BY: KRISTI HUYNH
The scene: A bridge between heaven and hell. Tim, who has spent about three thousand years in heaven, has come to pay a visit to his brother Nathan, who has been burning in hell for an equivalent amount of time.
TIM: Hey Nathan! Bro, how have you been? Anything new with you these days?
NATHAN: Oh man, it’s so good to see you, Tim! Hmm…nothing out of the ordinary, really– it’s been awfully toasty down here. But every six hundred years, we are allowed to turn over on the fiery coals to distribute the burns evenly. It helps because all the boils aren’t all centered on my back.
TIM: I’m glad to hear that, Nathan. So how have Grandpa and Sis been?
NATHAN: Oh, you know. Same old same old. After a while, Grandpa’s excruciating wails kind of drown out the pain of my own burning momentarily. And Sis has been the same as well; can’t you see her roasting and shrieking from your mansion up in heaven?
TIM: Is that so? No, I haven’t. Truth be told, it’s really hard to see through all those fluffy clouds and rainbows up in heaven. Especially because my balcony is pretty high up as well. Well, I have to go now. A group of us are going to go swimming with dolphins and sing praise songs. Take care Nathan!
“If God is so good, why would He burn you in hell forever?” many agnostic and atheist friends have inquired of me. It’s a valid question, indeed even one that should be asked. How can you praise God for His infinite loving character and in the same breath say that people will be damned for all eternity if they do not believe in Him? My response to this question is simply to explain that there is no eternal hell. In fact, it’s not even mentioned in the Bible. This may be hard to swallow because countless media outlets – and certainly many religious groups – have painted hell as this fire and brimstone ordeal in which sinners burn and burn, and well…burn some more. Such wrathful rhetoric depicts God as a resentful tyrant sitting on the edge of His throne somewhere up in the sky, just anxiously waiting for contemptible humans to mess up so He can punish them in hell. Thus, it’s no surprise why many people profess to resent God – they’ve been given a warped image of God’s character. Truth be told, I wouldn’t even want to believe in someone like that.
I am in no way denying that the Bible speaks of a hell, for without a hell, there will be no eradication of sin and essentially no justice. However, I am contending that hell is not the eternal ordeal that many have painted it to be. The idea of eternal torment is not only illogical and heinous, but it is also contradictory to the Bible and God’s loving character. The hellfire will be extinguished.
Though the above scenario has a comical (some may even argue, irreverent) take on hell, its central criticisms of eternal hell remain true. How can you be truly happy in heaven when you are aware that loved ones are frying in hell below? (We’ll address the case of a finite hell later). Hell is indeed a separation from God in the physical and spiritual sense. And yes, it is ultimately the person’s choice if they want to be separated from God or not. But if “God is love” as so many Christian billboards profess, could a loving God allow suffering – even sinners’ suffering – to exist for eternity? Even if one were to completely disregard the physical suffering of hell, wouldn’t spiritual separation be suffering as well? Contrary to the popular opinion, Ezekiel 33:11 says that God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Author Clifford Goldstein writes, “What does eternal torment say about God’s character? What kind of justice does it represent? After a few hundred billion eons burning in hell, even Hitler would have paid for his own sins.”
Revelation 21:4 claims that when Jesus returns, He will “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” God cannot claim to put a definite end to the problem of sin and suffering by merely quarantining sinners into a fiery corner of the universe. The notion of eternal hell also invalidates the claim that Jesus paid the wages of sin. If the penalty of sin was eternal torment, Jesus would have to be currently suffering eternal torment, but He suffered death. If eternal hell is true, then Jesus didn’t completely pay the wages of sin.
Taken out of context, the Bible, (like many texts) can have countless distorted interpretations. On the surface level, Matthew 25:41 seems to suggest that there is eternal hellfire. However the same language is used in Jude 7 when describing Sodom and Gomorrah burning in “eternal fire.” As far we know, Sodom and Gomorrah is not burning today. The fire of Sodom and Gomorrah was eternal in the sense that its effects – not the burning – were everlasting; the fire put a complete end to everything. 2 Peter 2:6 explains that the final product of the eternal fire in Sodom and Gomorrah were “ashes.”
God has a dilemma (yes, even God has problems): That which He loves most (i.e. us) is in love with that which He hates most (i.e. sin). He abhors sin because He knows how much it hurts people. God longs for everyone to be in heaven with Him – He did everything He possibly could to offer us this option– but what is even more important to God is our freedom of choice. He grants us this freedom despite knowing full well that we could reject Him and choose sin instead. When Jesus returns to deliver justice and welcomes home those who choose Him, He will respect everyone’s decisions – even if we choose sin over Him. The Bible says that God is a “consuming fire.”  Isaiah 33:14-15 states that those who walk righteously will be able to “dwell with the consuming fire” and “with everlasting burning.” Only those who have no sin in them will be able to dwell with the Consuming Fire. I guess that means the vehement preachers have got it half right when they preach that God will burn people forever. In a strange way, He wants people to burn forever – with Him. But there is a clear distinction between dwelling in and with fire and being consumed by fire. There are certain things, such as sin, that cannot exist in God’s holy presence without being consumed. If we choose to cling to sin instead of being separated from it, God cannot force us to do otherwise. When God makes manifest His glory, sinners will not be able to coexist in the presence of His holiness.
How can you still be happy in heaven if your loved ones are in hell, even if it is for a finite amount of time? No doubt, it will be very painful to be separated from our loved ones (imagine that level of pain, multiply it by a million, and magnify it to the power of a billion and you’ve only begun to scratch a nanometer off the surface of the level of pain God must feel in losing that person). But we must come to the understanding that we cannot impose our will on other people; they must be able to decide their destinies for themselves. Yes, the pain will still be there but reconciliation will also come as God reveals how He has done everything in His power to offer them a life in heaven without imposing on their freedom of choice. There is a difference between a God who puts a complete end to suffering (i.e. a finite hell) and a God who permits suffering to persist (i.e. an eternal hell).
On the topic of eternal hell, Richard Dawkins has stated, “Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell?” Dawkins highlights a significant fault that all too many Christians commit: scaring people into believing in God through the threat of eternal torment. It’s time that Christians stop spewing fire and brimstone rhetoric and realize that God does not want coerced love, because coerced love is not even love at all.
 “Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
 Jude 7:7: 7 “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”
 Hebrews 12:29 : “for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”