I was having a beer on Poole Quay with my friend who had a fishing rod with a plastic fish on the end of it which didn’t seem to attract any fish (there is almost certainly a blog in that later!) and he said:
“I want you to write another blog on hell!”
I laughed as it seems as though if you even start wrestling with this doctrine there are many who will chuck you over the bridge as “going liberal” or “selling out” and yet it is a doctrine that for many of us is problematic.
In my previous blog I spoke of the wrestle I had when my grandfather died without (appearing) to have a personal faith (and had he said the prayer?) and about how I had to trust him to Jesus. Something I had to do often with funerals of people who appeared not to have faith to not give false theological assurances, point people to the completed work of Jesus which means that even the most dire and unlikely situation and circumstances can have hope, and urging people to “trust their loved ones to mercy of God”.
I remember in Kingswood talking with someone who was saying about hell being “eternal, conscious torment” –which was a doctrine that was majored on in this church- and I remember asking myself is that actually what the Bible teaches?
Jesus certainly uses this image in the story of Lazerus and the rich man, and there are other parables about being thrown into the darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a phrase in Revelation about the “second death” and often scripture uses words like “perishing” –another theory is called aniliationism an ultimate end and death. The Orthodox Church talk about Jesus storming hell and preaching the gospel (which has biblical backing) in the creeds this is what Jesus did on Easter Saturday but the Orthodox will argue that the cross and resurrection are outside of time so perhaps Christ’s ability to rescue reaches further than we think. Having studied the passaged, my honest answer is I do not know what hell is like. I know whatever it is like that the cross says that Jesus wants “none to perish” and when I read the sermons of Peter, Stephen and Paul they do not talk largely about hell, although there is a talk of reckoning and judgement.
I think I have come to a place where I have to admit I don’t know, the one thing I am sure of is that the often used evangelical phrase “the Bible clearly says…” is wrong, scripture is actually quite hard to pin down on what happens to those who choose to reject Christ, they are all united on the fact that it is not good and we should accept the rescue that Jesus brings us.
Universalism, the belief that everyone gets to heaven eventually has for me some problems that I struggle to accept: –
Free-will people have to be able to be lost otherwise free will isn’t free will, we have to be free to make choices –even if they are bad ones- for free-will to be real.
Repentance:- Sin may have been atoned for by Jesus’ death and resurrection and so the means of forgiveness can be obtained, but repentance still really matters both to God and to the victims of what has been suffered. It is really hard to forgive those who are not sorry, and for heaven to be heaven the persecuted and their persecutors maybe alongside each other but that can only happen if there is true heartfelt repentance?
God loves those who’ve been sinned against:- When I was 17 I had a friend Simon who was in my history A level class who had a really sleezy driving instructor who used oogle girls out the window. One day Simon got fed up with this and said when he made a comment about a girl walking past the car “That is my sister (he didn’t actually have a sister)”. The guy was suddenly really apologetic. This was the opener for my “relationship talk” –every Christian youth worker has one! God is a loving parent but he cares about his children and what has happened to them; judgement is part of the Christian story, a reckoning –we will be asked whether we have built with Gold Silver or costly stones or with “wood, hay and straw”… Just as God now puts his finger on areas of our lives he wants to change, surely when everything is brought into the light –truth revealed- things will come out and repentance will have to be given or justice be done.
So, I cannot be a universalist by conviction, but I do believe that God is desperate for us all to come into relationship with him; and maybe the tension some of us feel with finding some aspects of this (everyone getting to heaven eventually) attractive is humanity being made in God’s image wanting desperately for those we love to see “mercy triumph over judgement” and that inward tension we feel is a reflection of God’s awesome love a desire for all to come back to him in repentance and faith.
Another challenge this subject gives us is our understanding of salvation; it seems to me that Jesus unsettled many religious folk who thought they were in by including those they thought were out, indeed he talks about the “tax collectors and prostitutes entering the Kingdom of heaven BEFORE them” –religion and lack of grace stand in opposition to the cross of Christ, and perhaps sometimes our views on hell and judgement reveal that we are standing with the Pharisees and older brother, rather than with the younger son returning home penniless and smelling of the pig sty.
I wonder, and this is a dangerous thought I am about to throw out here, when I was a Vicar in Kingswood, sadly some of the nastiest people I have ever met went to church and would call themselves Christians –they may have even prayed a prayer once- but when I read James he questions whether a faith without any fruit will save us? Hebrews 6 talks about if we continue to live in sin what atonement can there be? Does “saying a prayer” really mean you are “in” or is it the daily choice to put our faith in Jesus and pick up our cross and follow him (or am I making faith and following Jesus “a work”?). Perhaps, I am wrong, the Bible also says that: “if you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead then you will be saved” –but maybe we don’t think enough about “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” or “making our calling and election sure”, Jesus himself says: “If salt looses its saltiness it is no good for anything except to be thrown out”.
Many of us struggle with the idea that a horrible Christian gets into heaven and a saintly agnostic wont, despite one looking Christ-like and the other not. I wonder if something of this idea was in Jesus’ mind when he preached the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25) where those who refused to feed/clothe/visit/shelter/give a drink to the thirst are damned and those who serve lovingly are saved, Jesus even says: “even those who give a cup of water because you are my disciples will surely not loose their reward”.
Which leads me onto thinking more about eternity, a more biblical idea is “God’s Kingdom coming” rather than “going to heaven when we die” and we as human-beings can fall into two equal and opposing dangers, we can either make EVERYTHING about eternity and so becoming a Christian becomes like a “get out of hell free card” and our lives are basically waiting for our death or Jesus’ return(!) or we focus so much on the here and now that we loose any sense of an eternal perspective and the hope that it brings, somehow we need to learn the mindset of an “already but not yet” both focused on there here and now AND eternity.
So, my basic problem with universalism is it is a too easy answer to a difficult question, yes we need ideas like this to surface to help us grasp mercy, grace and God’s deep desire for his peoples salvation, but it does not answer some of the other tensions around repentance, free-will and how Christians live out their lives.
So, I conclude this piece much as I started, deeply confused, but having revisited some of the tensions within myself.
As I thought about the tensions between God’s love and desire for mercy alongside his commitment to free-will and the need for human-beings to repent I wonder whether rather than these doctrines being two contradictions that tie us up in knots, instead these truths in tension can be like the opposite ends of a bow (as in bow and arrow) the tension between the two positions is what enables the arrow to fire forward.