05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"God Can Love Me; God Can Send Me To Hell. But He Can't Do Both."

Sitting at Starbucks yesterday I'm pretty sure I overheard the following exchange between two men whom I'll call Chris and Stan. (For the record, I'm a Christian. And I know: it's amazing how precisely I can recall what each of these two men said to each other. The acoustics in the Starbucks I hang out in must also be extremely good.)

Stan: But that just doesn't make any sense.

Chris: What doesn't?

Stan: That if I don't believe in the reality of the same God that you just told me loves me, then that God will condemn me to hell for all eternity. It's not possible for him to love me and do that to me.

Chris: Yes, it is. God loves you enough to let you determine your own fate.

Stan: But at the end, if he wanted to, God could change the fate that, in my ignorance, I've chosen for myself. If God really wanted me to be okay after I die, he could choose to send me to heaven instead of hell. He could commute the sentence I brought upon myself. He has that power, right? Because he's all-powerful?

Chris: God can do anything.

Stan: Which can only mean that if I end up in hell, that was, in fact, due entirely to God's will. God wanted that to happen to me, so it did. God actively chose hell for me. He could have put me somewhere else, but he chose not to.

Chris: You chose hell for yourself by refusing to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

Stan: That I made that mistake doesn't alter the fact that God has chosen to punish me for that mistake by forcing me to spend eternity being physically tortured. And anyone who would choose that for me -- who would choose for me to suffer horribly throughout eternity as punishment for nothing more egregious than having used the mind and soul he gave me to arrive at a conclusion that doesn't hurt one single person on earth, but only displeases him--cannot possible love me. Under no definition of the word does that qualify as love.

Chris: It's divine justice.

Stan: Really? That's justice? I've got the little tiny span of my lifetime to try to figure out a whole bunch of stuff about God and man, and, with the extremely limited range of information available to me in the course of that time, I decide wrong -- I guess there's not a God, or I decide that I just can't be sure either way, or I choose to believe in a different God than the one prescribed for me by Christianity -- and, as punishment for that mistake, God decides to condemn me to spend the rest of forever having the living flesh seared off my bones. And you're comfortable with that as a definition of the word "justice." That doesn't strike you as ... oh, I don't know ... excessively punitive? Like the kind of unbelievably cruel thing you might expect from a petty, egomaniacal despot, rather than a God of love?

Chris: It's God's judgment upon the sinner who refuses to accept God's love.

Stan: We can talk forever about what it is. But there's no question whatsoever about what it's not, which is love. Look: After I'm dead, God either has the power to send me to heaven instead of hell, or he doesn't. If he doesn't have that power, then he's too weak to matter. If he does have the power to send me to heaven instead of hell, and he wills me to go to hell, then he's without compassion--or at the very least he certainly doesn't love me. That's your choice. By your own definition, your god is either not all-powerful, or not all-loving. But he can't be all-powerful and all loving, and I -- a nice guy, a loving guy, a guy who gives to charities and actually does help people in the world -- can end up in hell. I can't love somebody and shoot them in the head because they refused to answer my phone calls.

Chris: You're looking for rational explanations for mysteries that only God comprehends.

Stan: That's so typical. Whenever Christians run into a simple logical inconsistency that cuts directly to the viability of their entire belief system, they resort to the only "argument" left to them, which is that we inferior sinners, who are so pathetic that we think it's a good idea to use our rational minds to help us understand things that don't seem to make sense, can't possibly begin to grasp how and why God works in the "mysterious" ways he does. At the slightest challenge, you absolutely abandon logic. It's ridiculous -- and at best should be embarrassing to you. If you can't explain the simplest, most obvious, most terrible contradiction in the qualities you say your God possesses--much less in the primary quality you say he possesses, which is his love for all mankind--then how in the world do you expect anyone but a sheer moron to take you or your religion seriously?

Chris: God bless you, man. I fear for your soul.

Stan: Bypassing all the repelling, presumptive arrogance inherent in that statement, I'll tell you one thing: I fear for your mind.