“Ah,” you may say, “fighting evil and injustice in the world is one thing, but sending people to hell is another. The Bible speaks of eternal punishment. How does that fit in with the love of God? I cannot reconcile even the idea of hell with a loving God.” How do we address this understandable recoiling?
Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says “Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!” This caricature misunderstands the very nature of evil. The Biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God, which is the source of all joy and indeed of all love, wisdom, or good things of any sort. Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential. If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell— the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy.
A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?”
Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.
In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. We see this process “writ small” in addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First, there is disintegration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction. Second, there is the isolation, as increasingly you blame others and circumstances in order to justify your behavior. “No one understands! Everyone is against me!” is muttered in greater and greater self-pity and self-absorption. When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing— though a good thing— becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy. Personal disintegration happens on a broader scale. In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion, and self-absorption. When you lose all humility you are out of touch with reality. No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.
In his fantasy The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. There they are urged to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell— but they refuse. Lewis’s descriptions of these people are striking because we recognize in them the self-delusion and self-absorption that are “writ small” in our own addictions.
"Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud."
The people in hell are miserable, but Lewis shows us why. We see raging like unchecked flames their pride, their paranoia, their self-pity, their certainty that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is an idiot! All their humility is gone, and thus so is their sanity. They are utterly, finally locked in a prison of their own self-centeredness, and their pride progressively expands into a bigger and bigger mushroom cloud.
They continue to go to pieces forever, blaming everyone but themselves. Hell is that, writ large. That is why it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying “I’m sorry! Let me out!” The people on the bus from hell in Lewis’s parable would rather have their “freedom,” as they define it, than salvation. Their delusion is that, if they glorified God, they would somehow lose power and freedom, but in a supreme and tragic irony, their choice has ruined their own potential for greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, “the greatest monument to human freedom.” As Romans 1: 24 says, God “gave them up to… their desires.” All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that? Lewis writes:
"There are only two kinds of people— those who say “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “ Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it."
Thoughts from The Reason for God by Timothy Keller (pp. 74-77).