Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why I believe hell will be empty

Some of you have heard me mention in passing from time to time over the years that I am a universalist, and I want to take a few minutes to explain this morning what I mean by this and to make my case for Christian universalism. 

I am not arguing that universalism is the consensus view of the Bible. I do argue that universalism is one voice that we find in the conversation between generations and people that we call the Bible.
I am not going to argue that universalism has been the majority opinion of the Christian church during its 2000 year history. I do argue that many Christians throughout the centuries have come to a universalist conclusion, and they did so for good reason … because the Christian gospel points us in this direction. 

The way I have chosen to phrase my understanding of universalism is the statement that ultimately hell will be empty.  

Let us forget for a few minutes all of the metaphorical descriptions that are used to describe heaven and hell … that heaven will have streets of gold and pearly gates … that hell is a place of flames and sulfur. 

Theologically, heaven or the kingdom of heaven means to live in the presence of God according to God’s will and desires and hopes for us. Theologically hell means to live in the absence of God in rebellion against God’s will and desires and hopes for us. 

If we believe in human freedom, hell is a necessary theological  proposition.  If we believe that human beings have the freedom  to accept or reject God, a place or state where we can choose to be godless is a logical necessity. 

 And I believe fully in human freedom. God is never coercive, God never forces us into relationship, God never bullies us.

God is not coercive but God is infinitely and eternally invitational. This is the revelation we have seen in Jesus Christ. God never closes the door on any one of us … not even if our name is Judas or Hitler. 

There are some images in the New Testament on this topic I find very compelling. Ephesians 4: 9-10 describe a Jesus who descends into " into the lower parts of the earth” to bring good news to those who are captive there. 1 Peter 3:19 says that Jesus when he was put to death in the flesh went in the spirit to proclaim good news to those who are imprisoned. 

The historic Apostle’s Creed says Jesus Christ “was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead…”

I am less concerned about the specific technology of these texts but the spirit of them. Jesus is so commitment to never closing the door on anyone of us that he will willing to go to hell to communicate the good news of God’s love and welcome. 

My conviction that hell will eventually be empty is not because I think that all of us are good and do not deserve the consequences of the harmful and destructive things we have done. It is because I think that God’s love is eternal . I think ultimately, because it is barren and empty,  we will all come to the end of our rebellion and when we turn back home God will be there waiting for us, even if we’ve been to hell and back. 

The strongest argument, in my opinion, against universalism is that if no one is in hell where is the justice in the universe. If Judas and Hitler are not in hell, isn’t the universe ultimately an unjust place? Isn’t God unfair?

So I have to say that I do believe in judgment. In Revelations 14:13 Bishop John hears a voice from heaven and it says:
“Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them."

Our deeds do follow us out of this life. 

There will have to be a correction of the injustices of this world. Some of us are born privileged. Some of us born to die of starvation before they have hardly lived. Some of us slave owners; some of us slaves. Some of us abusers; some abused.  I don’t need to go on and on. This is a horribly unjust world not because of a Creator’s intention but because of the creation’s radical freedom.
This is why I believe in something like purgatory, not in the crude sense that it is sometimes talked about but in the sense spoken of by the theologian Jurgen Moltmann.

Moltmann says:
An intermediate state of this kind is presupposed by the doctrines of purgatory and reincarnation, but the idea of a great divine judgment also gives a name to something between our death and eternal life. ... For me, God’s judgment means the final putting to rights of the injustice that has been done and suffered, and the final raising up of those who have been bowed down. So I conceive of that intermediate state as a wide space for living, in which God’s history with a human being can come to its flowering and consummation. I imagine that we then come close to that well of life from which we could already here and now draw the power to live and the affirmation of life that was meant for them, for which they were born, and which was taken from them. ...
Those whom we call the dead are not lost. But they are not yet fully saved either. Together with us who are still alive, they are hidden, sheltered, in the same hope, and are hence together with us on the way to God's future. They "watch" with us, and we "watch" with them. That is the community of hope shared by the dead with the living, and by the living with the dead.”

