He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fair Questions: Does the existence of Hell contradict God's unconditional love?

Related: Why is it so hard for us to believe that a loving God exists?

Though I used to be more progressive in my positions on matters of Christian doctrine, I was never on board with all the progressive Christian ideas.  While I might have thought that it was inevitable that women priests would be common at some point in the Catholic Church, I never thought same-sex marriage would be.

While I might have thought that Traditionalists were wrong about lots of things, including about how many people were going to Hell, I never went farther than dabbling with the idea of universal salvation.  Though I had very abstract and watered-down philosophical ideas about what Hell meant, I still thought that some people were going to Hell (or at least something like it).

Why?  The same exposure to philosophy that moved me in the direction of modern progressive ideas also exposed me to some very old ones: the ideas of Greek philosophy.  The ancient Greeks had the understanding that love and relationships are strongly associated with each other.  Like my contemporaries, they may have found it difficult to imagine love without a relationship of physical proximity or direct communication.

They had several words that we translate into English as love.  Philia (or philos) indicated the expression of love between friends and family members that was virtuous (according to Aristotle).  Eros indicated the expression of love as a deep and passionate longing for a person (or possibly an abstraction of them), a love greater than that of philia, often associated with dating or marriage.  These are just a couple of examples, and you’ll note that both of these understandings are bound up with notions of relationship.

In the writings of early Christianity, another Greek word for love was used: agápē.  As a result, this word became associated with the love that God has for us, an unconditional and volitional act of giving of one’s self that respects the free will of the beloved.  But many Christians struggle with the idea that a God who loves us in this unconditional and self-sacrificing way could ever allow us to go to hell, which is currently understood by the largest Christian communion (the Catholic Church) as total separation from God and those in communion with God.

Universalists (which for brevity I will use as a descriptor for those who believe in universal salvation) make various arguments as to why the Christian understanding of God suggests that He would do as Origen proposed and restore all souls to their life in Him.  Some of those arguments are very interesting, and some are stronger than many who oppose them will admit.  But most seem to rest on the assumption that to love someone means having a close relationship with them.  I don't think that assumption is correct.

I contend that the existence of hell and the residence of persons in that state do not in any way violate the truth of God’s unconditional love for us for a very simple reason.  Love is unconditional and cannot be lost, but relationships are always conditional and can be lost.  For example, if my brother attacks me and steals from me, I will still love him, but our relationship would be violated and it would take time and effort to come to reconciliation and renew that relationship.  I still love my ex-girlfriend, but that does not mean the relationship we previously had must continue to exist after she chose to end it.

These human relationships have the same quality that relationships with the divine have; they can be ended when one party violates the conditions of that particular type of relationship.  If a condition of our relationship with God is that we talk to Him every day, then failing to talk to Him would cause harm to that relationship.  Just as in human relationships, if we frequently violate the conditions of our relationship with a divine person, then it is understandable that the person would realize that we did not wish to maintain that relationship, that we had chosen to end it.

It is not that God does not love us or even necessarily that we do not love Him, but that we choose not to be in relationship with Him.  And I certainly cannot blame God for respecting a person’s choice to separate themselves from Him by allowing them to exist in Hell, a state of total separation from He who is the source of all love and goodness, any more than I could blame a person for respecting their significant other’s decision to end a romantic relationship.

Love does not force itself onto others, it simply gives them every opportunity to come into its welcoming arms.

Related: Why do religions say there are terrible consequences for believing the wrong things?

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762

Note:  Large portions of this post were originally posted on a now-defunct Xanga blog, then moved to a still-existing WordPress blog. where I still write semi-regularly on politics and current events.

No comments:

Post a Comment