Would God willingly send one of his beloved creatures to eternal punishment? This question, although seemingly post-modern or contemporary, is actually a very old and timeless question that many people have struggled to answer. Origen of Alexandria, a prominent and influential theologian of his time, even thought that all those in hell, including Lucifer, would be redeemed and saved in the last judgment. This, however, was rejected by the Catholic Church (sorry Origen!), but it does offer us a good foundation and context to both the age of this question as well as its importance.
Many people have concluded that hell must be empty because God would not punish his beloved creatures. However, for both Origen’s conclusion as well as this “empty hell” concept, the existence of freedom is called into question. Hell, being defined as the complete absence of God, must exist to logically argue that humanity was given free will. If hell was not an option, we fall into a very universalist and relativistic state (which basically means that no matter what we do, we will go to heaven); essentially, if hell doesn’t exist, God forces us to be with him regardless of how we live our lives and even if we completely reject him.
Love is a choice, and God, being the source and embodiment of love, has imprinted this great gift of freedom onto humanity by creating us in His image of love.
To be free means to have the capacity to choose to love or reject God. However, I want to go back for a moment and explain my argument for hell’s purpose. If God is being itself, that from which all existence derives its being, how can hell, being the absence of God, hold existence at all? Logically, if this were the case, we would cease to exist if we are not granted eternal life through salvation. This runs into another issue: who we are as human beings.
It is understood that humanity, while created with a mortal body that is affected by time and therefore corrupts and dies, has also been created with an immortal soul. When we die, our body is no longer the vessel of this soul (of course, until the Resurrection at the end of times…but let’s save that for another discussion) and we then continue to be either with God in heaven or without God in hell. So, is eternal life just the destination of our inherently immortal soul rather than the outcome of whether we continue to live/exist or not? This would help us understand the problem we previously ran into saying that hell could not hold existence since we continue to exist regardless. However, doesn’t this just mean that we are immortal in and of ourselves? This cannot be, as we have previously understood all being to be sustained by God’s being. God created us to be immortal, and therefore that immortality is from and maintained by God. It is still a gift and rooted in God rather than it being our own immortal nature.
This is still a little messy so maybe this can help to clean it up:
Hell is not entirely the absence of God but rather, as God is a pure act (explained by Thomas Aquinas), hell is a place of complete passivity.
We are stripped of all our action (which in turn removes our freedom because we cannot be moved to action by God or by ourselves) and left in a state of pure potential. A place of what we could be, but now can never be. It is almost as if we exist in a state similar to the way it was before God, the unmoved mover (also explained by Thomas Aquinas), set creation into motion. According to Aquinas, time is only the measurement of motion, which would mean that, in hell, time does not exist since there is only potential. We then still hold our being in God but remain eternally locked in potential.
It is understood that God did not create hell – in fact, hell is not a thing or even a place at all. Through his gift of free will, God gave humanity the capacity to freely love; we can either choose Him or reject Him. Therefore, He allowed this state of being (where God is absent) to exist out of respect to that freedom. It is also said that Hell can be understood as the ultimate result of God’s judgment – and that Heaven is the ultimate result of God’s mercy. However, I think this is a slippery slope as it then assumes that God “punishes” people to hell which would then complicate the whole freedom thing we just talked about (the same problem that Origen had). Just as God does not send people to heaven, he does not send people to hell, as either case would be an exertion of his will onto ours in a way that negates our choice of Him. Rather, humanity “created” hell as a place to be separated from God.
I want to end with this: it is not our place to say who is fit for heaven and who is fit for hell. We are not God – and (if my argument is true) God doesn’t make that choice either. Should we instead live our lives in anxiety because we don’t know what we have to do to make the right choice? Absolutely not – in fact, we do know what we have to do.
Jesus became human and lived His life as the perfect example of choosing God. He also died on the cross so that even when we fail to live up to the life that Jesus had, we may find in Him the fountain of mercy.
If we remain close to Jesus, He will walk with us the entire way and pick us back up whenever we fall. Choosing God is simply choosing to follow Christ.
So, what does it take to stay out of hell? For us, it just takes choosing the One who chose us first. As any Christian knows, this can sometimes be a difficult feat–but not to worry. If we have faith; if we put our hope in Christ; if we strive to love as Christ loved; if we use the tools God had given us to actively choose him–God will take care of the rest.