In his recent study, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, Jerry Walls argues that “hell is possible precisely because God is love.” Citing several passages from John’s gospel, he points out that “for God to live with us, we must love and obey him. . . . The obedience God wants from us is an obedience that flows out of genuine love.”
Yet “some may not choose to love Jesus or obey his teaching. As astounding as this is to contemplate, some human beings may refuse the gift of perfect love. They may choose not to welcome God into their lives. They may choose to reject the trinitarian God of eternal love, the Creator of the universe who gave his son in order to give us eternal life with him.” Here the connection of God’s love with hell becomes clear: “Any who choose not to love God and invite him into their lives have chosen to exclude themselves from heaven by that very choice.” They have chosen to refuse “God with us” (72-3).
Walls (rightly) follows the trajectory of this argument to the startling conclusion that lake of fire where damned suffer eternal torment is in the presence of Christ. Walls explains the vision of Revelation 14:9-11 this way: “the unhappy creatures described in Revelation 14 are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact. However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion. They are close in terms of something like proximity, but far apart in terms of mutual love and intimacy.”
He suggests that this is one reason why the torment of hell is described in Scripture as fire, the same image to describe the presence of God: “Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence. . . . But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.” He refers to David Hart’s observation that Eastern Orthodoxy makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory.” Damnation is, in Hart’s words, “the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement”(85-6).
Dante was right: Hell isn’t only a manifestation of divine justice, but a creature of primal love.