A couple years ago I was out for a coffee with an atheist friend when he shared with me the reason he left the church. It turns out that his stumbling block was the doctrine of damnation: he simply couldn't accept the idea that a loving God could send people to hell forever.
I know what he's talking about. Growing up, the doctrine of hell cast a flickering shadow over my childhood. For me, the most haunting image came in Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). As the story goes, the foolish virgins weren't ready when the bridegroom returned for the wedding, and so they were locked out of the reception. And there they stand still, pounding on the door, desperate to be admitted and anguished that the will never be: in the words of Jesus, their lot will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12; 13:42; 22:13; 25:30).
As a child, that's how I thought about hell and how you end up there. Salvation is a limited time offer: if you are not ready when your number is called, you lose out. And all your cries of regret a second after death won't make a difference. Salvation is like fire insurance: it's simply too late to buy the insurance after your home burns down. If you miss your chance, all that is left is weeping and gnashing of teeth that you never purchased the policy.
With that kind of picture, I could definitely understand where my friend was coming from. To make matters even more complicated, the Scriptures declare that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) and that he desires that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). But if God desires all to be saved, why would he lock the gates of heaven to those who were regretting their decision?
While these questions haunted me in my youth, I first found an answer in university while reading C.S. Lewis' book The Problem of Pain. At one point, he discusses the problem of hell. But rather than view people in hell as regretting their decision, Lewis insisted they remain unrepentant. As he put it, "the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the gates of hell are locked on the inside."
It's an intriguing possibility. Could it be, as Lewis suggests, that even though people who end up in hell are perfectly miserable, they don't want to leave?
If we are to consider that possibility, we need to explain the anguished response of the foolish virgins in Jesus' parable. After all, they come to the door late and say "Lord, Lord, open the door for us!" (v. 11) It certainly does seem like they want to come in, right?
While that is a fair point, it now seems to me that by focusing on their immediate response to being locked outside, we're actually missing the main point of the parable. And what is the main point? In fact, Jesus tells us in verse 13: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." Jesus' concern is to warn us to be ready, not to tell us that those who miss their chance really do want to come in.
But if that is the case then what about all those passages describing the weeping and gnashing of teeth? Doesn't that description imply deep regret? In fact, a closer look suggests something more complicated is going on. Interestingly, the Greek verb translated "gnash" ( brucho) also appears in Acts 7:54. But in that context, it describes the response of the Sanhedrin to Stephen's speech: "they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him." Note that the verb conveys rage, not regret.
I would argue that the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth conveys a similar state of mind. While weeping signifies anguish and deep sorrow, gnashing conveys hatred, an enduring rebellion against God. In other words, people who end up in hell continue to reject God out of hatred even as they suffer untold misery as a result. As Lewis said, the gates of hell are indeed locked on the inside.
But how could this be? How could people choose their own misery? Actually, this state of mind is not as extraordinary as you might think. Consider a simple example. One day when I was in kindergarten we baked our own gingerbread cookies. When the final bell ran, we all ran to the back of the room to retrieve our works of art. But as I scanned the cooling trays, I couldn't see my cookie anywhere. One by one, the remaining cookies were claimed by their rightful owners until there was one orphan biscuit left behind. And it wasn't mine. Panicked, I informed the teacher that my cookie was missing. She replied that all the cookies taste the same. And with that, she picked up the remaining cookie, dropped it in a bag, and shuffled me off to the door.
As I fumed on the ride home, my mom did her best to calm me down. She promised to take me to the mall on the weekend, suggesting that maybe I could even get a toy (to calm my wrath, no doubt). When that didn't work, she resorted to pragmatic reasoning by pointing out that I still had a cookie of my own. And while it wasn't the one I had made, it was still a perfectly fine cookie. And then, as if to rub still more fistfuls of salt into my gaping wounds, she echoed my teacher's point that gingerbread cookies all taste pretty much the same anyway. So what did it really matter who decorated this one? A cookie was a cookie. My mom ended her speech with a stoic reflection: sometimes bad things happen in life and "By sitting there just being angry, you don't hurt anybody but yourself. "
It all made sense, of course: Mom's points were perfectly reasonable. But it didn't matter: I would not be consoled; I would not be reasoned with. By the time we arrived home my sulk had blossomed into a full-blown seething rage. This wasn't my cookie, and that was all that mattered. I got out of the car and walked up to the side of the big, empty ravine beside our house. As I held that cookie tightly in my hand, the hot tears began to roll down my cheeks. Determined to get back at the cookie thief and to show the world my utter contempt for this gingerbread fraud, I reached back and, with all the force I could muster, I cast the cookie into the ravine. It sailed out into the blue sky spinning end over end and then disappeared into the shrubs far below. Temporarily satisfied and yet still strangely tormented, I turned back and walked toward the house.
So what does that dramatic little story of childish angst have to do with hell? The fact is that I was so consumed by my own sense of injustice and victimization that I didn't want to be happy. I wanted to be angry and to hate. I chose misery. What is more, I wanted everyone else to suffer too: the teacher, my mom, and most of all, the wretch who took my cookie. I would have stolen the happiness of all of them, were that only possible.
Of course, I was being perfectly unreasonable. What's done is done, I had another cookie which would taste just the same, and I even had the offer of a new toy to consider. As Mom pointed out, by continuing to seethe I wasn't hurting anybody but myself. Regardless, none of that mattered: the fact is that I would rather nurse my miserable anger and my sense of offense than to make the best of my situation and enjoy the cookie that I now had.
That was a relatively trivial event, and by the evening I had moved on, engrossed in the latest episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. But for others the story ends differently. I've known people who had their own bitter sense of injustice. They also didn't want to be happy. They wanted to be angry and to hate. They chose misery. What is more, they wanted everyone else to suffer too. And their sense of rage, injustice, and hatred doesn't melt away by the evening. Instead, it grows, festering over years like a cancer in the soul.
As I now understand the doctrine of hell, it isn't a matter of God suddenly locking the door by surprise in some cruel game of Gotcha! Indeed, hell is not a realm into which God places us. Rather, it is a realm into which we place ourselves. We are the ones who lock the door and throw away the key.
In 2 Peter 3:9 we read that God "is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." I now believe that God's patience is infinite, his love never-ending. He never stops waiting. The sober lesson we learn from the doctrine of hell is not that God rejects us but that we reject him, locking the doors of our own stubborn wills and leaving him to wait ... forever.
Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at randalrauser.com and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?