Disclaimer: This post is not necessarily based on Catholic teaching, but merely on my own thoughts.
Someone once told me that our perceptions of good and evil are all wrong. He said that God would never punish us or send us to Hell because He loves us. Therefore, no one was in Hell--there was not really such a thing as "evil". This person had recently read a book called "Conversations With God" by Neale Donald Walsch that inspired these thoughts in his head.
I decided to give that book a try. I didn't read very much of it; I found it quite dense, slightly irritating, and altogether wrong in its theology. Perhaps I should have read more of it if only to dispute it. Part of what I read spoke of this concept that everything exists in opposites: good and evil, light and dark, life and death, etc., and the only way to experience good is to experience being without good. The idea is that you cannot know good until you experience it; you cannot fully experience it until you experience being without it--hence, evil (which is merely a name we gave this absense of good). Therefore, whenever we experience bad events in our lives, it is so that we can know what good is. Walsch took it a step further saying that we are free beings that are godlike in the sense that we choose what it is we want to experience; we make things happen, though we may not know it, and therefore, we are subconsciously choosing these bad things in order to experience good. If only we understood more about ourselves and our beings, then our world would be a much better place. God, in his goodness, gives us the greatest freedom to experience all that we want and therefore would never punish us for it. I'm sure there was much more to it than that, and I may not be getting it exactly the way the author put it, but that's is how I understood it (on its most basic level).
Well it got me thinking a bit about good and evil, Heaven at Hell, and what all that really means. The thoughts swirled in my head for a little while as I tried to sort them out, but eventually I let the storm subside and I forgot about it.
Then, probably six months later (now), I started reading "The Shack" by William Paul Young. I am about halfway through, and I have to say that it is... okay. The theology appears pretty sound though shaky at points, and much of it seems slightly irreverent. But for the most part it has a decent storyline and good thoughts that can get through to a lot of people, I imagine. As I was reading today, there was a discussion about good and evil, and my inner questions arose once again. To some degree "The Shack" presents some of the same thoughts as Neale Donald Walsch. God, in the book, says, "...evil is a word we use to describe the absense of good, just as we use the word darkness to describe the absense of light or death to describe the absence of life. Both evil and darkness can be understood only in relation to light and good; they do not have any actual existence." Hmm, interesting, much like Walsch... God (in the story) continues, "I am light and I am good... Light and Good actually exist." So there's a thought. God is good and the absense of God is evil.
So where am I going with this? Well, the question posed to me earlier was on the reality of Hell and whether or not God would send us to Hell. The answer is no, of course He wouldn't, but we can choose to go to Hell by choosing to be without God. We can choose evil by choosing to not live in God. All that is good comes from God, and God is only good, so nothing that is evil can be from Him. Therefore, those who go to Hell do not go there because of God, but because they have chosen not to be with God. If God did not allow us to make the choice to be without Him, there would be no free will. In fact, if God did not allow us to make the choice to be without Him, we would not have fully and freely experienced living in God's Love, because we would not have chosen it. It would have been forced upon us. (Have you ever had an admirer you didn't really like? Someone that bugged you all the time and followed you around--he/she forced his/her love upon you unwanted? Not so wonderful, right?) God never stops loving us whether we choose to live in Him or not, but he does not force us to accept His Love.
I will go on to say that this thought does carry on the idea of the dichotomy of good vs. evil, and that is why there must be a Hell. Hell is the place where one is furthest away from God who is all good, while Heaven is where one is closest to God. If one can be closest to God and feel His Almighty presence, then surely one is able to be furthest from God and feel the absense of His presence. If one can stand in the Light of God in Heaven, then one can be in utter darkness, totally apart from that light. If one can feel God's incredible, all encompassing Love, then one can certainly feel the absense of it. In fact, for there to be a Heaven, there must be a Hell, otherwise Heaven could not be so great without something to compare it to. (We would be left knowing no different, wondering "Could it be worse?" or "Could it be better?".)
I have heard it said that the pains of Hell are not inflicted on a person out of hate, but they are the result of God's love still being poured out on that person even while he is apart from Him; that person is so utterly despairing simply from the awareness that he is apart from the one who loves him, the one his body and soul were meant to be with. That Great Love of God being poured out on him burns him as much as it would have overjoyed him if he had chosen to live in God's love rather than eternally be apart from it. The pain of Hell is as great as the joy of Heaven. We were made to be with God, and choosing to be without him is our destruction.
It remains to be said that there is such a thing as evil, and there is such a thing as the Devil, the Great Deceiver, who wants us to be without God. He is the first who chose to be apart from God, since he desired to be as Great and powerful as God, and he is so far removed from God, he is Evil itself. Do not be fooled by this propaganda that evil does not exist; it may be the absense of good, but it is real. (Cold may be the absense of heat, but it is just as real to me--and so miserable!) The Devil is not as powerful as God, nor as great, and the battle has already been won, so please make sure you are on the winning side. It's only the Devil deceiving us when we start to believe that evil is not real--he's just trying to get us to fall in his trap.
So, Light and Darkness, Good and Evil, Life and Death--each must exist in order for there to be the other. And, honestly, the Light of God, the Goodness of God, Life in God are all worth all darkness, evil, and even death, because the reality of it is, without them, there is no God.
This whole discussion has spawned some new questions I'd like to think about and answer on later posts:
If Hell is so bad why doesn't God just make us all go to Heaven?
Why did God allow us to eat from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?