One of the most frequent criticisms I hear leveled against orthodox Christianity concerns the doctrine of hell. The question is, "How can a loving God send people to hell?" The answer to that, I suppose, depends on what we mean by "a loving God" and what we mean by "send people to hell."
There was a fairly forgettable movie in 1998 called "What Dreams May Come," starring Robin Williams as a doctor who finds himself in heaven after a car accident. One scene in particular, set shortly after Williams' character arrives in heaven, illustrates what I think most people mean when they talk about God's love. Cuba Gooding is showing Williams around an idyllic heaven, lit from above by celestial brilliance. Floating through the sky overhead are choirs of angels singing their blissful hosannas.
"Where's God?" Williams asks. Gooding responds: "He's up there, somewhere, shouting 'I love you.'"
That's it. God is somewhere out there, loving us so effectively that we need to ask where he is. As love goes, that's pretty bland, pretty empty and pretty useless. It reminds of what Coleridge described as a religion of no particular creed or sect, but merely filling oneself with charitable feelings to all men: an indiscriminate and blaise warm fuzzy, a sort of doddering senility that leaves the person so loved with no desire to stick around. Loving someone like that means having no appreciation for what makes them tick or what matters to them. It means not knowing them, not connecting with them, and failing utterly to relate to them in any real or meaningful way. A God who does that and claims to love people doesn't understand the emotion at all. At best, that's merely liking someone, and it's not even enough to make me want to go out for pizza with him.
Scripture reveals a God who is intimately and dynamically involved in every aspect of his creation. He not only knows what makes us tick, he cares immensely about the things that matter to us, whether it's how to pay the bills, whether we pass the big exam, or how we're going to make it through another joyless day, or a long and lonely night. When we bleed, he cries real tears. When we love, he rejoices.
So if God loves us that passionately, how does hell fit into everything?
An illustration from human life: I have a daughter, E. Let's say that in another 30 years, E decides to end her relationship with me. All her life she's had to endure stupid jokes about her name only being one letter long, and she blames me. That hurts me terribly, so because I love her, I try to mend the relationship. I call E on her birthday, hoping for reconciliation, and she tells me to go to hell. On Christmas, my cards are returned unopened, and I can't even track her down. She's moved, and left no forwarding address or telephone number that I can use. I have no way to get hold of her. Do I still love her? Absolutely, with all my heart. She's my daughter. How could I not love her? All I want is for her to come back to me, but she won't even acknowledge that we're related.
More time goes by. Eventually, I'm 83 years old and on my deathbed. Still she doesn't come back, and my last words are, "Tell E I love her." For the rest of her life, E will stew in her own bitterness and resentment because of the tattered mess she made of our relationship. Tell me, who is responsible for this divide? Is it I, who did everything I could to find my daughter and restore the relationship; or is it my daughter, who rejected every olive branch I extended and determined never to see me again?
It's the same way with sin. Our sin is a rejection of God. He never stops loving us or waiting for us to come back, but our sin -- the lies we tell, both small and great; the blind eye we turn to others in need, both near and far; the self-absorption that mars our souls; the thoughtless anger; the pride; the thoughtless greed and hate; or any number of other behaviors -- our sin is our way of running away from him. For our entire lives, we push God away by refusing to live the way he calls us to -- and even the best of us know what rotten stinkers we are deep inside -- and then when we die, we discover how great the divide is that we have made, and we complain that God is unjust and unloving.
Judgment Day isn't a day when God will pass sentence on people and toss us by the forkload into eternal fire. It's a day when everything will be revealed, and we will see for ourselves where we stand in relationship to him. The gospel of John says that "he who does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (3:18, if you're keeping track). I'm not going to be with God in the great hereafter because I belong to an elect club, nor because I attained some deep spiritual awareness. It's because I'm in a relationship with him. Those of us who have refused to live in community with him and one another, who insisted on being alone, are going to find out in the end just how alone we are, only this time we won't be able to blame someone else.