How Could a loving god send someone to hell for eternity?

          Is Christianity Relevant Today?

"God is love!  Therefore God doesn't want anyone to suffer, much less for ETERNITY!  Besides, it seems like incredible overkill - a terrible punishment for all eternity, for something that happened in a short span of time that doesn't compare to eternity!  I could never love or respect a being that would condemn someone to such a hideous punishment just because we 'disobeyed', or didn't 'worship' Him properly.  How selfish and cruel of God!"

The above argument is almost exactly (as well as I can remember) the words of a friend who simply could not accept Christianity because of this difficulty alone.  Her problem, however, is with her understanding of God, and of the nature of Hell.

The concept my friend has of the 'love' of God is based upon western sentimentality.  It becomes a mushy, tolerant, kind of acceptance that is not described of God in the Bible.  We must also understand that God is Holy, Righteous, and Just.  The proper concept of Love must fit with all of His attributes.  God is Love, but He also has a Holy wrath, which is clearly evident toward those who abuse Him.  It is from this concept that the reality of Hell is truly understood.

"Hell is not a torture chamber" said the philosopher J.P. Moreland to author Lee Strobel.  Mr. Strobel relays that his 'eyebrows shot up' because this seemed to be contrary to what he had learned in Sunday School.  How could this be?  We must remember that many parts of the Bible describe concepts of the infinite God written to us in words we finite humans can understand.  One of these concepts is the concept of hell.  We are told in the Bible that hell is "a lake of fire", a place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth", a place of "separation from God".  Are these symbols, or are they to be taken literally?  I believe that they are intended to describe the incomprehensible.  They are images that we can relate to, that describe physically how we will suffer spiritually if we reject God.  Does that imply that we won't have a physical body, or that Hell isn't such a bad place after all?  By no means! 

We must understand that God is the God of relationships.  God desires to be with us all, as long as we desire to be with Him.  Those who desire God, even above themselves, will be happy with God in eternity.  Those who desire their own personal needs, more than God, would not be happy with a relationship with God.  They choose to be in control of their own destinies, and in the end this is exactly what they get.  Hell is the place in which people choose to go, when they choose to be in charge of their own lives.  Heaven would be intolerable for them.

But again, does this mean that Hell will be tolerable for those who choose against God?  Absolutely not!  Once and for all, in Hell, one will realize that the purpose they were created for was wasted, and that there is no chance to be with that which we were created to be with.  It is the ultimate failure...there can be nothing worse!  Such pain and regret, shame and sorrow will be awful - a pain that is described to us in terms that we can understand as an 'unquenching fire' and 'gnashing of teeth.'  Everything is lost, there is no comfort - and we literally asked for it, by denying the God who reaches out to us every day, in many many ways.  God does not destroy - He allows you to choose what you will.  The ultimate violation results in the ultimate failure.  Hell is not just the absence of God, which seems to comfort some who do not choose God.  God is omnipresent, and that very presence will add fuel to the fire (so to speak!) to the person who chooses to be apart from God.

But my friend is partially right - God does not want anyone to experience Hell.  He wishes that all would seek Him out, as He seeks us.  But He cannot force us to come to Him.  We choose our destiny, so we cannot blame God.  He is simply letting us choose our lot in life. 

'As surely as I live', declares the sovereign Lord, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.'  Ezekiel 33:11a

'And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"  Mark 9:47-48

Hell is a place for those who choose to go there...those who decide that they themselves are at the center of the universe.  For those who see the purpose for which they were created and thirst for the companionship with the ultimate companion, Jesus will see that those who trust in Him for this reconciliation will be satisfied. 

"This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.  He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed."  2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10