Over the last few months, I have had a number of exchanges with a correspondent who calls himself MyAtheistLife. One of the recurring themes which has come up is his refusal to accept that human beings need God’s help to love one another. While I am sympathetic to most of his reasons for disbelief, his rejection of the human need for God seems entirely irrational to me. Perhaps the difficulty lies in a topic that I have been meaning to address for a while, the nature of eternity.
One of the things that it would be impossible for us to truly grasp as finite human beings is just exactly how long eternity is. While it is possible for a human being to pay lip service to the fact that any eternal being will eventually be trillions of years old, just exactly what this means is beyond the understanding of a person who has only lived a few decades. We examine ourselves and we say, “I am a good person. I am a loving person, I am not prejudiced, I recycle, I am usually honest, I am nice to people, I try to be helpful. If someone comes to me and talks about a problem, I do my best to hear their point of view. God should let me into heaven because I am a good person.” But can we be good enough to love other people over time periods that make billions of years tiny in comparison?
The problem with loving someone for eternity is that any level of imperfection is going to cause problems. As I argue in my essay, “Speculations Concerning the Divine Plan“, if you are not physically violent to your spouse 99.99% of the time, this still means you are physically violent 52 minutes a year. Over the course of eternity, only someone who is 100% free of violent tendencies will be pleasant to be around.
But physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg of what makes other people difficult to love or be around. There are many people who I hate being around who are not physically violent to me at all. Jealousy, envy, pettiness, greed, pride and many other bad attitudes can make other people difficult to love. (“Have you seen my new car? It is so much nicer than his.”, “That person is such a loser they are not attractive at all.”, “Oh yeah, I had sex with that girl. Been there, done that, got the tee shirt!”) I would simply shoot myself in the head rather than be around such people for all eternity. It would be like being in high school forever . . . it would be hell.
But the difficult question is, would being around people that we like for eternity be any better? Haven’t we all had friends, family members or love interests where we thought our feelings of friendship would last forever? Have we not seen these relationships die as a gulf opened between us and someone we previously cared about? Even though I am no more eternal than any other human being, I can easily imagine that the constant and eternal Chinese water torture (drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip) of minor irritations would eventually make people I like anathema to me. This is the picture painted by C.S. Lewis of hell in his book The Great Divorce and it makes a great deal of sense to me.
God often gets a bad rap for requiring us to be perfect. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) But what if this isn’t just some nit-picky requirement? What if living a life of perfect love is the secret sauce that makes eternal life joyful instead of unbearable? If that were the case, then a new question arises. Can you be perfectly loving without God’s help? When I examine my own life the answer to this question is so obviously no that coming to the other conclusion seems completely irrational to me.
As I have said before, it is my firm belief that every created being is inherently evil. That is to say, I believe that no created being can love well enough to live in eternity without God’s guidance and forgiveness. But can a good God force his help on us unwillingly? If the answer to this question is no, then this suggests a purpose for the horrors of this world. It was to persuade created beings of our need for his help as painlessly as possible that God created this world. If you will not admit your need of God in this world with all of the horrible suffering caused by human evil, under what conceivable circumstances would you ever admit your need of God’s help?