In the world of Internet apologetics and mainstream Christian thought shared casually through daily activities in face-to-face conversation, I've noticed two theological ideas gaining momentum in the modern church: universalism and annihilationism. While the latter can be the result of believing that God is super just-galore in the terms of our human understanding of justice (read as: muahaha vengeance), both views seem to be picked up in my experience as a result of a refusal to acknowledge that a loving God would willingly allow human beings to suffer. This is an understandable discomfort with the question of hell, and I certainly don't fault anyone for being hesitant to believe in an eternal place of fiery damnation imposed by a loving God on those who do not love Him back. Largely because I don't believe in that kind of hell either, and also because I think it's fair to say God is pleased that His children expect more of Him than a false brand of love which is only feelings-deep and lasts only until it's unrequited.
When I say "universalism" here, I mean to refer to a theological approach to salvation within the world of Christian thought, and not the philosophical concept of universalism (which is basically irrelevant to this post). In the Christian world, universalism refers to the doctrine that ultimately all people will be saved, regardless of anything on their part, entirely because God wills to save all. It is an incredibly attractive concept and seems, at face value, to work quite well with the Gospel of grace. This idea is entertained and expounded on by people like Rob Bell, especially in his book "Love Wins." People who subscribe to this doctrine typically do as a result of not believing that a loving God would allow anyone to spend an eternity in hell even if they wanted to (because who, they wonder, would really want to?), and that He opts instead to bring all human beings into heaven at some point or another.
Annihilationism is a bit more tricky. Where universalists can't comprehend why anyone would sincerely want to be apart from God for all eternity, annihilationists at least admit that it is possible for a soul to come to the end of their life either not desiring heaven or not deserving it as a result of rejecting God's grace. I've noticed two thought processes in this camp: the first being that God would never allow someone to suffer for all eternity, so those souls who do not wish to spend eternity with Him are literally annihilated (how 'bout that?) upon their death, and simply cease to exist; the second being that God in His justice actually kills the wicked by annihilating them. (I admit the first of the two seems to be the more popular approach these days, and it is the one I plan to address, but I didn't want this entire piece to go without at least mentioning that second approach.) Regardless, in annihilationism, there is no eternal suffering because there is no eternity for the damned. They die an earthly death followed by a spiritual end. They completely cease to exist.
The ideas are appealing, aren't they? After all, who wouldn't want to believe in a God so loving that He brings all people to eternal life regardless of their background or their choices? Who wouldn't want to believe in a God who ends a person's suffering rather than placing them in eternal suffering for the rest of forever? Who in their right mind would reject the existence of such a God?
Why? Well, it's really quite simple for me. Let's start with universalism. Where others can't wrap their brains around a God allowing someone to suffer for all eternity, I can't wrap my brain around a God who would impose Himself on someone who sincerely didn't want to be around Him. And I do, very fervently, believe that this type of person exists, mainly because I used to be one of those people. After I came to believe in Jesus and experienced about a year of Christian bliss, I found myself in a very dark place. I had given God permission to heal my wounds and discovered that the first step in healing a spiritual wound is removing the bandage and performing serious surgery. Like a volcano, all my devastation and heartbreak caused by my sins and the circumstances of my life which led to them came oozing up from the quiet depths of my heart. God stopped working as soon as I stopped wanting Him to, but the wounds were still open, and what had come out from them was still there. It was like endless soul vomit. It was disgusting. It was horrific. It was too much.
For a number of months, I wanted nothing to do with God. I hated Him. I admit that. He disgusted me, and on top of that, I was terrified of Him. I couldn't understand why He would have allowed any of this to happen to me, and I couldn't understand why He had allowed all this to bottle up inside of me. Knowing now that those things aren't His fault or His doing did nothing for me back then, and I wanted nothing more than to be apart from Him for all eternity. I longed for hell. I yearned for hell. And I was, effectively, living hell on earth. I was miserable. I was wrecked. I was isolated in the pits of my trauma.
And I preferred the darkness of my heart to the light of God's face.
I once heard Fr. Robert Barron compare hell to a person confined to a dark room having the curtains peeled back before their eyes, the glowing sunlight pouring in before them, onto their face, flooding over into every corner of the room. Sunlight is good, but to such a person, it is painful. A more concrete example of this is the fact that Jews had to avoid the Arc of the Covenant lest they die. God's very presence in the face of their sinful, unredeemed humanity was simply too much for their fragile existence to bear. They died. They suffered. So it was with me, and so it is with anyone who dies preferring to remain apart from God for all eternity.
Because God is good, and because God loves and only ever loves, He does not impose Himself or His presence on those who do not desire it, not because He wants to harm them, but precisely because He doesn't, and He knows His presence to them is more painful than the state of agony which they prefer.
C.S. Lewis, who brilliantly stated that God can't grant us happiness apart from Himself because it simply does not exist, also stated that "The door to hell is locked from the inside." The souls in hell aren't there because God wants them to be. They're there because they want to be, and God loves them enough to respect that.
Where universalism contradicts the concept of a truly loving God, annihilationism not only contradicts the concept of a truly loving God, it contradicts Who God Is. God is the source of life, the author of life, and as Jesus proclaimed, Life itself. Not only that, but He created human beings in His own image, breathed His own life into them, and calls us His children. My opposition to annihilationism is quite simple: a loving Father doesn't kill His children, whether they'll suffer or not. It springs from the same place in my Catholic heart that says euthanasia is wrong and abortion is wrong: killing people so they won't suffer contradicts human dignity. Life isn't valuable because it has the potential of being good someday. Human life is valuable because it is human. Humanity is valuable because God created humanity as a model of Himself. God is good, and He created us because our existence is good. God does not un-create, especially not something as good as a human being created in His own image and likeness. Humans, as the image of God, possess an irrevocable dignity, and the same God who loves us too much to force Himself on us also loves us too much to trespass our dignity; we are free to choose, and God will never kill us for our choice.
It would do us well to keep in mind that hell isn't a place of deliberate torture and punishment. Hell is a place of suffering because it has no other choice. When human beings separate themselves from God, they suffer, because human beings were made to live in relationship with God so that God could share His joy, love, and peace with them. To separate ourselves from His joy, love, and peace means separation from joy, love, and peace.
I have no doubt that in God's infinite mercy He saves as many souls as will let Him, and I have little doubt that there will be many more souls in heaven than there are in hell. But rest assured, dear reader, that the souls in hell are not there because God desires to punish them. They are there because they sincerely prefer it. He thirsts for us and for our love, and He has no greater desire than to be united with each one of us in an intimate, loving relationship. Universalists, annihilationists, and I all agree: God does not send people to hell. I simply believe He allows them to take themselves there.