I was recently asked the question, “Is the eternal existence of unbelievers in hell a refutation of the love of God?” The first thing I begin to think over is love itself. What is love in the first place? Is love emotion? Human emotion is a powerful thing that sways us up and down. We give it undue authority and allow it to improperly cast us to and fro in our lives. Love cannot be emotion; let me explain my thinking. Like many, perhaps most people, I grew up understanding love as primarily emotion; tethered such that the lack of “the mush” inside was, in fact, the lack of love.
This false concept of love has all kinds of horrible implications temporally. For example, as a child, sometimes discipline “feels” like hate (more on this later). Think also about marriage, which is one of the primary points of attack from the enemy. Typically, when a couple gets married the relationship is teeming with wondrous emotion. This roller coaster rides to a glorious height. But, because we view love as emotion, as soon as the roller coaster crests and begins a descent on the tracks of the circumstances of life, the affection plummets too; the mushy emotion seems to squish through the cracks, jettisoned to beyond our grasp.
All too often, the negative side of the flux of emotion leads to the dreaded words, “I’m not in love with you anymore.” Such is the natural, even logical conclusion derived from a wrong concept of love. You see, love can be looked at in a lot of ways, but it is first a decision. Marriage is a decision that we connect with love, yet, unfortunately we do not see the converse to be true; love is a decision that we should connect with marriage. Commitment to such a definition with a posture to carry it out would dramatically impact our marriages – and our happiness.
This works out in the discipline of children as well. Because we do not want our children to hate us, or to think we hate them, by and large culture has lost its stomach for spanking. But God connects it with love in a powerful way; Proverbs 13:24 says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” If emotion is allowed too much sway, we will decide against love! We will “spare the rod” and thereby demonstrate hatred toward our children. This underscores the importance that we grasp the proper understanding of love. Love is a decision that leads to other sub-decisions, that should all hinge on the decision to love in the first place.
One of the most prominent images of relationship to God is marriage. We have been given free will to choose whom we will serve (Josh. 24:15). All mankind is drawn to relationship, but some will leave the love of God unrequited. Not to choose is a choice in the same way that ambivalence and non-action with regard to discipline for our children is hate of them according to the Scriptures.
The offer from God to each individual for marriage is made to all by the One who loves all, so that none have an excuse (Rom. 1:20). The threshold for finding God, and falling in love with Him with our hearts, souls and minds (Matt. 22:37) is simply beholding creation and wanting to know who is behind it (Rom. 1:19-20). We see a tree and ask, “Who can make a tree?” This should lead us to curiousity (again a cognitive not emotional endeavor) and we should remember that Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8; see also Deut. 4:29; Prov. 8:17; Jer. 29:13; and Luke 11:9).
So what does this all have to do with the eternal punishment of unbelievers in hell? Neither the love that gives us all a free choice prior to death, nor the decision to punish should be judged purely with emotions. This question is often answered from emotion rather than rationality. According to the Scriptures, the soul of man never dies, and each individual is given the right to choose whom they will love. In the end, eternity settles everything. Temporally, believers and non-believers all face the same things; the same kinds of pain and hardships, the same decisions, but life is about the courtship, the invitation, it is about the opportunity to eternally remove the roller coaster ride, and justifiably connect emotions with love in a way not possible this side of Glory.
The brute fact is that God made us to live forever; we choose to be with Him or apart from Him. He does punish those that reject Him eternally – irrespective of whether our emotions reject the idea or not. His equal offer to all, and the loving inclusion of freewill is sufficient proof that eternal punishment is not counter to His love. He is perfect and therefore His decisions are perfect. We must reckon that so even when our emotions and flesh want to improperly sway our thinking. But, again, we reduce it to an emotional judgment of fairness.
Viewed objectively and not emotionally, we must grapple with the facts. He is the creator and all mankind has sinned against Him. What justification do we have to become the judge of God? Fairness dictates that crimes (sin) must be punished. How would it be fair in a court of law to imprison and punish one murderer, while on a whim to let another murderer of the same kind go free? – Not to do so would be unfair and ultimately a refutation of His love. As such, we either accept His own payment offered to all, the sacrifice of Jesus, or we pay ourselves – eternally.
Unfortunately this is quickly becoming passé in that the emotional charge experienced at the beginning of relationship happens largely in courtship these days as even many (perhaps most) Christians enjoy the benefits that God reserved for marriage, including sex and cohabitation, prior to the commitment of marriage.