Atheists often object to the notion of hell because they think it is unjust. Here is how one guy I talked to recently framed the problem:
It doesn’t seem fair that God would torture a person for eternity just for not believing in him. I mean what would you think of me if I threatened to lock up my wife or children in a room and torture them forever for something silly like burning the toast or not getting their homework done or whatever. It is arbitrary and unfair.
Couple of quick points in response to this.
First, although there certainly is a punitive aspect to hell, it is not an arbitrary punishment but rather the natural consequence of refusing to love God.
Here is what I asked the guy who called me: “What would you think of your wife for saying that she would leave you if you ever cheated on her? Would that be unfair and arbitrary on her part”
“No,” he replied, “That would be a reasonable and natural response to my adultery.”
“Exactly. Let me ask you this, then. Even if she didn’t leave you, would everything be fine with your relationship if you cheated on her? Of course not. Even if she didn’t find out, there is going to be a break in your relationship. There is going to be pain and suffering due to the separation that results.”
That is what hell is – it is the natural consequence of us cheating on God. It is the pain that results from being separated from our beloved Father and Husband.
Second, about the forever part.
Here is the objection: Eternity in heaven or hell isn’t a fair consequence for even 80 or 90 years of sinning or being righteous. At most, we should get equal time: 90 years in hell for 90 years of sinning and 75 in Heaven if we were righteous for 75, etc. We should get equal objective units of measure, if you will.
There are many responses for this objection, many of which focus on the infinite holiness of God requiring an infinite reward or punishment. I won’t get into those here, although I think many of them are valid.
What I do want to mention is that this objection fails take into account how people experience time. The fact is, our experience of time doesn’t have much to do with how many actual objective units of time have passed. It has much more to do with the quality of the experience we are having. If we consider time as the passing of moments, there is a great deal of variety in how we experience the passing of moments depending on whether or not we are enjoying what we are doing. In other words, there isn’t much of a correspondence between how many objective units of time have passed and how much time we feel has passed.
For example, sometimes it feels like time passes very quickly. Think about that first date with your special someone. You started talking and before you knew it four hours had gone by. But it felt like only a few minutes.
On the other hand, now think about the most boring lecture you ever had to sit through. The clock just seemed to stop, right?
So in one instance the time seems to pass very quickly, and on the other, it just drags. Each minute of the date was like a split second, but each minute of the lecture was like an hour. Moments are light and fleeting in the date, but heavy and slow in the lecture.
Now, think about these events after they are finished. Something very interesting happens. The date which passed so quickly and seemed such a small thing now takes on a solidity, a weight in your mind. Each moment is solid and almost visible; you can remember how the evening played out step by step. You can almost smell the food and hear his or her voice; you can enjoy taking in all the details again and again because they are right there for you all the time. The event has a continual reality, it has become eternal in a sense.
On the other hand, that lecture is now like it never even happened. You can’t remember one thing that was said and frankly, that doesn’t bother you because you never gave that class another thought. It’s like a wisp, something you can’t really grasp even if you wanted to, (and you don’t.) The event that seemed so solid and heavy as you experienced it is now nothing; it has no weight, no substance.
I think our experience of time in this life gives us some insight into Heaven and Hell. To focus on how many moments we will exist in either place is to miss the point. The number of moments won’t matter in Heaven and Hell, what will matter is our experience. In Heaven our experience will be of such a high quality that we’ll never think about time passing because we will be enjoying ourselves too much. And this experience won’t be fleeting; it will have weight and importance. All of our moments will have the solidity of eternity.
On the other hand, the experience of Hell will be of such a low quality that, again, the number of moments won’t actually matter because each moment will seem to take forever. On top of that, these moments won’t have any solidity to them. A person in Hell won’t be able to grab on to anything. Life will be wispy, unreal.
Heaven and Hell will both be eternal, but that has little to do with how long anyone be in either state of existence.