I read a question from an atheist recently: how can we Christians claim that God is Love, when He plans to punish with eternal fire anyone who rejects Him?
This is, of course, not a new question. It comes up time and time again, frequently from the sort of atheist who is more emotional about his faith than intellectual, and who seems to think that this question proposes some sort of unanswerable conundrum.
Wait a minute. His faith? you ask.
Surely you realize that atheism is a faith, right? It may not be an organized religion, though that's not entirely impossible; but it is a religion. It is a firm, unwavering, and unshakable belief in unbelief. Unlike the pagans who worship false gods, the atheist worships the notion that there isn't a God at all; he is quite religious in his opinion on the subject, and may even be said to have a devotion to it.
When it comes right down to it, there's no more evidence for the non-existence of God than there is for the existence of God; some might say that there's actually more evidence that God does exist than that He doesn't. Faith isn't about proof; we would lose our freedom to chose to believe or not if God manifested Himself in such a way that we absolutely had to acknowledge His existence, and He Who gave us free will won't play games with that will.
But if faith isn't about proof, neither is unbelief. The unbeliever has no empirical evidence with which to prove the non-existence of God; he simply believes in his unbelief, with a strength and fervor that puts some iterations of belief in God to shame.
Just as there are some Christian believers who are more intellectual about their approach to faith, studying the writings of the early Church Fathers and absorbing every scholarly book they can on various topics relating to Christian history, thought, doctrine and teaching, so are there other Christians who are more simple in their approach, reading popular devotional books and applying their Christian beliefs to every day life with a becoming and inspiring simplicity. And just as there are atheists who revel in intellectual atheism, revering science and reading about the thoughts of prominent atheists, so are there simple atheists, who get quite emotional about their creed of un-creed, and who think that asking questions about a loving God condemning people to Hell is the ultimate trap for a Christian.
Of course, it's not a trap at all; it's not even the smallest of stumbling-blocks. Any Christian worthy of the name will be able to explain charitably that people condemn themselves to Hell by rejecting God totally in this life; they can also explain that not only will God's justice not permit those who never served Him on earth to remain with Him in Heaven, but that also God's mercy will not force those who hated Him in this life to be forever in His presence in Heaven.
The intellectual atheist understands the force of this argument, and rarely brings up the question. But the emotional atheist will still be very likely to reject this argument, and to demand that God be a sort of Divine Nanny Who will treat the most recalcitrant humans as if they were naughty three-year-olds, and who after a good long scolding for their ugly behavior will allow them a place at the table and a portion of treacle tart no smaller than the piece awarded to the good children.
Now, God does, we know, treat us far more mercifully than any of us deserve, and it may be that there are any number of highly surprised atheists in Heaven, all of them made to see how even in their unbelief there were moments when they were serving God, united to Him, and how perhaps a strong and sudden longing in their hearts at the moment of their deaths was enough to permit them eventual entry into the Heavenly Kingdom (after the "good long scolding" of Purgatory, first). But to insist that God is somehow obligated never to punish, or that the very idea of Hell negates the love of God, is obviously quite wrong.
Even in our human relationships we can see that it is not always possible for love to prevail. A mother may always love her child with the closest thing to unconditional love that is possible on earth, but if her child turns from her, lives a life of crime, goes to jail, and even from jail pours out scorns and slanders against his mother, refusing to see her, to speak to her, or even to read her letters, he really doesn't have any grounds to complain that his mother doesn't "really" love him, when what is obvious is that he doesn't really love her. If we refuse to accept our Father, to seek Him, to listen to Him, to serve Him, to visit Him in prayer, to read His "letters" contained in the Bible, or even to believe that He exists, on what grounds ought we to complain, should the dreaded eternal punishment be, in fact, our eventual fate?
But our Father has done so much for us. In the fullness of time He sent His Son to save us; it's as if the mother in our fictional scenario had permitted her son's brother to go and take his place, not only in jail, but on death row. That is the love of God: that He would come to earth as a Man, that He would teach us to see the Father in Him; that He would suffer, and die the ignominious death of a criminal, a death we all deserved. And He did this to give us every chance imaginable to seek Him, to find Him, to spend eternity with Him in Heaven, to be forever in His Presence, and to know the unspeakable joy of eternal life.
To say that God is not Love because He permits some of us to turn away from us, even forever, is to ignore the lengths to which He has gone to give us every opportunity to know, love, and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next. It shows not only a misunderstanding of God, but also a complete lack of understanding of the nature of love.