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by Fr Dwight Longenecker

If there is such a place as hell, and we are assured by the gospel and by common sense that there is, who will go there and why?

Does God send people to suffer for all eternity in hell? Why would he do that if he is a God of everlasting mercy and love? Sending people to be tortured forever doesn’t really fit with an all loving God does it?

If there is a hell and if people go there is it really forever? If so why? Can’t people change their minds?

First we can answer the question of whether or not hell is eternal. It has to be eternal because God made human beings in his image and he is eternal. All of us have eternity locked within us. All of us will live forever. All that remains therefore is to decide where that will be.

This runs counter to those who suggest that evil people simply cease to exist. They die and are annihilated. They are lost and gone forever. Not so. Because we are eternal we live forever.

So what about hell itself? How can a loving God send anyone to hell forever?

I know some people will disagree with me, but I don’t think God so much sends people to hell as much as they choose to go there.

I think God wants everyone to go to heaven. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) and “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10) and “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” (Jn. 3:17)

If this is true, why doesn’t he make sure everyone does go to heaven?

Because we choose not to and he will not over rule our will. He will not force us into heaven.

Furthermore, if he did force us into heaven it would not be heaven because heaven is the place where our greatest desires are fulfilled and our greatest choices come true. Heaven is not just the reward for being God’s good little children. Heaven is the natural and inevitable result of choices we have made all along the journey. It is not an arbitrary reward, it is the destination of our long journey home. It is therefore the result of many choices.

Think of it like this: heaven is the result of a lifetime of struggle, faith and gifted grace active in our lives. It’s like an athlete winning a gold medal or a musician stepping onto a stage to play Rachmaninov’s piano concerto: these things are not arbitrary rewards, but the final and natural result of a lifetime of sacrifice and discipline, gift and graft.

Hell, on the other hand, is also the result of a long journey and a sequence of choices

Do we not all know some people who hate God, hate Jesus and his blessed Mother, hate all that is beautiful, good and true? Do we not know people who are sunk in the sickness of sin so much that they have come to literally loathes everything that is holy, good and true?

I have met such people. I think there are actually many, many people like this.

Why do we imagine therefore, that they would be happy in heaven? They would not be. They would hate heaven because heaven is the place where there is nothing but goodness, truth and beauty. If they have hated and loathed these things all their life why do we imagine that they would love them once they see them in all their purity and power in the next life?

I believe there are many people who will reach the gates of heaven, be invited through the doors of repentance and howl with rage, fear and hatred. They will spit on the invitation and run as far and as fast as they can in the other direction. The sober fact is they will prefer hell to heaven. Heaven, for them, would actually be a greater torment than hell. Their pride will be so great and their loathing of the holy so great that the demons waiting below will seem to be their brethren and even in their torment they will scream, “Hell is Fabulous!”

Finally, there is this interesting speculation (I think from C.S.Lewis) that perhaps, in the end, everyone goes to the same place.

Perhaps all will enter the presence of God and all that is real, good, beautiful, and true.

Those who are saved will experience that light as everlasting glory of heaven.

Those who are damned will experience that same light as the searing torment of hell.