Updated: May 22
Yeah, I am going there.
And, no, I don't have a neatly packaged answer. Actually, rationalizing and framing up a satiable explanation about Hell is probably the reason so many people end up walking away from Christianity. The topic of Hell is not really about rationalizing God's motives or the existence of a fiery place. As I grow in my knowledge of Orthodox theology, I have gathered some crumbs for the question, and if anything, a chance to give further food for thought (wow, sorry for all the puns). But mainly, the crumbs have led me down a path that I wonder if my own skeptic has ever ventured before. And while my understanding grows, my sorrow for all the time passed without understanding grows as well.
If you have an atheist or skeptic in your life, the concept of Hell (in a religion where God is Love, and God is Creator, and God is Savior...) is probably one of the hardest things to justify. But lately, I have been learning that all the lip service given to the connection of God with eternal damnation has fallen short...maybe even rationalizing God's motives in such a way that it puts it all on Him...on Love casting out His creation. But...what if it's not on God at all? And I am not talking legalistically or giving power to something evil...I have gathered some crumbs that might just suggest certain theology has wrongly given God all the credit for eternal damnation. One day I hope that I can share this with my skeptic, but I will just share it with you for now...
Follow the trail with me...
God is the source of Life. He created everything. Genesis reveals this. Not HOW but WHO. Genesis gives the glory to God the Creator. The Life Source. The Light. The Life. The Word. Period. The "how such complex Creation first came about based on a few sentences in Scripture" is really not what we should fight about with atheists, scientists, creationists. (Sorry for the side note, but the fight is such a huge stumbling block that causes many decent human beings to not embrace God fully). God is the source of Life, and anything not Life-giving, or bringing on death, is not from God. He is only Life.
God is Love. We see Him consistently show Love in the Old Testament even after His people show hate. He might allow consequences (which to our western culture might appear very harsh). His Love might appear different from O.T. to N.T. But another crumb I have gathered is how God's Love (parental Love) is revealed based on the maturity of the relationship with His people (just like a parent must be strict with a toddler touching an outlet, once they become a teen they can freely plug in their devices with no reprimand). God's Love doesn't change, only the growth of the relationship. He also chooses imperfect people to tell His story. Mere men who try to explain God in human terms that might just fall short (see #3 Below). EVEN SO, He is continuously pursuing relationship with Humanity motivated by Himself, by His Love; and Christ ushers in the fulfillment of God's Love for us, in that He became the perfect God Man to restore our humanity to its intended purpose--to LOVE, to be one with God.
Love is not vengeful or hateful but good. Paul rebukes vengefulness and hatred in his famous chapter on Love (see 1 Cor 13). To further my mention above, I have learned that the original language and culture are not the only important considerations when understanding God in the Old Testament. The actual mindset and motivations of the Bible "stars" and writers of the Bible stories are absolutely necessarily (and typically understood by reading the Church Fathers who were raised in similar cultures with aligned mindsets). For example, God calling Himself "Jealous" in the Ten Commandments doesn't necessarily mean He is "jealous" in our sense of the word. God is not in wont or in lack of anything. He is purely perfect. Without need. No, the word "jealous" is to put into our human terminology how MUCH God loves us. How GREAT His Love is, and how turning away from that Love is a mistake. If we take the Scripture so literally, we will create a God that acts on whims and human desires, and Whom allows His creation to offend Him. Of course we can't know God to His absolute fullness, but, if we think God is needing something from us, we end up bringing Him under our authority in a way. I refuse to believe in a God I can manipulate. I am pretty certain that skeptics have a hard time with this God of wishes and commands and moody human similarities.
The Word is God. Christ is the Word of God (Genesis 1, John 1), and The Word is the Wisdom of God the Deity Who Creates and Loves and Lives forever. The Word is God. And the Wisdom is personified in Jesus.
Our posture toward Love is up to us. While He will always pursue His creation, God will not force us into Love (that's not love, anyway...see #3 above). His Will is His, and He's given us wills of our own. To receive God is based on OUR posture to receive (or reject) His Love.
Digesting: If a person embraces God's Love, Who is Light, which is often described as Fire in Scripture, then it warms and shines bright, refining the redeemed to be more like God, like Love (remember how Moses encountered God and glowed, and remember the Transfiguration where the apostles basked in the light and wanted to stay?). But, if a person rejects God (Who is Love) in this journey, then God's Light will surly offend, burn, torture that person because THEY want nothing to do with it. The very nature of Love (God) is something THEY abhor and reject. Not because God will's it to be so, but because that person chose to reject God (Who is Love). They will suffer in anguish because the ever present Love will eternally torture them as something they want nothing to do with.
