Hell, Part 7
I began this series of posts by delineating three views of Hell: Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilation and Universal Reconciliation. I made it clear that I don't subscribe to the Eternal Conscious Torment view. I also stated that throughout the course of Christian history there have been learned and devout believers who subscribed to each of these views. I think it is very important that Christians be aware of the historical divergence of views on this and many other matters of doctrine, and be willing to allow room for multiple views. That has been my primary goal in doing this series: to bring awareness to the fact that there are, and always have been, multiple views among devout Christians on the topic of Hell. The historian Howard Zinn once said, "If you don't know history, it is as if you were born yesterday." Many Christians do not know the history of their faith. They believe at face value that the doctrines and interpretations they were taught are the only correct ones--anything else is heresy. The truth is that Christianity is much, much bigger than that. God is much, much bigger than that.
I freely admit that my views about Hell are directly shaped by my views about God and Jesus. I became a Christian as a result of an encounter with God. I continued--and continue to this day--to have encounters with God. God, for me, is alive and accessible. I have experienced God to be immeasurably loving, kind and patient. I cannot help but allow that experience to color my theology. Perhaps this is why I have felt a freedom to ask questions, to explore boundaries and to dig deep into matters of doctrine: Nothing can threaten my foundation, which is the experiential surety that God is real, that God is good and that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God.
I once saw a a speech given by a man who was severely burned over most of his body in an industrial accident. He freely admitted that the accident was caused by his own negligence and he suffered the terrible consequences. It was a harrowing tale. The most gut-wrenching part of the speech was when the man talked about one of the treatments he had to endure in the hospital burn unit. He was placed into a vat of sterilized water while nurses scrubbed off the burnt skin as he screamed in agony. It had to be done to prevent infection and save his life.
Perhaps when we die and stand before God, for some, it will be like that. Perhaps some will be so twisted and hardened by sin that to stand in the presence of pure holy love will be agonizing. Perhaps, the process of removing all of that death--all of that which is contrary to God--from one's soul will be, well, hellish. Sin is a very serious thing indeed--not because of how it affects God, but because of how it affects us.
God is omnipresent. That means He is everywhere at once. It is impossible to be separated from God. The Eastern Orthodox church teaches that since God is omnipresent, Heaven and Hell are the same place--in the presence of God. What will make it Heaven for one and Hell for another will be one's orientation towards God.
What if God's view of judgement isn't punitive or juridical, but is instead restorative? What if true justice--God's justice--is all about putting things right; restoring things to the way they ought to be? What if God's ultimate goal is redemption and reconciliation, even if it requires a painful process?
I believe that we will all see God as God is and be confronted with God's Truth, God's Holiness and, most of all, God's Love. There will be no hiding from the pain that we have caused to God, to one another, and to ourselves. People will experience the full realization of the impact of their sins. To be utterly exposed and come face-to-face with oneself as one truly is and with God as God truly is will be, for some, a horrific experience. All that one became throughout one's lifetime which is antithetical to Love and Truth, will be "burned" away by God's holiness. It cannot remain in His presence. Our God is a consuming fire. For some, after this "judgement" is finished, there may not be much of themselves left. They will be saved, as Paul wrote, but as if through a fire. After God's purifying fire removes all that is not of Love and Truth, what will come next is restoration. Love is the motive behind God's judgement and Love seeks to restore. Then, at last--when this work is finished, God will be all in all; His victory will be complete. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. These will not be anguished confessions extracted from condemned souls about to be annihilated or cast into Hell. What kind of God would glory in that? No, they will be the joyful exaltations of a redeemed and restored humanity.
A common teaching within Evangelical Christianity is that Satan's goal is to separate people eternally from God. If Satan is able to accomplish this, despite it being contrary to God's will, then it would appear that Satan has thwarted God's purposes in regards to those who he was able to separate from God. The implication is that Satan achieves a modicum of victory over God! Sure, Satan is destroyed and God is the ultimate winner, but with tragically high losses of souls. Such a view certainly does seem to put a damper on the victory of Christ, not to mention call into question the omnipotence of God! To use a crude analogy, if a suicide bomber gets on a bus full of schoolchildren and manages to kill himself and 80% of the children on board, has he succeeded in his awful mission? If his goal was to cause pain, misery and sorrow to the parents and the community then yes, he has. If God's desire is that all people be saved, and if Satan is able to thwart the realization of that desire, then Satan has achieved a victory over God.
I don't believe that Jesus's life, death and resurrection was a desperate last ditch attempt to save a few. This is how it is sometimes characterized. We have all have heard the saying, "Even if only one person would be saved, Jesus still would have died for them."; which sounds really nice (and I do believe He loves each of us that much) but it also seems to portray God as doing the best He could with a losing hand and having to settle for what He could get. The whole point of Christian Universalism is that the death of God's Son was a completely worthwhile and effective sacrifice. Jesus was completely victorious! It implies a very high view of God's sovereignty and of the efficaciousness of Christ's work.
The eminent Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote: "If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father - he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family forever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God."
Or, as Abraham Lincoln once put it, "Have I not defeated my enemy when I have made him my friend?"
Paul wrote that Jesus is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). Paul also wrote that Jesus's one act of righteousness resulted in justification that brings life for all men (Rom 5:18). John wrote that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). The Bible does not teach that Jesus saves us from Hell. It says He saved us (all) from sin. Sin causes alienation and estrangement from God, from one-another and from ourselves. But Christ has reconciled all things. To enter into relationship with Christ is to begin to experience that reconciliation here and now.
In Philippians 2:10-11, Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23, but expands it. In Isaiah 45:23, God says "Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear." But Paul writes "...that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Isaiah was speaking of the living, but Paul states that everyone who has ever lived will worship Jesus. Compare this with 1 Corinthians 12:3 where Paul says that no one can confess that Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit, and with Romans 10:9 where Paul says that "if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." Paul clearly links the confession of Jesus' Lordship with salvation. Yet he believes that all will make this confession.
Paul's words align closely with John's vision in Revelation 5:11-13: "Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
'Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!'
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!'
There is a popular worship song, the chorus of which says:
"One day every tongue will confess You are God,
One day every knee will bow,
Still the greatest treasure remains for those,
Who gladly choose You now."
I don't know what the theology of the song's author is, but I do know that the words aptly describe my view of Universal Reconciliation. Ultimately, I believe, all will be saved and restored. All will rejoice. If we have the opportunity to enter into that joy here and now, why not grab hold of it?
In the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah witnessed the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah wrote, "Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness … For men are not cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men." (Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33). Jeremiah was speaking of temporal judgement, but why should we think God's eternal judgement is any less compassionate or that his "unfailing love" will ultimately fail?
So what are the implications of Universal Reconciliation? Frankly, the implications are astounding. It means that the Good News actually is good news--or, as the angel put it when announcing Christ's birth, "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." It means that Jesus truly is worthy of all praise and honor. It means that no one gets left behind. The shepherd loses no sheep. The lost sons and daughters are found. It means the Christian story is a story of hope--there is no place for hopelessness. It means the victory of Christ is complete: All mankind is saved because of what He has done. It is not a partial victory where many (or most) are lost. He is the Savior of all.
God is love. Love seeks reconciliation, restoration, healing, happiness and fulfillment of the beloved. Love creates value. Each and every person is valuable, because each and every person is loved by God. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
To Part 8
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents