While it may appear mad, I venture that the free will / predestination debate is actually the most productive place to begin an assessment of the doctrine of Hell.
I recently skimmed Why I am not a Calvinist, where the authors note how in his article ‘How does a sovereign God Love?’ John Piper “insists on adoring a God who might consign his sons to hell.” For those like John Piper, God’s sovereignty trumps all: God is both Lord—and so can and should do as God pleases—and God is the measure of all things (something is not good, and so God does it; God does a thing, and so it is good). Conversely, when non-Christians bemoan the absence of “signs” or “evidence” of God’s existence, other Christians counter that “God won’t prove his existence—that would violate your free will.”
Both of these perspectives are, in different ways, problematic. And in their proposed resolutions we may find helpful pointers on the question of Hell.
The free will debate turns on what we make of this tension between God’s sovereignty and God’s love. On the one hand, the authors above believe that “Piper has the question backwards and that . . . the question that we should be asking is how could a God of perfect love express sovereignty?” Likewise theologian Colin Gunton observes that “in Western theology since Augustine, ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ ” (pp. 219, 218).
These criticisms express much of my experience: Christianity seems to prioritize laws to love, the will to the heart. But what about the opposing view, that God is “unobtrusive” to allow human free will to develop into faith?
While I agree that God’s “coming on the scene” is not about convincing through miracles and signs, nor by righting all the world’s wrongs, yet I believe that God must show up. And just as personal experience is critical to weighing up the Bible’s truth claims correctly, so God must “show up” in a way that does for each of us what God claims to seek to do for all the world: to enable authentic relationship with me.
So my criticism of both views intersects here: how we assess the greatest commandment “Love God with all your heart.” The sovereigntist thinks to subordinate love to the will. The free will advocate believes that faith prohibits ostentatious displays. Both responses misunderstand the nature of love, and so both misportray God.
First, love by its very nature is a gift. And a gift is no longer a gift when it comes as a response to subjugation (i.e., tribute) or petition (i.e., acquiescing) or threat (i.e., blackmail) or payment (i.e., exchange). Many responses may come as a result of a command—love is not one of them.
Second, love by its very nature is the epitome of ostentaciousness. The “economy” of love is superabundance and love is larger than we are (we “fall” into it). Thus faith is both necessary to belief in God and yet strangely irrelevant in the face of love.
In the end, God’s law being “written on my heart” (Jer 31:33) can only reasonably describe the request of one who loves me deeply, whom I both love and by whom I deeply desire to be beloved; it describes a context wherein “sin itself would be seen not as the transgression of prohibitions but as the antithesis of life and grace.” (Paul Ricoeur, Religious Significance of Atheism, 69) This does not mean that truth vanishes in wishy-wash sea of emotion but that, beyond needing something that makes sense, I must agree with Bono: I need something “that I can feel.” Deeply and powerfully.
So I wager that it is no co-incidence that while God epitomizes many attributes (justice, mercy, etc.), God substantively is only one: love. More to come.