Choking: This is tough stuff. You might be thinking, geez, if a skeptic knew that God exists, then they surely wouldn't reject His Love? Honestly, my own husband is one of the kindest, loving men I've ever met. Trust me, I can't go to "he will be eternally offended by Love". That's where my crumb trail stops and I just can't reach the answer.
I keep gathering: Something I have learned about is the concept of spermatikos logos. St. Justin the Martyr (100-165 A.D.) explained the concept of the "seminal word". Of course, it's theology, a concept, an inspired suggestion, but I am intrigued by it and its outcome (and the posture it evokes).
The Word, the "Logos", is Christ as we see in the Gospel of St. John. When Christ became flesh, He became the perfect Image of the Father and walked among us, yet, He has always been God. The Word was present at the beginning of Creation. The Word spoke Creation into being. And every created thing matters because God says "it is good". Realizing that the Word from the beginning of time becomes Man to give us the example of perfect humanity (our intended state), with the sole purpose to redeem our fallen world becomes a powerful hint to the connection we have to our Creator.
The spermatikos logos is within each of us. We are all little words (logi) created in the Image of the Word. Since every human being is an image of the image of God, every human being is created GOOD by nature, having the capability of reflecting God's goodness. God is not absent from His creation. We all have the opportunity to unite with God all our lives, as we are created by Him for purpose and meaning fulfilled only in Logos. It is by our choices we can reflect evil, though. Something I find fascinating is that the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn't necessarily think a person who has never heard the name of Christ is someone we can be sure won't "go" to Heaven. None of us can know another's spiritual connection to the Word, regardless of what has been revealed to us externally. Personal choice to unite with Love on Earth is not dependent on What we know, but Who (we give a lot of credit to human intellect in this western culture). God wants ALL the World to be Saved. And He's going to give ALL the World opportunity to do so, dare I say, with or without us? The greatest crumb I can chew on is:
It's not up to me to declare someone's eternal fate.
Sure, what has been revealed to me through Scripture and the Church is a gift that I should want to share with the world. But not because I have some power in their salvation (only God has that), but because I want to share the revelation I've been privileged to know. Some may not have that revelation...like in the remote, "unChristianized" lands. My privilege to know more of God's story is a gift to be shared...with the "lost"? Even that label is not mine to assume. We are only responsible for our own connection to God. Whether we know His Name and His Bible or whether we sense His Spirit with little understanding.
In the end, it's up to us to embrace Love or deny it. The choice is fully ours.
To come close to answering the question that is no doubt battleground among skeptics and apologists, "How Can Love Send Someone to Hell?" is not a simple rationalization but actually the wrong question altogether. I really don't think God, in his infinite Love, will send someone to Hell at all. It's not His doing. It's not what He ever wants. Our eternal bliss or otherwise, is really up to our response to Love in this lifetime. God is Love. He burns bright and is received by the humble as a refining fire, sharing in His perfecting quality, offering chances to grow like Christ through eternity. But if we abhor such a thing now...then we will not want anything to do with God in eternity. Our posture toward Love is key. Heart change is for the living. Life now is precious, because we can begin to receive the works of Love, receive Love's power, for a chance to delight in Love fully at the end.
As far as I have gathered, it's not about HOW Love can send someone to hell, but HOW we respond to Love in the first place.
...and yet…so much left…unknown.
For me, realizing that I worship a God who truly is Love, always, Who truly does not one ONE SOUL to perish, and Who gives us all free will to unite with Him for the sake of Love, then I can rest assured that HE is Just, and His plan is perfect.
His reach is beyond my own.
Okay friends, I have shared the only crumbs gathered. I am sure the rest of the topic of Hell is vast and long and impossible to traverse until the very end. But, the crumbs help me as a wife to an atheist, a Christian growing deeper in my faith, a human connecting more authentically with a world so Loved by God.
I find hope in the ancient writings of God, of Love, of Eternity. And I continue to search for crumbs along the way. I hope these have satiated you just a little bit too.
Note: I have learned so much by reading theological books and listening to podcasts and sermons. A wonderful resource has been Ancient Faith Ministries if you are interested in diving deeper.
Thank you so much for reading such an extensive blog post. If you have a question you would like me to chew on, maybe even attempt to offer some crumbs, please feel free to contact me! I pray that you are continually curious, seeking God, and loving the skeptics in your life with hope and perseverance.