“If you don’t love me, I’ll make sure you burn forever.” So reads a skeptical meme lurking on social media. Depicting a man thus threatening a woman, the meme goes on to ask, “If it’s creepy when he says it, why is it beautiful when God says it?”
A sucker for these kinds of theological challenges, I waded into the atheistic fray, suggesting that a better analogy would be keeping your loved one from running headlong into traffic. Hell is not a threat meant to coerce behavior anymore than a father’s caution against playing in the street is. Hell is a consequence, not a punishment. Christians love God, not because he’ll punish us otherwise, but because he saved us from that consequence even as we lived in opposition to him. We would grab our children out of a busy street, even as they fought us, and would do so in love.
A thoughtful counter:
But, He created good, evil, the temptation not to do good, as well as the consequences. So, your metaphor is only accurate if your hypothetical father, who is stopping his child from running into traffic, did so only after first building the road, hiring a bunch of people to drive back and forth, and then placed a shiny new toy fire truck on the opposite side.
Recognizing that analogies prove inherently imperfect, let’s drop them. After all, there is no analog for God aside from God.
The unspoken premise presented by the skeptic is that God could have done things differently. He could have created good without the potential for evil. Or he could simply forgive evil without the consequence of Hell.
Such notions miss God’s essential nature. Omnipotence includes all actual power, not the power to do wholly arbitrary things. Even God has boundaries. He remains constrained by his holy nature. That nature cannot abide sin. Hell exists because it must.
Regarding God as a cosmic tyrant overreacting to petty slights also misses the value of redemption. The Bible teaches that mankind has unique access among creation to the benefits of grace. “Even angels long to look into these things,” the apostle Peter tells us, because they will never experience redemption. There’s something uniquely valuable about the prodigal child, one who falls away and returns in a show of mercy. It’s a dynamic which fully displays God’s glory, his infinite value, and his ultimate worth.
Put another way, we should be grateful for Hell. We should thank God for its existence, both as an affirmation of his holiness and a context for his grace.