“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keeps covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments. . .” (Nehemiah 1:5 AKJV)
Atheists seem to want life’s end both ways. In moments of clarity, they ask for justice. No one wants to see a heartless murderer or terrorist be given a pass or a slap on the wrist for atrocities worthy of death. Intuitively, justice calls for an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise, a life for a life.” (Exodus 21:24-25) But when faced with the idea of judgment, the atheist will shift feet, and side with Martin Luther King: “If we do an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.”
So when you ask the atheist, particularly The Daylight Atheist (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/essays/the-great-divorce/), what should be done with the unrepentant person who wants only to kill, injure or live according to his selfish desires, suddenly the atheist discovers mercy! He wants justice, but only on his own perceptions; mercy whenever he feels bad about injuring the guilty.
C.S.Lewis asks the question in The Great Divorce, “Why don’t the inhabitants of Heaven attack and destroy Hell once and for all and rescue those who dwell there? It is certainly within their power.” This is stated by his “Hard-Bitten Ghost,” (a reference to one who is grim or severe in judgment, stubborn). The Daylight Atheist re-asks the question as if it is a legitimate alternative, but ignores some basic theology. The Hard-Bitten Ghost, like the Daylight Atheist, thinks too shallowly, that his experience of life is all that matters, and that his perceptions are correct, against any evidence presented. There is no argument to prove the sky is blue to someone who will not call “blue” what it is.
You see, God did not “create” hell. Inherent in Lewis’ depiction in The Great Divorce is a recognition that hell is not a place in geography. In fact, it is not really a “place” at all. Everything God creates is good, by definition that He created it. Hell, like death, is simply a separation from that Source of everything good; a separation from the Life that flows from God. Just as darkness is an absence of light, or as cold is an absence of heat, death is an absence of life; hell is an absence of Heaven. (See December 6, 2015)
Free will is the key here, with which The Daylight Atheist apparently has difficulty. He expects that if God allowed it, the redeemed could “invade Hell and tear it down once and for all, as the Hard-Bitten Ghost suggested.” He incorrectly asserts that any damned soul would be thankful if a transformation to live in Heaven was forced on it. But within scripture, God promises that any who desire Heaven will find it: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) This promise is retold by Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” The Christ-follower is not arrogant who simply reiterates what Jesus has promised. Heaven cannot be forced on anyone, else it would not be Heaven. It must be chosen freely.
Sometimes Christians have strayed from the heart of the Master, and concentrated more on winning arguments than on loving people as Father loves them. But this does not change the heart of the matter: if someone wants to find God, he will find God is more willing to reveal Himself than we are to receive Him. One just has to be prepared to accept that He is Who He Is and not who we may want Him to be. He is the uncreated and perfectly holy and loving God. Just as a loving parent is sometimes not who his/her children wish, God will not change only to please our whims of what justice and mercy should look like.
Simply put, some people will not choose Heaven, even when presented with it “forcibly” because it will not fulfill their particular picture of what they think Heaven should be. The loving Christ-follower recognizes this and realizes we are powerless to force a person’s free will. All we can do is offer the choices to it.
So God is just, but He is also merciful, and much more merciful than The Daylight Atheist who only allows for people who have worked good enough and long enough, to make up for their wrong actions, to enter Heaven. “Why does God hold us to a standard he knows we cannot meet? Can a thirty-second profession of faith really achieve what a virtuous lifetime cannot?” he asks. The standard we cannot meet is perfection, and He has made it possible for anyone to be forgiven for not meeting it. If The Daylight Atheist ever accepts forgiveness, he will understand, and become forgiving.
Then what about the question The Daylight Atheist raises with his assertion, “Any god who would create Hell would be a monster, and any human being who would enjoy Heaven untroubled by the suffering of the damned only slightly less so.” Again, the atheist thinks too highly of his own understanding in light of eternity, and does not realize the greatness of God. As we already noted, God did not “create” hell, but simply allows for free-willed beings to choose their destiny: either with Him, which includes all good things, far beyond our meager imaginations; or without Him, in darkness, alone, cold and dead.
The greatness of God is such that in Heaven, we are less concerned with ourselves than with Him who is the center of all Life. If it is difficult to get our minds around the idea that we will not care about the damned, this is because our view here on earth is too limited. This takes us into the realm of the “mystery of faith” that the atheist refuses to enter (1 Timothy 3:9). When we as limited small creatures note the smile on a baby’s face, do we not forget about who won the election or the war in the Mideast? If a baby’s face can do this, what amazing effect do you think seeing Him face to face will have on our existence? (Revelation 22:1-5)
The mercy of God is amazing and wonderful to those who receive it, but terrible, at first, to receive. And it will forever feel like a terrible injustice to those who refuse it.