Hell and heaven essentially are our freely chosen identities going on forever. In other words, Christianity believes that people have a soul that lives forever, and therefore, a process that begins in our soul now can go on forever.
For example, take self-centeredness. As we know, the more self-centered people get, the more miserable and the more in denial they become. That is to say they blame everybody else for their problems. And that is part of what self-centeredness is – you are wise in your own eyes, you can’t take the blame for anything, nothing is ever your fault. Hell is a self-centered ego going on for a billion years.
God, according to Romans 1, lets people have what they most want – and hell is simply serving yourself, going on forever. Hell is God giving you the life you want, on into eternity.
Therefore, in a sense, nobody ever goes to hell in the Christian understanding unless they want to. People go to heaven because they love God and want to submit to him. People go to hell because they want to be away from God, because they do not want somebody telling them how to live their life. They want to live their own lives their way. Hell is separation from God. And, therefore, nobody goes to hell except people who want to go there.
In some ways, the fairest understanding of the afterlife is the Christian one, which says God gives you what you want. If you want to live with God forever, that’s heaven, and you get it. If you want to be your own person, your own savior, your own lord, that’s hell, and you get that – and you stay wanting it; you do not suddenly change your mind.
In Ezekiel 18:30 God says, ‘I will judge you, each one according to his ways.’ But the verse goes on with God pleading with his people: ‘Repent! Turn away from all your offenses… Why will you die?… I take no pleasure in the death of anyone… Repent and live!’ (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
God’s justice is active, not passive, and when we violate it God will judge. But what these verses also show is that God wants people to repent and turn to him – that he does not want anyone to perish.
It sounds open-minded to say: I believe that any good person can find God, not just Christians. but the premise behind that statement is that good people find God and bad people do not. There are two problems with the premise. First, it holds out no hope for bad people, and lots of us know deep down that we have not lived up to even our own moral standards. Second, it misunderstands Christians’ beliefs. It assumes that Christians believe that they are going to heaven because they are good, and that is not true at all.
Christians believe that no one goes to heaven or hell by being compliant with Christian ethics – by being moral and good, or not. The essence of sin is loving anything more than the true God, and by essentially being our own ‘god’ – that is, trusting ultimately in our own wisdom and ability. Even if you believe in God and are very good and moral, you may be doing it as a way to earn your own salvation, so that God will be obligated to bless and help you, and take you to heaven. The fact is, all of us – religious and irreligious, moral and immoral – are trying to control our own lives rather than rely on God. Everyone is doing this and we will not ‘find God’ until we admit this spiritual condition and seek pardon and change through Jesus. Our eternal destiny is dependent not on being good but on our response to the grace of God and to Christ’s death on a cross in our place, and on our willingness to admit that we are cut off from God because of the pride and self-centeredness of our hearts.
- Tim Keller