Paul Copan on Why God Would Send People to Hell

Since people are threatening us here with hell, I'm redating this post of mine:

As an evangelical Paul Copan takes a conservative position that the images depicting hell in the Bible are figurative ones, simply because these images picture contrary ones involving darkness, flames, and worms that never die in a place where the damned no longer have physical bodies. What do these images depict? According to Copan, hell is “the ultimate, everlasting separation from the source of life and hope: God.” Therefore, “the pain of hell should not be seen in terms of something physical but rather as pain within a person’s spirit.” “Hell at its root is the agony and utter hopelessness of separation from God.” [From Paul Copan's book “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Baker Books, 2001), pp. 101-109.

Initially I must wonder if Copan has done any deep thinking about what it might mean to be separated from the "source of life" here. There are many evangelicals who conclude that this means the damned cease to exist…annihilationism. And while Copan is trying to soften the horrors of hell, if correct, such a view of hell is still a horrible fate for a loving God to inflict upon human beings.

Copan further argues that “hell is the logical outcome of living life away from God.” Those who find themselves in hell have committed “not simply a string of finite sins,” but “the infinite sin,” for unbelievers have resisted “the influence of God’s Spirit” and “refused to honor God as God” by “not lovingly responding to God’s kind initiative.”

However, I find this almost absurd that the Christian God blames us for living our lives as if he didn’t exist because there simply isn’t enough reason to believe in him over any of the other gods, or no god at all, especially when we usually adopt the religion we were born into! I furthermore find it absurd that God is so upset that we don’t acknowledge him in this life that he will punish us forever for it, as if it hurts him that much for us not to acknowledge him. If he is omniscient, then he knows why we do what we do and why we believe what we do, and I fail to see how such a God cannot empathize with how we live our lives. We all do the best we can do given our environment and brain matter.

According to Copan, “to force someone into heaven who would hate the presence of God…would be horrible,” and he agrees with D.A. Carson, that “heaven would surely be hell for those who don’t enjoy and desire the blessing of God’s presence.” [How Long, O Lord? (Baker, 1990, p. 103]. “Hell is getting what one wants (and deserves)—no God.” Copan also quotes with approval C.S. Lewis that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” [The Problem of Pain, p. 127]. Copan further claims even though the damned are in anguish “they still choose to remain in it,” than to prefer “a God-centered existence in heaven.” And so “resistance to God continues in hell.”

If this is the best answer an evangelical can offer, and it probably is, then it is simply absurd. To claim that the damned prefer the anguish of hell over the bliss of heaven through repentance is simply absurd. Someone in hell would simply say, “Oops, I was wrong. Now I know there’s a God and I want to change (repent) and live forever with him.” Anyone in such anguish would repent of their “sins” if they could experience the purported joys of heaven. Every single person in hell would willingly desire to change if they could escape the torments of hell for the joys of heaven. Christians might claim such repentance wouldn’t be true repentance, but repentance (GK: metanoia) is “a change of mind.” People would gladly change their minds if they could know the truth with certainty.

The parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31) shows that the rich man in hell (Hades) was now a believer. But he was told he could not cross the chasm to “Abraham’s side,” even though it’s clear he wanted to do so—very clear—contrary to Copan. One of the points of this parable is that his eternal destiny was fixed when he died. Since his fate was already sealed all he could ask for was to warn his father’s house of the torment hell. This doesn’t sound like the doors of hell are locked from the inside to me at all. The doors of hell cannot be locked from the inside if it’s painful to be there. Besides, if they are truly “locked from the inside,” contrary to this parable, there is the very strong possibility that someone could repent in hell, and be admitted into heaven!