How can you believe that a good and loving God could condemn anyone, no matter how bad, to an eternity of torment? How does that make sense?
It's a good question, and a long-standing one. I think the answer comes from the nature of humans and the nature of God.
You see, human beings are more than just animals, more than just haunted meatsacks, or whatever the dismissive term for us is these days. We're greater than we seem, greater than we often act. In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out masterfully in The Weight of Glory, human beings are potential gods or monsters, potential heavenly beings or potential monsters. We are matter and spirit, body and soul. We are persons who will live forever, no matter what, no matter who we are. Once created, always existing--why?
What makes human beings immortal?
Well, there have been a number of theories down through the ages, a number of different ways of addressing what happens to us after we die. I'm going to dismiss the atheist contention that it's night and silence for us upon death, the argument that once the biological machinery ceases ticking over, then it's curtains for the strange combination of electric impulses and chemical reactions that make me who I am. I'm going to dismiss that because it's such a minority view in terms of human history that it barely warrants a mention by the numbers. Across the ages and cultures, you have some notion of an afterlife, some notion of a part of us that endures beyond the grave--even if we may face dissolution and destruction at the hands of gods or devils past that point--that we really ought to be able to take the existence of some sort of soul as well established,
But what is it that makes us immortal?
Well, we are made in the image and likeness of God, originally. God breathed life into us, and with that breath of earthly life also came divine life, at the outset. Since that time, Adam and Eve took a bite out of a forbidden fruit, and so we lost that original inspiration, that original inbreathing of divine life, only to be regained through Baptism, Holy Communion, and retained through Confession and Anointing of the Sick. But we've never lost the image of God.
We are persons. And all persons are immortal.
All persons, divine, human, or angelic (including fallen angels) have spiritual souls. All persons, once created, will never pass out of existence again, though some will experience the "second death," whatever that will entail. The Last Judgment seems a dismal prospect for the goats; but as best we know, people who have once come into existence will never pass away fully and finally.
That means that beatitude for the blessed will last forever, and damnation for the damned will last forever.
But why must it be so?
Fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that God is not Harvey Weinstein. That is, God respects human free will. He is a gentleman, and will take no as the refusal for a relationship that it is. He comes to us, sacred Scripture tells us repeatedly, like a bridegroom seeking His bride; like a lover seeking His beloved. He comes to us, in other words, pursuing a love affair with the created order, a union that marriage only resembles in a shadowy, distant sort of way.
Marriage is the union of two lovers; the union God is pursuing with us is the union between Love Itself and--well, us.
But of course, true love seeks freely willed, freely chosen love. Love Itself must be met with love, or else it will go away. God created us free in order to allow our love to be free. So there is the option to say no to Him.
Now, during our lifetimes, we may be saying yes and no to Him at different points along the way; just as in an ordinary relationship, sometimes things can get rocky. Couples break up, get back together, and go through all sorts of ups and downs together. But with God, there comes the time of a definite choice, where all the lesser choices of a lifetime culminate, or are overcome by grace.
That is to say, one day we die.
There are a few options for last minute interventions, of course--Our Lady can step in, as St. Alphonsus Liguori details in story after story in The Glories of Mary. Jesus comes to the soul in its final moments three times, as St. Faustina details in her Diary (1496; see also 1698). But at a certain point, our destiny is fixed--for spirits, such choices are all or nothing affairs. Human spiritual souls will experience this, just as it was for the angels and the demons at the time of their testing.
And then--well, we remain in our choices forever after. We choose either the company of God, His angels and His saints, or we choose the company of those who cannot stand company, those for whom the existence of others is a burden and a bore, whose egos reign supreme, whose vices have overtaken them and swallowed any goodness in them. We choose God and an afterlife of radical self-giving and receiving love, or we choose ourselves and an afterlife of radical selfishness, of closed mindedness, closed heartedness, closed soul.
If we choose ourselves rather than loving ourselves and opening ourselves up to God and His beloved creation, we choose to become the Dead Sea, salt, stagnant, and blocked off, rather than the Sea of Galilee, receiving new water and giving out water. We choose to become misers, neither spending nor receiving, neither welcoming others nor seeking out the true good for ourselves. We choose hell--as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the gates of hell would of course be locked from the inside, would be furiously closed off against anything outside of hell's control, blocking out light, life, and the unwanted, intolerable intrusion of other people, other ways of being, other ways of living.
But must it be forever?
Yes--because God is love, and God is eternal. God creates and sustains all that is through His love. You exist right now because of God's love, because God knows and loves you, remembers you and pours out His heart to you, shares His being with you, and calls you good.
You exist from moment to moment because God chooses you. God loves you. God calls you worthy.
And God can never stop loving His creation. It's not in His nature. He is love, not hate; wisdom, not forgetfullness. God is eternal life and love, and so He holds His beloved fellow people in existence for all eternity.
As Diane Duane puts it so well in the Young Wizards Series, nothing that is loved is ever lost.
So even the devils in hell are loved by God. He must, or else they would cease to exist. He loves us so much that He sustains us even in our furious rejection of Him, even in our sins. He loves us and remembers us even as we lash out against Him, even as we doubt His existence, forget our obligations to Him, fail to show Him gratitude, and do evil against God and neighbor. God loves us so much that He lets us choose freely what to do. He loves us so much that there are consequences to our choices, even eternal consequences.
And He can never stop loving us, because that would demand that God ceases to be God.
That is to say, He can never stop sustaining us; He can never stop holding us in existence, even if we have rejected Him, even if we have chosen life without Love, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Being--life without God.
He can never stop loving us into existence, even if we have chosen hell.
That is how eternal damnation and divine love make sense in my head, at least.