I'll repost the important stuff from his comment here to make life a little easier:
...I've really been struggling with this question lately, maybe even to a further extreme than your blog deals with it. Here's my problem:[emphasis mine]
I feel like I do have a choice whether or not to love and follow God. However, it's a pretty crummy choice. What sort of love would it be if I told my wife "you can love me or not love me, it's your choice. I want you to choose to love me so I know your love is real and we can have a good life together. If you choose not to love me, that will hurt me but ultimately it is your decision. By the way, if you choose not to love me, I'm going to cast you into a lake of fire where you can burn forever." That's where I'm really hung up... I feel like that is the choice God has given us. How can there be any true love of God when the alternative to loving him is eternal damnation? What sort of loving being offers his creation a choice like that?
Anyway... that's what I've really been struggling with. I appreciate your blog and look forward to more posts, and if you have any input about my comment I would definitely welcome it.
Ok, so to address this properly, I think it's best to start at the beginning with the preconceptions that make up where I feel you're coming from:
1. First off, I think I'll try tackle the eternal damnation thing, just because it's something I've been thinking about. I know this is a little left-field, but a good friend of mine that I trust as a strong theologian once said something about hell as we understand it isn't actually a Biblical thing. Now, unfortunately, I don't have any real references - although it is something I'm planning to follow up with him on - and I'll share what I learn and the resources I get when I get them - but I thought I'd get that in here - maybe Hell and eternal damnation isn't really what we think it is.
Following on from that thought, a very close friend of mine just posted an interesting post here [check out my comment as well, as I don't feel like repeating it here] talking about a very interesting thought where Jesus says something like "the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, or the children of God" - his comment (referencing Shane Claiborne) was that gates don't do much attacking.. so possibly - it's the Church [God's people] that will be attacking the Gates of Hell and -possibly- rescuing those deceived by the deceiver.
Take a look at the post, he does a better, more in depth, job of explaining it - and I've commented on this a bit better there too, but I think it's a very interesting and alternate view on the whole God sending people to hell thing.
Something else that I've been thinking on is this: Why do we always presume that it's God (and by that I mean God-the-Father) that will do all the judging? We seem to see God as this harsh and horrible being, and Jesus, as our advocate trying to stave off His wrath over us, and we are all hoping that when it comes to judgement day, that Jesus will hopefully be able to stave off God's wrath on those that have said the little prayer...
Where do we get this from!? The Bible specifically says on a few occasions that Jesus is the one that will be judging, not God the Father - so if we should be fearing anyone - then I suppose, it should be Jesus. But He died for us - and actually, I believe that by Him being fully God, God died for us - including the Father and the Spirit. In some plane of reality, the Godhead laid themselves down to save their creation. As an aside from this aside, 1 John 4:18 plainly states that if we fear, it is for fear of punishment - and this fear shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Earlier in the verse, John says - perfect love drives out all fear - so as our understanding of God's perfect love for us grows, so our fear should dissipate.
So, I hope I've placed some doubt as to whether there is such a thing as hell in the sense of a place of eternal damnation where people will be 'dying forever' in hellish pain and suffering.
I know I haven't done a good job of explaining it away, but if you are happy to take my word on it for now (I will supply the alternate arguments or references when I get them), there's a chance that Hell isn't actually an eternal place, as we often think it to be.
2. I think some of the problem with your question, is a warped perspective of God. I like what Marc said in his comment, although, I look at the whole "wages of sin" thing a little differently. I'm not so sure that it is "God being just" that brings about the "wages of sin being death". I think the "wages of sin" term is better understood in the same sense as the wages of cancer is death. What I'm meaning is that I think what it is saying is that the logical [and only] outcome of being entrapped in Sin is Death. And we chose that, by rejecting God's request/command in the garden. It wasn't something God placed us in, it's something that we ourselves moved into. Albeit, God could possibly have never placed the tree there in the first place, but then where would our free choice be - and how could we ever really choose Him. I think in His wisdom, He allowed us to make that choice so that we could make the choice to choose Him again - as I fully believe God is all about relationship.
I think that a better picture is this: We were stuck, naked and starving, feeding the pigs of a foreign slavemaster, and God paid the price for us, and offered us a place in His house as sons and daughters, embracing us in our stench and squallor, and in that place, He is offering us a Life of relationship and habitation in Him, and I believe that the gospels are full of these pictures of God as a lavishly loving Father - in the true sense of the word. What I mean by this is that He isn't loving in some arbitrary alternate manner that we don't really understand. He is loving in a 1 Cor 13 kind of way. He is loving in the sense that we know in our hearts a loving person should be. But He is also infinitely wise, and does what is the best for us, and so I think sometimes it is possible, in our finite, foolish wisdom, to misconstrue what God is doing as something that might seem unfair or unloving. Like a father that forbids his child from consuming a 2kg tub of ice cream, for instance - or stops a toddler from touching a hot stove - the child doesn't get why he can't get his own way, and may in some ways feel that his father is being unfair, yet even our wisdom knows that the father is in the right and that what he is doing is out of love for his child.
I was listening to Wayne Jacobsen's Tranformation series [link and more resources I've found helpful here], and he does such a great job of describing the cross as a cure and not punishment. That Jesus laid down His life for us as a reflection of His words: "the greatest thing a friend can do for another is lay down his life" [paraphrased] - so it was clearly as an extension of relationship. It was as if God saw a cancer in mankind that was destroying us, and yet none of us could withstand the Chemo (God's wrath) that would kill it . The only person that could withstand it long enough to destroy the cancer, was God incarnate, and so Jesus came to earth and took that Sin upon Him, effectively defeating the cancer that plagued mankind, and thus giving us Life again, and reuniting us with the Father.
This is just a side thought and something that just came to me, but if the wages of Sin is Death, and that Death is not just the 'falling asleep' kind of death (as Jesus put it) then, could it be that it is a Death that is the antithesis of Life?
So if Life in the bearer of it is eternal, then could Death in the bearer mean temporary life? Could it be that God created mankind as eternal beings when He breathed Life into us, but Sin brought Death upon us, which removed the eternal Life and replaced it with temporary life. Seeing as God is an eternal being, it would be impossible for us in Death to ever have eternal Life with Him. And so the act of reuniting man to God wasn't so much appeasing God's disdain and blood-lust, but rather, by gaining victory over death, Jesus enabled mankind to be eternal beings once more - and thereby we are able to live in the relationship that He offers us?
I don't know if I've really managed to answer your question, or given you an alternate perspective, but I think when our view of god is as you have in your question, we will always end up with a god that is neither very nice nor particularly loving. We end up with somewhat of an abusive god, dolling out nice things when we think we're doing well, but always dangling the "I'll douse you in fuel and set you on fire if you step out of line" threat above our heads.
And that is why I think we need to take an alternate view of God. To step to one side as it were and start re-aligning our view of God with what He says of himself, both Biblically and through the Spirit in our hearts.
Ethan - I hope this helps - I'm keen to hear your thoughts on this as we walk towards a better understanding of Dad..