This is what I think divine judgment will be like. We will all have to experience our lives from the perspective of others. We are going to have to experience what it was like for those we ignored, those we treated badly, those who suffered and we didn’t care. And it will be hell. 

Frankly, I’ve had some of these experiences already without being dead yet … the experience of seeing yourself as you must seem through the eyes of another who has experienced injustice or suffering. It is hell.

But in the end we will all have the opportunity to be part of the kingdom of heaven where the will of God is truly done and we all are loved and included and fulfilled. 

I am not a universalist because I think God is required to include all of us in heaven. I am not a universalist because I am trying to tell God what God has to do. If humans are free, so is God.

I am a universalist because I believe including all of us is what God wants to do. And I have ultimate confidence in God being able to accomplish what God want to get done ...  not by power or might but by the spirit.  

There is so much scripture about God’s passionate love for us and God’s refusal to give up on us that I could quote. But I particularly love this passage form Hosea  Chapter 11. God is speaking:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. … My people are bent on turning away from me. … [But] How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

This is the God of Israel and Jesus. No matter how much we try to turn away, this God who love us and calls us her child will not come in wrath. 

Finally, I think that believing  that God will ultimately be successful in including all of us in heaven is important for the way we live together now. It means there is no one we can write off. There is no one we can consign to hell. 

Sitting and watching Pastor Frank Schaefer’s trial this week was so painful. Frank is without guile. He is just so sincere and he so clearly wants to love everyone. 

And on the other side were these men (and they were men) theologically kicking him. 

I wanted to hate, but I kept thinking of this sermon I had committed to preach today. 

I believe I will be in heaven with those folk someday.

They can condemn and exile Frank but they will be in heaven with Frank and us someday. So we must treat them as fellow citizens of heaven here and now. 

It is hard to write somebody off if you believe you will spend eternity in the same place as they are.

In order to persecute others, I suspect we have to convince ourselves that they will spend eternity in a different place than we will be.  Perhaps the reason we call people godless or bound for hell is so that our hate is justified in this life.  

So the closing words belong to the Psalmist.      
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

The closing words belong to the Apostle Paul:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The closing words belong to Jesus:
… on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18)

The gates of hell will not prevail. The infinite love of the divine and holy One will.


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  2. Thanks so much for taking on this subject and making such a compelling argument for universalism.

    Perhaps one of the ways in which we should have serenity as people of faith is to accept in peace that we are all going to face Judgment. That word is charged and often used to indicate negative things, like destruction and apocalypse, but judgment doesn't have to be seen as something to be feared so much as accepted. We can look forward to it because it is the promise of restored justice. In many parts of the Bible, judgment is associated with a moment of joy, such as in 1 Chronicles 16:33 - "let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth."

    Maybe part of the joy of our faith is not in believing we're part of the "saved people's club" but knowing that we will get through judgment with confidence in God's love, as 1 John 4 tells us.

    As you note, we will have to experience something like hell, in that we will be brought to a point of highest empathy with those who we have hurt, with those who have suffered, and with God Himself. If we have complete empathy with God, realizing everything that we ourselves have done to Him in our rebellion, and the way in which He laments every moment of cruelty and injustice and oppression throughout history, then we can't help but feel unimaginable pain. The weight of how we have collectively treated God amounts to a crucifixion.

    Shouldn't we want to experience this process of judgment, to make amends for what we've done wrong and see everything restored to goodness? To stand before God fully aware of our rebellion, and to apologize and hear that we are forgiven? Even if that moment comes with sorrow, because we have to face up to the costs of human evil, we should be grateful for it. We have the promise that the sad moments will fade, that justice will prevail, and that we can look forward to an endless time of joy as God originally intended.

    Thanks again, Pastor. This is such a difficult subject in the Christian faith but it is also central to the story.

  3. God is hope!!! Which gives us strength at our weak point. I think this is too much for our whole life. I believe in GOD.

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