A theology professor once posed this question to my theology class: "What if God could suddenly figure out how to do away with hell and eternal suffering?" We immediately produced a long list of scriptural passages to show that God couldn't. He permitted this for a while, then said, "I just wanted to see how many of you had as your first thought, 'Oh, wouldn't that be wonderful?'" None of us did — showing that we needed to know that others were going to hell in order to appreciate our own guarantee of heaven. That opened the door for me. My thinking was forever changed. Eventually I concluded that Christianity could never allow me to become the person I wanted to be. So I have to ask you: Why would losing faith be such a bad thing? What might you have to give up in the deepest recesses of your soul to entertain such a prospect?
I've shortened your letter, but tried to preserve its ambiguity. When I first read it, I thought you were trying to say something like this: "My old theology teacher taught that hell is necessary to make heaven seem sweet. That's such an awful doctrine that I'm no longer sure I can accept Christianity. Besides, I want to be my own person. If I did abandon faith, what would I really lose?" Now, I think you were trying to say something more like this: "An episode in an old theology class made me realize that Christians believe in hell only to make heaven seem sweet. I don't want to be that kind of person, so I no longer accept Christianity. What would it take for you, Theophilus, to give up the cruelty of Christian faith?"
My first reply to you — a private one — was based on the former interpretation. Let me try again. Since your letter can be taken several ways, I'll answer several ways. About hell. God doesn't torture some people just to make others enjoy heaven more. If that's what your theology teacher told you (I see now that you don't exactly say), then no wonder it raised questions in your mind. Heaven is the everlasting experience of communion with God, and with others in communion with Him. Hell is everlasting exclusion from such communion. The crucial thing to remember is that this exclusion is self-exclusion; people go to hell because they turn away from such communion. Because such communion is the greatest joy there is, the pleasure of malice couldn't add to it — and it couldn't exist there anyway, because God is love.
About cruelty. It's always good to remember that God took the brunt of our malice and hatred on himself, on the cross. It isn't Christ who tortures us; it is we who tortured Him. He, who was innocent, subjected himself to the worst that our sin could offer, in order that we, the guilty, might not suffer it ourselves. About what it would take for me to entertain the prospect of abandoning my faith. I have entertained the prospect. I gave up my faith during college and graduate school. What it took in my case — I can't say what it might take for others — was a pride so great that I couldn't bear for God to be the center of the universe, and wanted to be the center myself. What it took for God to bring me back was the humiliation of that pride. Not that I have achieved humility. About what one loses by abandoning faith. That's an easy one. I lost God himself, my supreme good and Maker, for whom I was made — the source of all meaning, and the source of all lesser and created goods. I gave up the truth about life and human relationships, in exchange for what I thought I wanted, but that in the end meant exactly nothing. And I gave up all hope of life, in the thick sense of "life," which meant my communion with Him. I also, by the way, became a very repellant person. About what kind of person Christ wants you to be. In short, He wants you to be ready for heaven — which means ready for perfect communion with His Father — which means conformed to His Father's perfect love. That's how God is, and that's how He wants us to be. Because we cannot accomplish the transformation by our own power, He lends us His Spirit. Finally, about what kind of person you want to be. Of course I don't know, but our correspondence has left me uneasy. When I replied to your letter privately, focusing on what one loses by abandoning faith, your answers were so full of venom as to make one suspect that for all your complaints about the cruelty of Christianity, you are rather fond of malice yourself. Perhaps you should think about that.
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2005 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.