What the Hell? (Hell’s Bells, part 2)

Well, I did it. I set aside some other work and read a book that was not for research or course prep. But it was not Rob Bell’s book. After all, I’m still the guy who refuses to get on any bandwagon. (Although now that everyone is blogging about this, I feel kind of stupid, but whatever.) No, I picked up a book by Hans Urs von Balthazar, called Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?

I liked a lot of things in this book, and von Balthazar has a great perspective on the subject. In fact, it turns out the world was not waiting for me to write What the Hell? It already exists in von Balthazar’s book. Go figure. So what I’m offering here is just part two of last week’s blog, based on my reading of von Balthazar and thinking about it for another week: more food for thought on the subject…

#1. This discussion is not really about hell. In fact, hell cannot be an actual thing at all, like a “place,” because that would imply that God created it, and that would seem to contradict the idea that all of creation is good. Hell, to the extent that it exists at all, must be a state of being, not a place. But really this is about heaven, and while we also have a popular mythology about heaven that is misleading in many ways, in the big picture it really all comes down to God’s restoration of creation to the way it was meant to be (“paradise”) and in which “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17). So whatever hell is, it must have something to do with missing out on that “paradise.”

#2. Universalism would mean the negation of free will. In other words, if God ordains all to be saved, that would be a happier, but no less coercive, solution to the problem than double predestination. If all are saved by God’s decree, or to put it another way, if even one person is saved against his will, then free will is a delusion. That’s a road I can’t go down. If heaven is eternity in the presence of God, then universalism would imply some form of cosmic kidnapping.

#3. Von Balthazar makes it clear that he’s not saying that he knows for sure everyone will be saved, only that it is legitimate to hope for such an outcome. That makes sense to me. In fact, as he points out, the Church has never claimed to know of any particular person being damned: not Judas, not Hitler, no one – there is no one that we can dogmatically say must be in hell. As I implied last week, that would be judgmentalism, and though it may sound simplistic, it’s better to be hopeful than judgmental – at least I would rather be a hopeful person than a judgmental person. The way von Balthazar says it is that one cannot put too much hope in God.

#4. The book also brings up a great question (which probably has not escaped the likes of Rob Bell): How could anyone enjoy the blessings of heaven if they know that loved ones are in hell? Good question. Damn good question, pardon the pun. And while historically theologians have come up with answers to this problem (like you can’t have compassion for those not in heaven because that would be a form of suffering, and people don’t suffer in heaven, or something like that), all that seems too contrived and speculative. On the other hand, I fear that too much confidence will undercut evangelism: Jesus’ own command to disciple and baptize the nations (Matthew 28:19).

#5. Warnings meant to bring about a decision/commitment do not necessarily have to come true to be valid warnings. A case in point is Jonah, who warned the people of Nineveh that God would destroy their city unless they repented (turned to God). They did repent, and their city was not destroyed. As I say in Wedding of the Lamb, the fact that their city was not destroyed does not make Jonah a false prophet, nor does it negate the warning. Therefore, the warning that some might not be saved is still a valid warning whether or not it comes to pass.

#6. If anyone is not saved in the end, it will have to be because that person refused God’s universal offer of reconciliation. I believe that this could happen by a consistent lifestyle of rejection of God and God’s will, but I don’t think it can happen unintentionally, or shall we say, “by accident.” In other words, God does not condemn anyone, but some might condemn themselves by consciously rejecting God’s invitation to reconciliation/salvation. I would say that the unforgivable sin is not ignorance of God, but rejection of God. In any case, God cannot be responsible for evil, and that includes whatever punishments we might think are part of the experience of hell. So if anyone suffers in the afterlife, it has to be the result of their own actions or choices, and cannot be attributed to God. God is not the cosmic inquisitor general, much less the cosmic sadist. This is why I prefer to interpret the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as regret rather than some kind of pain or torture. After all, what would be the meaning of physical pain in the spiritual realm?

#7. In our culture we seem to gravitate toward more individualistic understandings of salvation, when in fact the Scriptures and many early Church writers saw it as a more communal or corporate concept. Salvation comes through the sacraments, and the sacraments are not done in isolation, but in community, within the Body of Christ. In fact, for the early Christians, the reason they believed that there was no salvation outside the Church is because the Church is where the sacraments are. In spite of this, many early Church fathers still speculated on the possibility that all could be saved because they rejected the idea that Christ’s atonement could be limited.

#8. Historically, the Church’s insistence on the reality of hell was based on the conviction that one could lose one’s salvation. So it was more of a warning to Christians than it was a warning to non-Christians, or even a motivation for evangelism. One could never know if one will persevere to the end, or for that matter one could never know if the one who rejects Christ today will continue to reject him to the end. II Maccabees 12 even implies that prayer for those already dead might change their fate. In fact, some saints have reasoned that they know themselves well enough to know that their own salvation is tentative at best, but that they were compelled to assume that others were more likely to be saved than they. We could use more of that kind of humility. Rather than assuming we’re saved and speculating about others, we should assume others are saved and work on ourselves. Von Balthazar makes the same case that I make in Spiritual Blueprint, that based on texts such as Matthew 5:7, 6:14-15 and 18:23-35 it seems that our own salvation is somehow connected to whether or not we showed mercy, compassion and forgiveness toward others.

#9. Von Balthazar follows others in arguing that whatever hell is, it cannot be eternal, because only God is really eternal. And while we as humans may participate in immortality by the grace of God and by the connection with the Divine that comes through the incarnation, it doesn’t seem possible that damnation (the opposite of glory) could also be eternal. On the other hand, if “hell” is simply separation from God, I suppose that could be eternal, but as I said last week I can’t get my head around the idea of separation from an omnipresent God.

#10. The more I think about it, the more I am becoming convinced that purgatory is the solution to the problem. Purgatory is a kind of non-permanent hell (see my comments last week), thus affirming the reality of moral responsibility and consequences in the afterlife, while at the same time allowing at least the hope that there is ultimate salvation on the other side of purgatory.

In the end, I don’t agree with everything von Balthazar says, but he makes a good case that there are just as many biblical texts that imply universal salvation as there are that imply that some will not be saved. The point is that we can’t ignore one set of texts just because we have a certain understanding of how the other set should be interpreted. Also, we can’t easily harmonize these texts, so we need to embrace the paradox. So while I may not have the confidence to assert a universal salvation, I can still have enough faith for a universal hope.

Finally, my advice for this week: It’s a good thing to treat everyone with the assumption that we will spend eternity together in heaven, but don’t let respect and compassion for the non-christian drive you to the conclusion that it is somehow inappropriate or unnecessary to share the good news of Jesus Christ. While evangelization should not be presented as fire insurance, it also should not be abandoned. We Christians do have something worth sharing, and we do have a community worth joining.

Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at: www.JimPapandrea.com
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