If you do not take this opportunity, then you will be a miserable failure all of your life. You will have a hard time finding a second rate job and when you do find one, you will always be overlooked when it comes to promotions. You will have no money and you will become depressed and start to hit the bottle. Women will think less of you and you will have a hard time finding a spouse. When you do get married, the financial troubles will ruin your relationship. Because of the divorce, you will fall deeper into alcoholism as you struggle to make child support payments. Finally, after years of quiet desperation you will end your life a broken, miserable alcoholic ruin.
This is a facsimile of a speech that my father gave me when I was trying to decide on where to go to college. Though it is not verbatim, allow me to assure you that it is true to the spirit of what was said. The choice was between going to Yale University and having a life full of candy canes and sugar plums and going to the University of California at Berkeley and ending my life in squalor, despair and suicide. The funny thing is that at the time we had this conversation, I was rethinking my decision to be a chemical engineering major and beginning down the road of becoming a software engineer. Had I not listened to my father, I would have graduated with a computer science degree down the road from Silicon Valley before the entire “dot com” bubble and my life would have been entirely different. Who knew?
I often think of this episode when I am considering the nature of the hell that God describes in the Bible. Because he loved me a great deal and wanted what he thought was best for me, my father painted the bleakest possible picture of going to the University of California. He wasn’t at all planning on inflicting the litany of disasters that he foresaw in my future if I chose Berkeley, he was just telling me what he thought my life would be like if I did not seize the opportunity to go to one of the best universities in the world. I honestly interpret what God says about hell in precisely this way. God sees us making the worst possible mistake and He urges us to avoid it with the strongest possible language and the starkest possible warnings. Let’s take a little time to think about this.
One of the interesting facts about the doctrine of hell is that it was given to us by Jesus Christ. Prior to the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, there is no mention of hell in the Bible. The Old Testament mentions only “sheol” or the place of the dead. Why is this?
As I discuss in my essays, The Nature of the Atonement, before Jesus went to the cross, God had condemned all human beings to death because we were not worth his time and attention. As I discuss in the Examining God’s Provision, God does an enormous amount of work to create us and sustain our existence and all He got out of that effort was horrific and selfish evil. Jesus died on the cross that all men might have God’s gift of eternal life, but there was a problem. Once it is possible to live forever, it is possible to be miserable forever. It was to help humanity avoid this terrible fate that God spoke so severely about rejecting the good news of Jesus Christ.
The truth is that loving other people is tremendously difficult and requires God’s assistance. If you agree that you need God’s forgiveness for failing to love others and God as you should down here (The two primary commandments in the Bible are to love God and love your neighor.) and you accept God’s offer of forgiveness made in Jesus Christ, then you will learn to love others with God’s help and living forever will be the greatest possible joy. If you think that you are fine as you are and that you don’t need God’s help to love others, then you will never learn to love others in a way that is sufficient to overcome the inevitable pains of eternal life. (This last point deserves some elucidation, but I have already covered it in my post Eternity and the Human Need of God.)
Most people think that the Bible teaches that God tortures sinners for all eternity in literal flames. This is an obvious absurdity. You show me a person who has been wronged and who burns the person who wrongs him in literal flames for a prolonged period without mercy and I will show you a person who is incapable of forgiveness. If the entrance to hell is a lake of fire as is described in the Bible, it is because God wants to discourage those who hate him from voluntarily choosing to reject his grace at the judgment of the Great White Throne (see my essay on The Nature of Hell) not because God is going to torment them in literal flames forever. The bottom line is that eternal life without the love of God is a fate more horrible than you can imagine.