How can a loving god allow eternal suffering?

5 min • July 9, 2023

This is one of the most common questions I encounter when debating non-Christians of every kind. Why did God create Hell, or at least allow for it to be created? It just doesn’t seem fair. Eternity seems a disproportionately long time to suffer for anything we could do wrong in this life.

The easy answer is that we don’t have to understand it. It’s a teaching that the Church received from the Apostles, so Hell objectively exists, whether we understand it or not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make it more plausible to ourselves through reason.

The most inviolable, core teachings of Christianity about Hell are very small: it’s eternal, it’s inescapable, and it involves suffering. Beyond this, we don’t know anything for sure, and we’re free to speculate, as long as we don’t stray from any of the Church’s teachings.

Different theologians have tried to answer this by focusing on the eternity of Hell and God’s justice for doing so. They say that, if God is infinitely good, then sin has an infinite character, and deserves an infinite punishment.

This reasoning doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason. So I try to tackle it by proposing that God isn’t causing us suffering, but we freely cause it by ourselves. If that’s the case, then our loving God can’t interfere.

Imagine for a moment that God took everyone and split them into two camps, based on whether they want to do things the right way or not. Those who want to (but often struggle to), he puts on his right, and finally takes away the internal struggle. Those who don’t want to, he puts on his left.

The group on the right is called “Heaven”, and they finally begin living life to the fullest, the right way. This is naturally very happy and good. The one on the left is called “Hell”, and they finally begin living life to the fullest, on their own terms.

What are those terms? That they want to separate cause and effect. They want to be rich without work. They want to be famous without harassment. They want to eat as much as they can without getting sick. In a word, they want to define their own logic and reality.

So, this group of people in “Hell” are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Even without going further in this scenario, we can already extrapolate that the sadness and misery that follows this mindset in this life will just continue every single day, and that it’s caused by their own determination, not by God.

Next, remember that ordinary people like you and me become neighbors with people like Hitler and Dahmer. Since we know that nobody can die in Hell (that would be a form of escape, and Hell is inescapable), there’s no way to get rid of them. So you’re stuck with them.

What happens then? World War III and Columbine combined, and it never ends. How do you end a war? Usually by ending the lives of much of its army or leadership. That’s not possible in Hell. So it just never ends.

Sure, you can imprison some of them for a while, but who’s to say others won’t use their charisma and other means of persuasion to amass an army to liberate them, in exchange for the loyalty of those Nazis they just freed from physical bondage?

Even if a small percentage of humanity lives by this, they will make life into a living hell on earth for everyone else, every day, without end. The murderers, the psychopaths, the rapists, the genocidal narcissistic maniacs, they will make it truly worth of the name Hell.

But even say a small group of people could somehow find a place to escape this nightmare, and not be discovered by the rest of the world for at least a few centuries. Couldn’t they create a little paradise? Or at least avoid creating their own hell?

Look at just how completely a small act of betrayal can destroy a person’s emotional life for years. The pain and suffering that follows in the ordinary course of this life will not be lessened by any means.

But if Christian doctrine is true, then part of what keeps us from diving deep into despair and self-destructive actions is the fact constantly implied to our consciences that there is still hope of a better life. In Hell, this hope is gone.

So in this envisioned scenario, what have we done? God gives eternal life to both the group on his right and on his left. But only to the group on his right does he take away the brokenness of our souls, because we want him to. The group on the left remains broken.

In both cases, we are given whatever we love the most. Only the group on the right is happy.

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