So far we've discussed that our deepest longing is for God and that heaven is simply God's presence, which perfectly fulfills that desire. Today we're going to look at the opposite of that; the rejection of the presence of God.
Since heaven is "wherever God is" then the only way to define hell is where God is not. In the Bible we often see heaven referred to as a concrete place—a wedding feast or city, for example—while hell is simply "everything else". Most often hell is referred to as being the "outer darkness" which is an incredibly useful description.
Darkness is a non-created thing. When we read the first creation story in Geneses we see that God never creates darkness. In the same way, we cannot produce it either (we have light bulbs but not dark bulbs). Darkness is merely an absence of light. In the same way, hell is not a created place. God didn't "make" hell as he made everything else. Instead, hell is simply a side-effect of the absence of God's presence (the light of the world).
The analogy of darkness lends many things to hell. Darkness hides the truth by obscuring our vision; so does hell. Darkness is confusing and chaotic; so is hell. Darkness inspires fear and despair by cutting us off from the world around us; so does hell. Darkness oppresses us and pushes us in onto ourselves. By removing our connection from others, darkness makes us inherently selfish. So does hell. The analogy runs very deep.
Because hell is a complete absence of the presence of God and because God is the source of all good things hell must be utterly and completely empty apart from those souls who choose not to enter heaven. The only things to be found there are individual souls—complete with natural longings only God can satisfy—cut off from one another, isolated, and alone. The primary punishment of hell isn't fire or pitchforks but the overwhelming hunger that can never be even remotely satisfied. At least on earth we can satisfy our hunger for God with other things (one definition of sin) but in hell no such option exists for sin requires the misuse of God's creation; which won't be available.
Not even the slightest satisfaction will exist to satisfy our most ravenous desire. We were created to find happiness and hell is an eternal state of utter unhappiness; the precise opposite of what we are created for. What could be worse?
Many creative suggestions have been offered to explain how a "good and merciful" God can allow such a horrible state of existence. There are three main objections:
• Hell doesn't really exist: God is too loving to allow it
• Hell may exist by is empty: God would never send anyone there
• Hell may be populated by it cannot be eternal: eventually souls there would find heaven
All of these theories are well intentioned but are incompatible with our belief in free will. If, for example, hell doesn't exist then I have only one choice; to accept God. How can this be free will? If I am free to choose God then I must be free to reject him and the only way to do that is to choose hell.
An unpopulated hell may be true—maybe everyone chooses wisely, I don't know—but it is not unpopulated because God simply won't send anyone there because this would again deny free will.
Same with hell not being eternal. The choice then becomes "come to heaven the easy way" or "come to heaven the hard way". That's not a choice.
All of these objections to hell stem from a misunderstanding of how souls end up there. It's often thought that God "sends" people there and that it is a punishment for our sins. Nonsense. The Bible is very clear that it is a choice made by us each and every day of our lives on earth. Imagine this analogy:
You have a beautiful home. It is immaculate and perfectly clean. Let's say I knock on your door and ask to come in but, unfortunately, I've been walking through mud and muck on my way to your home and my shoes are filthy. What now? Do you let me in?
Many would say the "merciful" thing to do would be to let me in anyway. After all, I did the best I could but just couldn't stay on the sidewalk; I kept falling off into the mud. The problem is if you use this kind of "mercy" and simply let me in then I'll bring my filth into your clean home. I'll soil everything I touch.
If this is an analogy for heaven and if God's "mercy" is to allow us in with our sin then sin must be in heaven. How can sin be in heaven? Who can conceive of a heaven where we need police and laws? It's ridiculous; this isn't "mercy" or "forgiveness" it's simply "overlooking". God forgives; but doesn't overlook.
Back to the analogy. Instead of letting me in, let's say you give me a choice. I may either keep my boots and stay outside your home or I may throw away my boots and enter your home. It's my choice; you will accept whatever I decide.
Now we see how the choice is ours. Forgiveness of sin requires repentance of sin. Repentance means to turn away from and leave behind. If we will only let them go and seek forgiveness we will have it but it requires first letting go of our sins.
This seems an obvious choice. If the choice between heaven and hell is really mine; how could I be stupid enough to choose hell? This is why so many people think God condemns; no one would be dumb enough to freely choose hell. Sadly, that's not true.
Choosing heaven has two, big hurdles. First, it requires subduing pride. We must admit we were wrong and that our sins are really sins. We must admit that we have tried to fill our lives with something other than God and that we were mistaken to do so. The second hurdle is that dropping our sins requires faith. Our dins are familiar; we know they don't work well but they are all we really know. Letting them go and accepting God's presence requires us to trust that what he offers is better; this faith is not easy to muster.
While the choice of hell is always a supremely bad one; we can see why some would make it.
Tomorrow we'll finish this talk overview by discussing where the doctrine of purgatory fits into all of this.