may choose to love God and to love his fellow man, or he may choose to rebel against God and to undermine his fellow man (Galatians 5:13). God gives us the grace with which we may choose to love Him and one another. Moreover, it is only because of His freely bestowed grace that we are capable of love (John 6:65). Nevertheless, it is our choice to respond to that grace with love. If we choose to squander that grace, then He will cry out for us, but at the same time He will allow us to reap what we have sowed (Matthew 23:37-39). The alternative is worse, for that means the loss of our free will. Without free will we cease to be made in His image. We are indistinguishable from the beasts over which we are meant to be stewards, and we are incapable of love (Psalm 8:3-8).
When I was a seminarian I recall that my Archbishop defined Hell as follows: “Hell is the abode of those who choose to spend eternity alone with their own obsessions.” Because of his interest in Russian Orthodox spirituality it is not surprising that he spoke with the dark and dramatic flourish of something Dostoevsky might have written.
There are two major insights here: The condemned are self-condemned, and when the self-condemned choose their own obsessions over a loving relationship with God they are in effect deifying those obsessions.
With respect to deifying obsessions, the self-condemned as such are worshipping what they obsess. Since obsessions begin in the mind of the obsessor, and persist through the free will of the obsessor, the obsessor who worships his obsessions is really worshipping himself. He is now guilty of the same sin committed by the idol worshipper, for he puts a creature above the Creator (Romans 1:25).
The self-condemned are in hell for the same reason that Satan is: They choose willingly to rebel against God. They want to be as distant from Him as possible, because God’s very existence is a reminder that they are not divine (Revelation 13:6).
The self-condemned not only choose willingly. They also choose eternally to be alone with their own obsessions. Though we cannot go into a comprehensive discourse on what eternity means, it is important to note that eternity is not the same as everlasting, even if in common usage the two words often are interchangeably used.
Everlasting refers to a limitless duration of time (Psalm 145:13). Eternity refers to self-existence and completion (Revelation 22:13). If something is eternal, then it is complete in itself. There will be no thought for something more or something better. In the parable when the sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd, they hear only His voice, and therefore do not heed any other voices, for His alone is the voice of eternal life (John 10:27-28).
Thus, when the obsessors choose “eternally” to be alone with their own obsessions that means that for them their obsessions, no matter how serious or petty they may be really, are the be all and end all, or the Alpha and the Omega. They no longer have a thought for something more or something better than their obsessions. Like Pharaoh, when it comes to their obsessions, their hearts have been hardened (Exodus 9:12). God permits this to happen, even though the result will be a heart hardened beyond even the reach of the Holy Spirit and, as such, an unpardonable state of sin (Mark 3:28-29). This has nothing to do with God being pernicious. Rather, God is sustaining man’s freedom, even for the souls who have chosen to be beyond the reach of redemption, because to do otherwise would be to deny that man is made in His image (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
A similar question posed: If God is all loving, then why inflict everlasting pain on those souls condemned to hell? On the surface, it seems unduly sadistic for God to give Satan free rein to torture the souls in his infernal prison.
We do not know what precisely are the pains of hell. The fire and brimstone imagery is probably more metaphorical than anything. Regardless, assuming souls in hell are really experiencing anguish of some kind, the question remains. Is it not enough that the souls in hell are forever separated from the living God? Must there be weeping and gnashing of teeth added on to that unrelenting despair?
In order to answer this question, we need to define what we mean by “separated from the living God.” God is everywhere at all times. He is not synonymous with the created universe. That is pantheism, which is a very different conception of God from the God of the Bible. Nevertheless, nothing exists anywhere nor at any time unless God sustains it. Therefore, to the extent a soul in hell still exists, and resides in a place, he is not hidden from God (Jeremiah 23:23-24 and Proverbs 15:3). He simply cannot exist and also be separated from God (Hebrews 4:12).
Moreover, God is always in a relationship with us (Zephaniah 3:17). He is forever saving us from ourselves, or giving us courage in adversity, or soothing our broken hearts, if only we shall let Him. He will not stop working on us, for God is love, and love is relational and active (Hebrews 13:5). If we do not have a relationship with God, it is not because He is abandoning us, but because we are abandoning Him (Isaiah 59:1-2).
So the anguish of a soul in hell is this: He is near God, for everyone and everything that exists is near God. Moreover, God loves him, and that means God is reaching out to him and crying over his despair (Matthew 23:37). And yet that soul has condemned himself to hell precisely because he does not want to be near God, let alone have a relationship with Him. Following this logic we may argue that the fire in hell in fact is the love of God, but as it is experienced by a soul that rejects that love. For that soul writhing in a hell of his own creation, God’s love is pain and torture. God’s love is reality, when the soul does not want reality to get in the way of his obsession. God’s love is truth, when the soul has no desire for truth to interfere with his imagination. God’s love is divine, when the soul is trying to convince himself that he is his own god and hell is his own tabernacle. The soul may make his own bed in hell, but God is there with him (Psalm 139:8). Moreover, God’s love is all the same from His perspective whether His love is shining on a saint in heaven or burning up a soul in hell. Day and night are the same for God (Psalm 139:11-12). It is the soul in hell who is trying in vain to keep the day and the night separated into eternity, and the nearness of God is a constant reminder of his failure.