Friday, November 16, 2007

Just Love? Autonomy, finitude and the morality of Hell

A standard objection against the doctrine of hell is that it is an ill fitting idea for a God of love. Rather than maintaining a place of eternal punishment, a God of love would choose a diferent way to deal with rebels. The objection can be stated in this form:
“No parent would let their child suffer forever, so how can we believe that a God of love would allow people to suffer in hell forever?”
How should we respond?

It is important that we place this objection into the right category. It is a moral objection of a particularly emotive kind. It is not an primarily an exegetical objection, although we could say that what it is permissible for God to do, or not do, as Judge, is possibly being logically deduced from the statement that "God is love" (1 John 4:16). (Incidentally if that is the case then other statements in 1 John, including the predication that "God is light," and John's teaching about the propitiatory death of Jesus lead us to a clearer understanding of God's love in relation to his other attributes and his redemptive work in Christ). It more likely to be an objection that bypasses the exegetical defense of hell. It is, therefore, an objection that moves the location of authority from the text of Scripture and places it firmly upon our own shoulders.

Consider the logic of the argument. If we would not do this ("No parent would...") then surely a loving God would not do it either. The direction of travel here is from us to God. This is to turn the purpose of analogies on their head. It is true that we are made in God's image. It is true that God speaks to us using analogies. These analogies, however, do not place humanity and God on the same level and apply to God and man in exactly the same way. God is King, Lord, and Father. We did not select these analogies, he did. We do not find their meaning in our world and then project them on to God. Instead we see a finite resemblance of them in our world.

God is king, but he is not like human kings because he is the infinite, eternal, unchanging Creator. We are like him, he is not like us. Someone recently told me of a church in the US where as a result of a discussion about "God as king" it was agreed to drop this image because no-one found it relevant to their experience (no longer I guess being a part of the British Empire!). It is not, however, our experience of human kings that is determinative of the acceptibility of knowing God as king. This is to get it the wrong way around. God names himself as King and Lord and we are not free to change his name by deed poll into something else (like Queen or Mother) or to drop his name from our vocabulary.

Van Til had a very helpful way of explaining this. He would draw two circles on a board, a large one above a smaller one. The larger one standing for God and the smaller one for the world. This stood for the Creator-creature distinction. At no point in Christian theology do these circles merge. In non-Christian thought, and also in corrupted Christian thought they do merge. It is easy to see how this applies to our thinking about God's ways (which Scripture affirms are themselves incomprehensible to us, Rom 11:36).

The argument that says that because we would not think of eternal punishment as an appropriate moral response to sin therefore a loving God would not either has merged the two circles and treated God as if he was on our level of thinking. In effect he is being pulled down out of heaven and made to behave in accordance with our finite and fallen standards. The thought that God's love, goodness, holiness and justice is infinitely greater than our creaturely (and therefore derivative) goodness, justice and love is not even on the table as an option. The creation was declared by God as "good," nevertheless it was still a creaturely goodness. Ought we not say that the goodness of a self-existent, self-sufficient, infinite, eternal God is qualitatively not just quantitatively different to that found in his creatures?

And if that were not enough remember the way that Scripture cautions us to remember just whose ways we are seeking to scrutinize (Rom. 9:19-21). We are not God. We are not loving, good, holy, and righteous in exactly the same way as God is.

We are faced with the choice of either submitting to his Word or continuing along the path trodden by Adam and Eve where we will not let God determine good and evil but will choose ourselves as the acceptable reference point for moral decisions and their criteria.