Look, gosh-heckity-darnit, I get the critique: Christianity, by introducing the fear of Hell into her believers, is just the worst. Her education has raised up a veritable ocean of sniveling, frightened humanoids who can barely walk to the grocery store without fearing that they are in some way offending a highly-offendable God.
But is it all that pathetic to walk into a Wal-Mart, pick out an ice-cream sandwich, and on the way to the checkout, for no real reason, fear that one will spend an eternity in frigid separation from the God who is love? I don’t know: We all fear something, because we all love something. To love something includes the fear of losing what we love.
Unless we have an assurance that the people we love will never suffer and die, to accept an invitation to love is to accept an invitation to fear. Love does not comfort, then, but “ups the ante” of human existence, making higher the highs and lower the lows. It makes life ginormous. It widens our capacity for sorrow just as it widens our capacity for joy. It increases our possible pain just as it increase our possible pleasure. It broadens the total scope of existence. As Clive Staples put it:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
A fear of Hell could indicate a narrow soul, obsessed with its own guilt. But it could also indicate the broadest of souls, one that has made the decision to love God and thus made itself vulnerable to that loss of God we call Hell.
There is an obvious hierarchy of the objects of our fear. To fear the loss of the guacamole balanced precariously on the edge of our chip is something less than our fear for the suffering and loss of our child. If there is a hierarchy of fears, or, more positively, a hierarchy of goods — an unequal value between chip-dips and pets, spouses and cities, fingernails and legs — then it stands to reason that there some good at the top of this hierarchy.
The religious intuition of God, among other things, involves the recognition that he is the greatest possible good. The person who fears Hell, then, has opted for the largest life, the broadest possible scope of feeling, the highest high and the lowest low. He accepts the invitation to the greatest possible love and thus the invitation to the greatest possible fear. From this view, the insult leveled at him, that his belief “destroys happiness,” makes very little sense, for his fear is the result of an immense existential risk, a decision to “go for gold” rather than silver or bronze, and to make the Highest the object of his love, rather than some lesser good. “Destroys happiness? But your commandment against the fear of Hell destroys happiness for the sake of safety, urging me to limit my love to some lesser good, the loss of which will not burn so acutely as would the loss of the highest good.”
Insofar as we place some good at the “top” of our loves, we have, in a certain respect, a hell. The man who makes money his absolute good makes the loss of money his hell — the loss of his highest possible good. The religious man is one who has, in the risk of a lifetime, chosen an Infinite, Absolute Good as his highest good, and thus fears an Infinite, Absolute loss. This may be foolish, but it is not weakness. This may be crazy, but it is far from the snivelling, cowardly, life-negating and timid disposition that the non-religious insinuate it is. Far more sniveling is a world in which men go about bent low for fear of losing comfort, reputation, financial security, and yes, even bodily life. Incapable of the ultimate risk with which one loves God and so fears Hell, we settle for a nest of worldly hells and call it freedom.