The following article was originally published on the Roads from Emmaus weblog in March of 2011. It’s been revised for this publication. This came up again recently in a conversation I was having, so I thought it might be interesting to revisit.
One of the theological questions that’s making the rounds these days actually made the New York Times last March and was also featured in a number of other publications around that time. One should always be suspicious when newspapers and television shows start talking about theology, because, well, newspapers and television shows seldom know anything about it. Nevertheless, this doctrine remains in theological chatter, and its suggester (I cannot really say “proponent”) Rob Bell also remains occasionally newsworthy, though it seems he’s content merely to ask questions and not actually give any answers. (Of course that sounds good in its way, but at some point, we have to have some answers if we’re actually going to live, to follow a path, etc.)
The piece of theology essentially goes this way: There really is no hell, and God is too loving to send anyone there. How could God possibly be so cruel to damn people to hell who accidentally happen not to believe in Jesus, maybe because they never even heard of Him? (Gandhi is of course the poster boy for the heaven-deserving non-Christian.) Or what about those who simply messed up? “…can a loving God really be so wrathful toward people who faltered, or never were exposed to Jesus?” The question, of course, assumes a certain answer—namely, that God will cut everyone a break, because He’s nice, and so everyone gets saved, no matter what. There are various names for this. Universalism is the most common, and it’s probably newsworthy because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism remains the dominant religious force in American culture.
The NYT defines the opposition to universalism as “traditionalist,” while those who embrace it are “liberals.” Those labels alone should let you know that the NYT doesn’t know what it’s talking about here.
After all, is someone like St. Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Orthodox saint, a “liberal” because he taught apokatastasis (the “recapitulation” of all things in Christ, which is something more than mere universalism because it works on a cosmic scale)? And is someone a “traditionalist” who insists that there will, like the Bible quite frankly says, actually be ramifications for how we lived in this life, for what we did with the light we were given? These labels make no sense, and they reveal rather the narrow theological lens through which this question is being framed, namely, a particular corner of Western Christian soteriology, mainly Protestant.
I have long believed that the God Who punishes people because they made Him mad is the God Whom atheists do not believe in. It seems some Christians don’t believe in Him, either. This is no surprise, and it’s a question that is many centuries older than these corners of Evangelical theology (and their recent occasional forays into liberal Protestantism) actually reveal. It’s not as if every “traditional” Christian for twenty centuries has believed in a God Who zaps the unrighteous and the ignorant, and now suddenly, we have this idea that perhaps God might love someone, might even be merciful(!).
Even though this question is really not a major one in Orthodox Christian circles, and even though it would be tempting to be triumphalistic about this (since we’ve always believed in God’s mercy), there have nonetheless been attempts to address this perennially Western theological question, such as Alexander Kalomiros’s “The River of Fire.” Yet Kalomiros really goes too far when he would seek to eliminate all language of God’s “wrath” or “punishment” from Christian vocabulary. (The best take I’ve yet read specifically on the question of apokatastasis is Metr. Kallistos Ware’s essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”)
Let’s face it: It’s in there. Now, I suppose if you’d like to chuck the entire Bible and the whole Christian tradition, you can come up with something else. But then, let’s face it again: You’re not really a Christian, then, are you? Christianity is a revealed religion, not something some smart people made up to enslave millions and which us modern enlightened folks can just revise in order to enslave a few more millions (or maybe just get their money). (Or, if it is, I think I’ve somehow got into the wrong part of this Ponzi scheme.)
So what is one to do with all that embarrassing hell-talk in the Bible and in what really is “traditional” Christianity? For one thing, let us not assume that we have to look at the question of salvation in purely penal/legalistic terms. Yes, that language is in the Scripture, too, but so is a lot of other stuff about healing and mercy.
And let’s not forget glory.
I really think glory is the key question here. The afterlife—heaven, hell, whatever—is fundamentally about apokalypsis, the “pulling away of the veil.” On the other side of death, we will experience the glory of God. There are a lot of ways of describing that experience, depending on the capacity with which we receive it. But whatever we bring to that experience, we know that it will be essentially unmitigated. God’s glory will be revealed to all of us to the extent that we are able to receive it without being annihilated in the process.
For some, that revelation will be, ahem, pretty freakin’ awesome. For others, it will be pretty horrible. Why? Because one does not step into outer space without a spacesuit. Because one does not jump off a building without wings. Because one does not dive into the ocean without SCUBA gear. Whatever metaphor you want to use, the truth is that coming face to face with God is going to require some preparation, because we’re broken.
Now, God wants to fix that brokenness. He wants to provide the spacesuit, wings, SCUBA gear, etc., that will enable us to enter into the greatest of all adventures, beyond the most fantastic dreams of the human race.
But God is too loving ever to force those things onto us.
That’s really the crux of this matter. Ironically, the NYT’s “liberals” seem to believe that they’re preaching a God Who loves people too much to allow them to experience His glory as pain and suffering. But what they really want is a God Who will override the human will. They want a God Who will make you love Him, Who will make you be in communion with Him.
Or, at least, they want a God Who puts you into the Nice Place even if you proved your whole life that you really wanted to live according to the Other Place. In this model, salvation has nothing to do with communion with God but is merely about rewards and punishments.
But that’s not love, folks. Love sets you free. Love takes the risk. Love always gives freedom and never forces anything out of the beloved, even if it means losing the beloved. God loves us all too much not to let us fail.
But let us be clear about what failure is. It is not simply accidentally never having heard of Jesus. I’m sorry, but that’s really too arbitrary a criterion to be taken seriously. (If you want to dance with double predestinationism, then go ahead, I suppose: God damns certain people, maybe by never sending them a missionary, whether they like it or not. That being the case, let’s stay home on Sunday and watch morning political talk shows and football instead. Really.) Failure is also not a matter of having slipped up, having “faltered” and committed a sin. Sin does not keep one out of that awesome experience of glory. (If it did, again… “Meet the Press” and football!)
Failure is to choose darkness over light, again and again. Those who sit in darkness are given many, many chances of emerging into the light, so many that, by the time they cross over to the other side, it’s really clear that that’s what they prefer. They prefer pride over humility. They prefer indulgence over abstinence. They prefer the self over the selfless. This is not “faltering.” It’s our criminal justice system that beats you up when you falter. You can make one mistake and get sent to prison for years for it.
But God is not our kind of judge. He’s the kind that looks at a whole life and discerns what that person really wants, and then He gives it to them. All will be resurrected, and all will get what they really want. Some want communion, and they’ll get it. Others want self-sufficiency, and they’ll get that. Both will receive the natural consequences of going into the afterlife with those sets of equipment. God gives mercy to all, but He forces it on none.