Imagine a 12-year old girl raised in a Christian household. She has, we will assume, reached the “age of accountability.” It happened just today. And imagine that she is not yet a Christian. And she commits a single, solitary sin.
Now imagine that in a sad, tragic accident, she is killed. You are asked to preach her funeral. What do you say?
Do you pretend she was saved even though she’d never confessed Jesus, and in fact had not at all decided to follow him? She was more worried about school work, her friends, and boys. She just hadn’t made up her mind.
Do you preach that she will suffer the burning punishment of fire and sulfur for all eternity for a single, solitary sin? Is that the God you want those at the funeral to meet?
Would you argue, as some theologians do, that even one sin merits eternal suffering because it’s a sin against an eternal God? Does that sit well with you? (And notice how this argument abuses the meaning of “eternal.”)
Or do you preach that God is perfectly just and will not allow her to suffer one second more than is just? That is, although she will not be in the resurrection, neither will she suffer unfairly for a young, almost entirely innocent life.
You see, there’s something inherently unfair and unjust in the Medieval version of hell that the modern church teaches, thanks to Plato. Punishment is always disproportionate — greatly exceeding the wickedness being recompensed. Maybe eternity is fair for a Hitler or a Pol Pot. We’ve seen some true evil in the last 100 years. But for everyone who lacks faith? Everyone?
No, God is a God of love. God is love. God is just. And therefore, I have to say that I’m inclined to take “destroy” as meaning (are you ready?) destroy. Hell, I believe, is a painful, agonizing separation from the glory of God, following by the cessation of existence — forever. And the amount of pain suffered is whatever God deems just — and if that strikes you as unfair, then you need to reconsider your understanding of who God is.
In fact, many struggle with this idea because the idea of an unjust, cruel God is so deeply rooted in our minds, that we don’t trust God to be just. In fact, to our ears, God’s justice sounds awful, mean-spirited, and cruel. Because that’s who we imagine God to be.
Which is just one more really good reason to throw away our old thinking on hell.