I read something wonderful the other day in Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God about the nature of hell:
The final outworking of the rejection of God’s love is a never-ending experience of the wrath of the eternal Lover. Hell, therefore, is not the experience of the absence of God’s love. God loves his creation with an eternal love. Therefore God’s love is present even in hell. But in hell people experience the presence of the divine love in the form of wrath.
Most of my life I have had the reality of hell justified to me on the basis of God’s justice or holiness or righteousness but never on the basis of His love. It isn’t to say that God’s justice or righteousness or holiness would be insufficient to explain hell, it is just that the standard emotion-laden argument against hell sounds something like, “But how can a loving God condemn people to hell!” Justice and holiness in response to this became ways to explain away hell as an unfortunate necessity not incompatible with God’s love but not expressive of it either. Hell took on the character of a necessary evil.
In Grenz’s understanding hell is not only compatible with God’s love but – given a correct understanding of hell and love – is actually the necessary expression of a loving God. Grenz notes (in a way similar to G. K. Chesterton) that true love is not expressed only in a kind of rosy, bubbly haze of joy. Instead, he writes:
Genuine love, therefore, is positively jealous. It is protective, for the true lover seeks to maintain, even defend, the love relationship whenever it is threatened by disruption, destruction, or outside intrusion. Whenever another seeks to injure or undermine the love relationship, he or she experiences love’s jealousy, which we call “wrath.” When this dimension is lacking, love degenerates into mere sentimentality.
God’s love for His creation is expressed as much in His wrath as in His kindness. When the beloved spurns the love and seeks to sever the bond love is not experienced in casual acceptance of that alienation but in intense “jealousy.”
Seeing hell explained in this way was exciting, but the excitement was somewhat abated when I read that Vladimir Lossky had already drawn much the same conclusion in his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
The love of God is an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.
Worse still, Lossky quoted from St. Isaac the Syrian in defense of this proposition.
…those who find themselves in gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo greater sufferings than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…but love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.
It would appear (again like Chesterton) that I went seeking something new and, when I found it, was shocked and encouraged to find that it was in fact old. If the doctrine of hell as the full and necessary expression of love has been lost in modern times, I hope we can recover it.