by Shea OakleyCopyright 2004 by Shea Oakley All rights reserved Shea Oakley was converted to Christianity from atheism in 1990. He has written for a number of Christian Web magazines and is currently working on a book about church discipline and the restoration of Christian leaders who have fallen. He makes his home in West Milford, New Jersey.
The apparent severity of the doctrine of eternal punishment has troubled believers since Jesus Christ walked the Earth and fully expounded it. Those who have remained outside the faith have used it as a reason to continue to reject Christianity. It seems impossible to reconcile a loving God with One who would send someone, anyone, to somewhere as horrific as the place Scripture describes as the final destination of the unbelieving. Our minds recoil at the thought of hell—and, by extension, we are tempted to also recoil at the thought of its Author. It just seems far too severe.
We cannot deny, however, that Christ talked more about hell than heaven during His earthly ministry. We have no choice but to grapple with the seeming dissonance of a God who is love, yet consigns those who finally reject Him to a terrible place of punishment. One of the best ways to reconcile these two truths is to take a serious look at God's nature in its totality.
We are living in a time and place in church history when the holiness of God often gets far less pulpit time than His love. To some degree this imbalance is a correction of the angry fundamentalism that has long infected some wings of the Evangelical church, to the detriment of the essential doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith. We have also lately emphasized our Lord's love because so many of us had parents who loved us very imperfectly, or not at all, and we desperately need to know that our God is the greatest parent we could ever hope to have.
So the contemporary stress on love and grace is understandable. Unfortunately, it is still unbalanced and can lead to a perception of God that leaves Him portrayed as One who does not punish the evil which we see not only all around us but within us. Such a portrayal may seem comforting but it is a deception because it does not take into account the ramifications of relating to a Being who is perfectly good.
God truly is perfect love but He is also perfect holiness—and, by holiness, we mean that He is completely separated from evil of any kind. There is no shadow of turning in the nature of divinity. Our Lord dwells in unapproachable light because there is no darkness in Him and there never will be. He is good in an unalloyed and ultimate sense.
Because of this, God cannot co-exist with evil of any kind or amount because evil is imperfect in the most profound sense of the word. Evil, in the end, must be permanently cast away from the presence of God and that is exactly what will occur at the Last Judgement. Eventually, evil and those who embody it in any way (which is all of us), must be eternally removed from His presence. To be eternally removed from the presence of God is perhaps the best definition of hell.
Yet because God is also love, and because He extends that love to the human race, we have been given a period of time to live on Earth, in a sense half-way between heaven and hell, and been sent a Rescuer in the form of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The answer to our seemingly hopeless appointment with the wrath of a perfectly good God can only be found at the cross, through faith in the One who died there on our behalf. When God, the Son, sacrificed Himself for us He truly became "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
But apart from this one perfect way that God Himself has made to bring us into an eternal love relationship with Him we remain evil, imperfect people, with whom He can never be in relationship. The time must and will come when our Lord will lower the curtain on human history and separate the "wheat from the tares."
At that time, we—who have all demonstrated our darkly imperfect natures in countless actions, small and great—will either be made perfect by our faith in Christ and brought into the embrace of God or will be forever removed from His presence because we preferred the darkness of our own profoundly imperfect self-rule to the thought of surrendering our lives to Jesus for redemption.
Again, perfect love can never co-exist with evil and so God cannot forever co-exist with us in our unredeemed state.
How can a perfectly good God send unrepentant sinners to hell? How can He not?