A good friend of mine once likened God’s role in the Last Judgment to a ferris wheel operator who decides who gets to take a ride and who doesn’t. My recollection is that his essential complaint rested on the arbitrariness, either of God’s decision whom to damn, or perhaps of God’s decision regarding what would qualify someone to take the ride, even if He did make those criteria known to the living. It’s been about 11 years since that email exchange and the details are a bit foggy. But the image has stuck with me all the while.
Aside from the question of arbitrariness - which we could mostly eliminate by moving away from the Divine Command Theory (“x is good just because God said so”, instead of "God commands x because it is good", or better: "goodness is nothing other than participation in God's life") it seems to entail - I would say that it is due to the upsurge in our valuation of kindness that the Last Judgment is so problematic these days. Because when you factor out values unique to each of the cultures making up our pluralistic society, as we are forced to do in the public sphere, kindness is one of the few things left. And so kindness gets inflated to fill the space left by the eradication of all those culture-specific virtues. Kindness, along with the air of self-congratulation that surrounds so many acts of kindness, becomes practically a fetish object.
As a consequence, the dogma of hell (and please, dogma is but a Greek word meaning "a teaching", whatever its popular use as a term of opprobrium) gets swept aside even in homilies, for the sake of adjusting the message to the laypeople - and not scaring them off, which would adversely affect weekly donations. So even those somewhat prone to understand God’s judgment are conditioned to forget about it, heightening the strangeness of its appearance.
But, of course, whether or not there is a hell has nothing to do with what we wish to be the case. And so it makes little sense to militate against its existence by, for example, asking what sort of monster that would make of God. Plus, throwing away hell makes for a very strained reading of the Gospels, given how often Jesus mentions it.
If we wish to take on the dogma charitably, as we ought, we are likely stuck with the struggle to resolve the tension between the reality of hell and that of God’s love. I personally have a hard time doing this - I would say it is the single most difficult feature of Christianity. I myself would not wish hell on anyone. But at the same time, I do not claim to be wiser or more merciful than God. If it is the case that infinite love is reconcilable with damnation, and even requires it, the charitable assessment is that these things, if they be true, may well be beyond my ken.
Or maybe we can make inroads into this riddle: first, that in order for any love including the love of God to be genuine, it must be chosen freely, and so it's opposite, rejection, must also be a real possibility. Hell on this understanding (CCC 1033-1037) is one's personal choice and not God's. Add to that an observation I get from Augustine (City of God, I.8):
For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked.
But it takes some deft exegesis to get here. That damnation (a) is one's own choice and (b) the same act on God's part runs directly counter a literal reading of Matthew 25:31-46:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 32 and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ 40i And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 44 Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
And yet it's interesting to ask after the consequences of this dogma. If you are going to ask after the implications of hell’s existence anyways, don’t forget to include the following consideration: if someone is entirely wrapped up in self-interest, and only has ears for that which is to his own benefit, what could possibly shake him out of this except an appeal to self-interest? And what better appeal to self-interest than the prospect of eternal suffering? But this of course requires that the self-interested man is adequately acquainted with the dogma...
“We didn’t take them to church. We figured we’d just let them choose whatever religion they wanted when they grew up” That’s what my aunt once said of my cousins, and to my 10-year-old ears it rang forth with magnanimity, open-mindedness, tolerance, in short all the things I so much craved above being packed into the car for mass - even when visiting my aunt on vacation, wasting precious hours I could be spending in that magical house of hers.
Of course, any idiot can make a choice at 18. They all do. The question is whether that choice is informed. When it comes to a religion as massive and labyrinthine as Catholicism, preparing for that informed choice takes years of learning and practice. To leave your children uninformed is practically to make the choice - and specifically a choice against Catholicism or whatever elevated structure of worship it be - for them. For what uninitiated 18 year old is going to take a glance at that foreboding mass of laws and rituals and spontaneously say, “hey, that’s for me!”?
What’s more, in practically condemning one’s children to be swept away by whatever the current fads of thought be, they are also further deprived of a standpoint outside the mainstream from which to judge it. I’m thinking Frankfurt School here - their insistence on the value of critical knowledge. Even if a child brought up in religion ultimately rejects that religious standpoint, he will be less likely, I would hope, to see current state of things as self-evident. Maybe, maybe not.
18 Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion. Some asked, “What is this scavenger trying to say?” Others said, “He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities,” because he was preaching about ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’ 19 They took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, “May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of? 20 For you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.
Acts, ch. 17