However, I do live by the principle that “what I *am* convinced of is enough for me to believe in and affirm Jesus as the ‘truth, the life, and the way,’ and I live accordingly even though I have outstanding questions and doubts.”
1. Why eternal damnation? Doesn’t that seem like overkill?
The best model I can find for answering this question is in comparing the human perspective to the divine one.
The Human Perspective
To me, it seems that if God cared for us, he wouldn’t let even one person die and go to hell – I mean, an eternity of punishment for a short lifetime (one that is biblically described as having the duration of a “wave tossed in the ocean, a vapor in the wind” – as is put in the excellent song I Am Yours by Casting Crowns) seems like overkill – it seems unjust.
Not only that, no matter how evil my children were, I would still love them, and if I had it in my power, I would not set up such eternal consequences for them.
The Divine Perspective
What is clear from scripture is that God is concerned about everyone. It says that God “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” But if he wants all to be saved, why aren’t they?
The standard Christian answer is, he has given us free will, which includes the possibility of straying from God. If God created us without this ability, they reason, then we would be robots with no free will. But God wants us to choose to love Him. However, I don’t fully buy this idea, for this reason. Why then is there no sin in heaven? Are we automatons there? And if not, then why couldn’t that same arrangement been made here? No sin, no automatons. You can’t have it both ways.
Again, the real question is, does this punishment fit the crime? In our minds, no. But the crime of rejecting God may be much more serious than we think, in God’s eyes. He is holy and pure, and we have become unholy and impure through Adam’s sin, and through our own. If we reject God’s offer, perhaps the punishment is just. But I’m not entirely convinced.
In fact, this question drove me away from Xianity for many years. I have never found a satisfying answer for it, but yet, have returned to Xianity because it still makes more sense than any other world view, and because I am convinced, both intelletually and experientially, that Jesus is who Xians claim him to be – a personal, risen, loving presence who transforms hearts with faith.
2. If God loves us, why did He even create the possibility of eternal hell?
Of course, the bible teaches that hell was not created for humans, but for “the devil and his angels.” Of course, I am not sure, but the word angels here could be translated as “messengers,” which might also include humans, but a common Christian perspective is that man was never meant for hell, nor hell for man.
But this brings up many other questions. Since angels are sentient beings created by God, does God not care about them? Does it prove that God is love because he created eternal torment for sentient beings, but not *us*?
Most of the teachings on the necessity of hell focus on the dual nature of God – on one hand, LOVE, and on the other, HOLINESS and JUSTICE. I am convinced that, in a world with evil, you can not say you love without also enforcing justice. In fact, if you always exercise mercy to the wicked, not only will they continue to run over you and do more wickedness, but you subvert justice. Can you love the weak and helpless if you have the power to stop the injustices against them, but do nothing in the name of mercy?
God’s justice is the same – based on love for those who have been sinned against. And based on holiness – he can not leave the scales of justice unbalanced. So hell is not a sign of a lack of love, but a necessity of love and truth working together. Hard to swallow, but you come up with a better model, considering that you do have evil, and must deal with it fairly.
3. If God can see the future, why did he even bother to create a reality with such dire consequences?
Hell if I know (pun intended). *I* would have created earth with no possibility of evil or loss. But that’s not what we’ve got. So we have to make sense out of what is, not what we think ought to be.
4. If God knows who will choose Him and who will not, why does he even let such people be born?
Actually, the whole idea of choosing God brings in the question of predestination v. free will. Reformed (Calvinistic) doctrine emphasizes man’s need for God, teaching (correctly, I think) that God hardens the hearts of those who are not going to choose Him, – we can’t even choose God unless he reaches out to us first. So that no one can brag about their ability, God says “unless I reach out to you first, you can’t choose Me.” However, in order to preserve our culpability, we do have the free will to respond. But hence lies the mystery of the predestination/free will controversy.
So why does he blame us if we don’t choose Him, since it depends on Him as the first, and perhaps the ongoing cause? This very question arises in scripture, and much to the chagrin of the educated, Paul the apostle replies thus (Romans 9):
All we’re saying is that God has the first word, initiating the action in which we play our part for good or ill.
19Are you going to object, “So how can God blame us for anything since he’s in charge of everything? If the big decisions are already made, what say do we have in it?”
20Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, “Why did you shape me like this?” 21Isn’t it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans? 22If God needs one style of pottery especially designed to show his angry displeasure 23and another style carefully crafted to show his glorious goodness, isn’t that all right?
The answer is, God does what He wants. He made us, He can throw us away. Further, the fact that He has mercy on anyone is His prerogative. He could let us all go to hell and be justified in doing so.
5. What does God know, and when does He know it?
Actually, this is the title of a new book by Millard Erickson, someone I consider to be one of the top evangelical theologian of our time. His classic Christian Theology is a readable, must-have one-volume reference book on all the basics of evangelical theology. His new book is just one in a slew of new books exploring this new theology, called “open theism.” I am not entirely sure what it is about, but my limited understanding is that while God “knows” the ultimate outcomes, he does not control the particulars. And, in some sense, He might now even “know” because He has let us determine our future. He only knows in the light of existing outside of time. I know that doesn’t make sense, I’m reaching beyond my grasp here.
But I guess what I am trying to say is that in a sense, God knows, but in another, it is not predetermined entirely – that’s why prayer can make a difference – because events, perhaps even outcomes, are possible but not predetermined. And for this reason, God is not cruelly allowing the “damned” to come into existence, because that is not entirely set in stone.
However, if even one could be damned, why take the chance? I have to admit, this “pastor” can’t really adequately answer that question. But as I said, I don’t reject faith because of some of the hard questions. Sure, I don’t want to abandon intellect and reason. But this same intellect and reason has allowed me to draw other conclusions that force me to accept Christ as the truth. And this same intellect acknowledges the limits of reason. I can live with that.