By Fr. Gabriel Wissa – Parish Priest from St. George & St. Joseph Coptic Orthodox Church, Montreal, Canada.
Many people ask: “Why does a loving God send people to hell?”
To answer this question, we have to step back and answer a different question first: what is the orthodox meaning of punishment?
We often see a father punishing his son in a very brutal way, whether physically or emotionally. We have seen this so often that this has become for us the definition of punishment. Unfortunately, we tend to put this definition on God and think that He punishes us in this way. However, is that true?
No, God punishes us in a pedagogical way. This means He disciplines us for our own good so that we may learn. He usually does one of two things.
- The first one is that God leads us to repentance, so he puts a certain consequence in my way for me to go back to Him. He indeed tells me, “I love you. I want you to enjoy eternity with me. Come to me”.
- The second thing God does is that He puts an end to evil. For example, if someone has chosen to be evil, and God has been very patient with him, but the person still refuses to come back, God puts an end to that evil because He does not want others to suffer because of this person. He thus puts an end to it. This is how God punishes us. Nevertheless, the term is being misused or misunderstood when it comes to God. For the sake of this video, we will therefore use a different word: “consequence”.
Let’s take an example out of Genesis 3:22. This example is after Adam and Eve ate of the tree and their nature has become corrupted. Looking at this, someone can understand that God is angry since He kicks out Adam and Eve and does not want them to live forever. There is nonetheless a completely different way to look at it. In fact, if we ask ourselves; Does God want us to live forever? The answer is yes. He actually created us as eternal beings. In Revelations 2:7, we read that God will give to those who overcome of the Tree of Life to eat. Hence, God wants us to eat from the Tree of Life. But not in Genesis, why? Because if they ate of the Tree of Life, they will live forever in the corruption that they were in. And if they live in this corruption, they will not be happy. God is thus saying, out of love for us, for our own good, “I will put the cherubim with a sword of fire and I will make sure you don’t eat of the Tree of Life.” This is how God puts a consequence on us for our own good.
When Adam and Eve fell, two major things happened. The first one is that their relationship with God was in need of reconciliation. The second thing is that, the image of God in which they were created has been distorted. For us to go to heaven, we need to work on these two things in parallel. First, since God has reconciled Himself to us through the cross, we need to be vigilant at staying reconciled with Him throughout our life, through prayer, reading the bible, repenting and confessing our sins…etc.) We also need to make sure we fulfill His commandments, because when we break God’s commandments, we distort the image inside of us. However, when we actually partake of his sacraments, we are healed from breaking the commandments.
If we look at the example of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), we find that he has left his father to live a life of sin. When he was starving, and was not able to eat even from the food of the pigs, he decided to go back to his father. So, his longing to fill his stomach of the food of the pigs was a consequence of his sin. It was this that made him come back to himself and decide to go back to his father. When he went back, he found his father waiting for him. He ran to him threw his arms around him and kissed him. Christ wants to teach us in this parable that the Father has reconciled himself to us through his Son. Now, through repentance, we run back to God and this is when the relationship is reconciled once more, but it does not stop there. The father then asks the servants to bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. He also orders them to kill the fated calf and to prepare a huge feast. What is the father doing? The father is restoring his son to his proper state. He is restoring that image in him. The father demonstrated that the garment is a new man. We regain our sonship to God, retake the image of God inside of us and it maintained with repentance, prayer and the Eucharist until the day we die.
So does God want me to be with him in heaven? In Luke 12:32, it is clear that God wants me to be with Him, but the verse also says that only a little flock has chosen to be with God in heaven. Let’s take the example of three voters. The first one is God, and God always wants us to go to heaven. The second vote is from the devil and he doesn’t want you to go to heaven. The third vote is ours. If we want to go to heaven, we have to make sure that there is a relationship, that this image is restored through repentance and the sacraments. Then why does God send people to hell? He doesn’t. People send themselves to hell.
What is this “hell”? Is it a real fire? Some have chosen the literal interpretation. Others have chosen the allegorical interpretation or the symbolic one, to say it’s not a real fire. But there is true suffering there, and the suffering feels like fire. That suffering stems from the fact that there is a lack of communion with God. Some also have shown it in a different example. They say if we have, by God’s grace, restored this image in us, we have become like gold. And that gold we find in fire is a good thing. However, if we distorted God’s image, we have become like wood. And wood and fire together is bad thing because fire consumes wood. In either case, what is definitely false is that it’s an angry God that has put someone in hell out of vengeance for eternity. Let’s look at what St. Isaac the Syrian says: “To suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found in Him [God] is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the Divine Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life… let alone believe of God that has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts.” St. Isaac is thus saying that God is all-loving, all-caring, and He is fulfilled in Himself. Why would he therefore do such a thing? St. Isaac adds that a virtuous person would not even dare to do such a thing, let alone, the all loving and all caring God. Saint Basil says: “The evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but themselves.” In other words, sufferings in hell, are NOT because of God. They are consequences of our own choices. Like the example of Adam and Eve in the beginning, God put them outside the garden out of love.
Everything that God does, He does out of love.
Remember know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith.