Fun topic for a blog post eh?
Last Sunday my pastor's sermon topic was mercy, (Oct 24, Mercy – The Capping of the Tree mp3) and how God's justice and God's mercy are flipsides of the same coin. They are both intrinsically part of Him and inseparable from His nature. It's His merciful love that saves some from the just punishment that we deserve by the gracious giving of Himself in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. To quote a Relient K song, "And this life sentence that I’m serving, I admit that I’m every bit deserving, but the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair"
At this point, I begin talking to myself, asking questions and attempting to answer them as they come up in my mind …
But how can people be punished eternally for finite sins?
The traditional argument in defense of eternal punishment is that sins against an infinite God necessitate an infinite punishment. In our society, we consider the death penalty to be more severe than life imprisonment; if that's the case, an "afterlife sentence" (so to speak) in hell would be a lesser punishment than annihilation.
But there is another option to the (as far as I know) more traditional conception of hell … Dr Shepherd (author of the quote in the "God's Love is Not Tame" post) defends conditional immortality (see page 3 of PDF, these are his cursory notes from his systematic theology class) as at least a scripturally defensible position (following Clark Pinnock et al). I don't know if he personally holds that position but he sees it as a viable option.
But what about …
3) mentally disabled people
4) those who've never heard
5) people who call themselves Christian but act like jerks
1) I don't know for sure
2) I don't know for sure
3) I don't know for sure
4) I don't know for sure
5) According to Matthew 7:21-23 (et al), these "Christians" have more to worry about than anyone fitting into categories 1-4.
Re 1-4 above, since scripture doesn't definitively give clear answers, I don't feel as though I need to be concerned about it. If God is truly both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, then whatever He chooses to do will be both merciful and just. To quote a certain famous president, it's "beyond my pay grade" to speak too definitively about 1-4 where scripture is silent.
That said, it's currently my opinion (held loosely in my hand; an opinion being differentiated from a conviction or persuasion) that for 1-3 there is at least a decent case that they will not be in hell. (See for example Ron Rhodes, The Wonder of Heaven, 159-171. Most of those pages are available for viewing for free via Google Books.)
But how come there will be so few in heaven? Jesus said "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it." (Matthew 7:13)
Jesus did say that, but this doesn't necessarily mean the majority of people who live throughout history will be in hell. If it is true that people who are in categories 1-3 above go to heaven when they die, the number in heaven becomes larger. And when you consider that the population of the world is higher than it has ever been and nearly 1/3 of it is Christian, that number increases further.
Now, even if the "many" in this case is a relatively small number (percentage-wise), still, to God who wills that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) any at all who end up otherwise will seem like "many"; God laments even one who chooses to live apart from Him and the purpose and destiny that He planned for us.
But if this is what God is like then I don't want any part of him.
Sadly then it may be the case that you will be given your wish. What else could God do in that circumstance?
Disclaimer: As always, my opinions (musings) here are subject to change as I learn more and grow deeper in my faith. Also some thoughts may be poorly phrased, or just plain erroneous. Hopefully not … but please try to interpret me charitably. Oh, and as I tell my Sunday school class, whenever I make a mistake, it's on purpose just to test you. 😉