Before I begin, I want to point out how you are again trading on the notion of some objective good that is being violated by a God who might say, “Love me or I set you on fire.” You can’t call God a bully or evil or any of those things if your only standard for morality is a subjective one that developed by any unguided mutations that won the day for keeping our species on earth a bit longer. We don’t call sharks rapists for forcibly copulating; if we’re just differently speciated from sharks or praying mantis or other animals who interact in alarmingly terrifying ways, how is the opinion of our behavior (or any other sentient being, such as a cosmic creator) anything more than just an arbitrary opinion?
But since I do agree with you that objective moral values (and moral duties! We never even covered that) do exist, here’s my reply to your challenge.
Let’s say a new government is established and they create a police system and prisons. What do their maximum security prisons say about that government’s values and the character of its elected officials? That they are psychopaths? No, it says that they value law and order, and that those who wish to be part of their civilization must value and adhere to those things too or else face punishment and isolation/captivity. This is more what is happening behind the scenes re: Hell than is your torture chamber example. Incidentally, it seems your concerns about Hell are specifically based on the notion of your going there. Try this: If God exists and he didn’t exact justice on the likes of Hitler and Stalin, would you not call his goodness into question? Or would you be glad to know that Hell exists when you think about Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao?
So what then is the issue? Is it uncertainties about whether the punishment fits the crime that trouble you? I will admit that this is an area of theology where I don’t think our finite minds will ever feel quite comfortable with the possible prospects (though our comfort with God’s choices have no bearing on his existence nor, if he exists, his rights to make those choices) and as a result I have trouble tying up my view in a neat little package with a bow. But I’ll try: in summary it seems to me more about whether the punishment fits the nature of the one against whom transgression has taken place, rather than the nature of the transgression itself. We see this in our own natural world. If we do wrong against a rock, and it’s no big deal; a flower, and we might get some dirty looks; an insect, and some entomologists could take issue; a mammal, and it will depend what we did and which animal it was; our fellow man, and we’re at the mercy of the lawbooks and courts for the nature and length of the punishment/sentence; a police officer, government employee, or elected official, and the punishment will be even steeper; our country, and we are traitors worthy of death. If we transgress a holy, perfect and eternal Creator, couldn’t it make sense that the sentence is going to be an eternal one?
But the part about God loving you is true, Barry, and here is why: Hell existed first for celestial beings who were initially perfect but who knowingly chose to follow the prince of angels (Lucifer, the devil) in a mutiny, desiring to become the new god themselves; and now it is for all created souls who through our regular thoughts and deeds break God’s laws and join the mutiny in rebelling against him. If God is real and the Bible’s descriptions of him and his expectations are true, it makes sense that we cannot rebel and get away with it. And more than that, a perfect God cannot have communion with nor be in the presence of imperfect creatures. And just as a parent is justified to say to his five year old (as I do daily) “love me by obeying me (not merely by feeling amicably toward me) or else consequences will follow” so also our Heavenly Father says this to his children.
But it is not quite like you’re characterizing it to be. What is God telling us to do when we’re called to love him? Is he telling us to do something awful that we’ll hate — to swallow a bitter pill? Or is it more like this:
We all inherently have the conviction that moral crimes deserve punishment. We believe justice should be served, and we desire to see it done. And yet, we’ve all ourselves committed countless moral crimes — usually against our fellow man, but sometimes in secret against simply the moral law itself. So then where/when do we answer for those crimes? As street apologist / director of Living Waters ministry Ray Comfort puts it, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all lied, taken things that don’t belong to us, used God’s name as a cuss word, looked at people other than our spouse with lust (Jesus called this adulterous of the heart), hated a brother (Jesus said this is equivalent to murder). That means we are lying thieves, blasphemous, adulterers and murderers.” And if there is a judgement day and we stand before God, we stand guilty for these and many other crimes. A guilty man will not be offered admittance into a perfect heaven. It’s not because we haven’t said some magical prayer or jumped through X number of arbitrary religious hoops set up by God at his whim just to play favorites of one religion or another. Rather, it is our own guilt that condemns us; your conscience and mine, Barry, that tell us we are far far far from perfect. If I’m honest, my life looks more like that of a convicted prisoner with a life sentence than it does the life of Jesus of Nazareth. How about you?
So we’re standing before a righteous judge, guilty of crimes we know we’ve committed, and he reads us the sentence due for our long rap sheet. But if a man walks into the court room and offers us a pardon — more than that, offers to take our punishment and pay our fines — we can choose to walk free by accepting that free pardon. Or, we can say no, and take the sentence on ourselves. That’s the love God has for people like you and me who have missed the mark and loved ourselves more than others (and more than God) consistently throughout life — he offers us a pardon from the eternal prison sentence we face. But the pardon is only offered once, and only via one man: God in the flesh — Jesus himself. (That’s what sets Christianity apart from all other world religions, by the way. We’re not striving to get ourselves to heaven by our good works; we’re admitting our brokenness and riding there on someone else’s ticket.)
As far as the “torture chamber” motif goes, dust off that bible and do a bit of proper biblical interpretation (exegetical hermeneutics), and you’ll find that while hell is hyperbolically described as a place of fire and gnashing of teeth, the reality of hell is much more simple: it is eternal existence in full knowledge of the truth about God yet in full separation from him. In effect, if you live a life that screams “I want nothing to do with that God of the Bible,” he will grant you that request for eternity. He doesn’t want to; he wants an eternal relationship with you, and wants to offer you the peace and assurance of his presence, but he won’t force you. Each of us has to acknowledge him, humble ourselves, and request permission to enter his presence by being cleansed from our wrongdoing by the pardon — the grace — of Jesus. The alternative, Hell, would be an eternal separation we request by our conscious life choices, which he grants any of us who are unwilling or uninterested in bowing our knee to him as sovereign Judge and Lord to accept his pardon.