The more “friendly” modern formulation of hell is that hell consists of eternal separation from God and that no one goes to hell except through his own choice: choosing to remain separate from God rather than embracing Him fully in the union of the beatific vision.
The objection I normally hear to this is: In that case, then obviously hell is empty, because no one would choose an eternity of isolation rather than union with God.
This always strikes me as showing a profound lack of understanding of human character. Within our temporal lives, we often choose unhappiness in order to get our own way, and it’s hard to see how this sort of pride would fail to play a part in people’s eternal decisions. Perhaps part of the problem is that people often think of the afterlife in cartoon terms: Would you rather spend eternity boiling in a lake of fire or reclining in a cloud with a harp?
But if heaven is full and complete union with God, then I think it’s pretty clear that for the person who would much rather define God for himself than mold himself to God’s will, heaven would seem like something worth rejecting. C. S. Lewis, I think, does a very good job of showing this in The Great Divorce.
‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’
‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leav me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’ (from The Great Divorce, ch. 5)
In religious circles, this pride seems often played out in the desire to make a God after our own image. From the same chapter of The Great Divorce:
‘But you’ve never asked me about what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. he would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste… so much promise cut short. (from The Great Divorce, ch. 5)
A almost shockingly clear example of this made headlines last week, as Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu made headlines by saying that he’d rather go to hell than be in heaven with a God who considered gay sex to be sinful.
South Africa’s iconic retired archbishop, Desmond Tutu, said on Friday that if he had his pick, he’d go to hell before heading to a heaven that condemned homosexuality as sin.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said, by way of denouncing religions that discriminate against gays, in Agence France-Presse..
He added, AFP reported: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.”
Or as Milton’s Lucifer put it: Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
If we must regret that Jesus died too young, before his views had had the chance to “evolve” enough to fit modern sensibilities, we may at least be happy that Desmond Tutu has lived long enough to provide us with a more enlightened savior.