The Catechism declares, “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (1037). Most Christians (except for Reformed Protestants who believe in “double-pre-destination,”) would agree that God does not determine who is damned.
So, when atheists say that God is cruel for sending people to hell, Christians are correct to respond, “God doesn’t send people to hell; people send themselves there.”
But some atheists have a reply to this reasoning.
They say God still sends people to hell when we freely turn away from him—in the same way a mob boss makes someone “sleep with the fishes” when he freely rejects the mobster’s offer for “protection.” In both cases, a powerful person says, “Do what I say… or else.”
How can we say a person freely chooses to worship God if the alternative to worshipping him is everlasting torture? If God is making the rules, then isn’t he indeed sending people to hell when they “don’t go along with the program”?
The problem with the “mobster objection” is that whenever we use analogies we have to make sure the comparisons are truly parallel. In this case, the mobster comparison doesn’t work because the mobster isn’t analogous to God, for several reasons:
- Mob bosses engage in acts of evil for their own gain; they don’t care about the welfare of others.
- The victims of a mobster’s extortion racket would be better off if they never knew him. His offer of “protection” only brings them harm or anxiety.
- The punishment inflicted by the mob boss does not have a natural connection to refusing his offer. He is essentially the cause of the problem he offers to solve.
Unlike a human criminal, God is supreme goodness itself, and his offer of salvation is for our benefit, not his. Moreover, the mobster’s offer should be avoided because it only brings harm, but God’s offer of salvation is a treasure to seek out because it leads to eternal life (Matt 13:45-46).
Finally, unlike the mobster’s threats, hell is not an artificial danger that is designed to coerce us into heaven. Hell is simply what happens when we reject God’s offer of eternal life. Hell is the natural consequence of our free decision to spend eternity apart from him.
I recently received an email from a man who was concerned about this objection, so I offered a different analogy, one that I think better illustrates the situation we are in as sinners in need of a savior.
Imagine a scientist is studying a race of rational aliens on another planet who have a severe allergy to sunlight. Their ancestors had no problems living in the light, but because of some foolish environmental decisions they made they developed an allergy to the sun and passed this defect on to their descendants. Now, these aliens can only survive in dark underground caves, and the darkness conceals the cruel behavior they have steadily inflicted upon one another for centuries.
The scientist visits them one day and lets them know that a powerful gamma-ray burst from outer space will strike their planet in the near future. This cosmic event will alter their cells in a way that makes them immortal. Fortunately, the scientist has developed a cure for their sunlight allergy that will allow them to live above ground, but the cure loses its effect whenever a person is exposed to the toxins in the cave system. That means anyone who takes the cure will have to leave the caves and stay above ground in order for the change to be permanent. Finally, once the gamma ray burst hits, the DNA in the aliens will be permanently changed and the cure will no longer work.
So how do the aliens respond to the scientist’s offer?
Some think the cure is stupid and see nothing wrong with living in the darkness of the caves since they can’t stand the light. They end up rejecting the scientist’s offer and threatening him for trying to take away the cave life they’ve always known.
But many other aliens realize that it is better to live in the light. They see that the toxins and evil in the caves as something to reject, something that is not a part of their true identity. Even if it will be difficult, they want to live in the light just like their ancestors, so they take the cure.
Unfortunately, not everyone who takes the cure remains in the light. Some of these aliens end up missing “cave-life” and find it hard to adjust to the light at first so they return to their old ways and the cure wears off. When the gamma ray hits their planet, the aliens become permanently divided into two groups: those who chose the darkness of the caves (either initially or even after receiving the cure) and are forever allergic to sunlight, and those who chose and persisted in the cure and are now forever capable of living above ground.
As millions of years begin to pass, those who accepted the cure never become bored of the endless ways to live and love one another that they had only a faint access to underground. However, those who rejected the cure soon become bored with an unending dark existence and, being unable to venture into the light, think the only way to improve their situation is by making other people around them feel worse than they do, which results in endless torture for everyone who rejected the cure.
Keep in mind that no analogy is perfect, and I’m not trying to represent every aspect of our salvation or relationship with God. I just want to show that hell and God’s offer of salvation are not attempts to extort us into worshipping him. Instead, our freely chosen sins make life hellish and, if our selfish souls were given infinite time, we would only accrue unending misery.
Nothing finite that is stretched out over an infinite time could ever satisfy our desire for infinite happiness. Only God can do that—but we have to be willing to reject sin, because, being a privation of good, it separates us from God who is perfect goodness itself. Fortunately, God loves us and he gives everyone an opportunity to receive his “cure,” or the grace that makes us capable of spending eternity with him in the light of the Beatific Vision.
St. Peter put it well: “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).