THE GOSPEL IS NOT A FIRE INSURANCE POLICY FOR THE NEXT WORLD,
BUT A LIFE ASSURANCE POLICY FOR THIS WORLD. (Richard Rohr,
Eager to love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi)
I grew up in a denomination which most would assume was obsessed with “saving souls for heaven.” Since the late 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention has become more fundamentalist in its leaning as well as comprising a large part of the religious right who, in my opinion, has totally abandoned the way and call of Jesus. The particular congregation of my childhood and teen years was probably what we would call “moderate” today in its theological leanings. The pastor we had during my high school, college, and seminary days did not believe in hell and never preached what most would call an “evangelistic sermon” or participated in traditional “revivals” so popular in Evangelical churches. If I had to be born in a Southern Baptist setting, I am thankful that at least it was a moderate one and was pastored by a minister who had sense and compassion enough to reject the concept of an everlasting, punitive hell.
There were, however, many conservative churches in my hometown who believed that the primary purpose of Christians was to convert people to Jesus and save their souls for heaven. It was not unusual for such churches to send out church members with the mission of knocking on doors and asking questions like “If you were to die tonight where would go?” (I took devilish delight in answering, ‘George’s Funeral Home’); “Are you saved? When were you saved? How do you know you are really saved? Do you believe in Jesus? Is Jesus your Lord and Savior? Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart? Etc.” It’s interesting that I have never been asked by anyone in the church, by those knocking on my door with their Four Spiritual Laws tracts, by anyone during my seminary training, by my ordination council, or by any of the churches I have pastored what I consider the most important question within Christianity: “Are you following Jesus?”
Early on in life I realized the absolute absurdity and foolishness of believing in an eternal, punitive, torturous, and hopeless reality such as hell. Instinctively I knew that a loving God could not endure an eternal hell. And I had the suspicion that God’s grace and offer of forgiveness and reconciliation did not end with death. To this day I refuse to believe that any puny, pathetic attempt by humans to reject God’s grace can ever exhaust God’s pursuing love. The only hell I believe in is the one we make for ourselves. But even that feeble, impotent decision we make as we reject all that is loving, good, and healing may eventually (in time or eternity) be swept away by the relentless avalanche of God’s grace and love. God will love us into our healing. We may have to go through a lot of hells of our own making before we are open to God, but a God big enough to make this magnificent, wonderful, and mysterious creation certainly has enough persistent love to wait out our pitiful rebellion.
So, I never worry about anyone going to an everlasting hell, the gates of which are engraved with a sign that reads “Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here.” I have hope for everyone and everything. Consequently, I have never preached what many would call an “Evangelistic” sermon with its threats of hell and everlasting condemnation and torture. And I was happy to learn during my college and seminary days that many people throughout church history have believed in universal salvation. Basil of Caesarea (Basil the Great who was one of the church fathers in the 4th century CE) wrote that in his day a majority of Christians in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire believed in universal salvation. This is significant because Basil himself did believe in an eternal hell. His brother, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa, believed in universal salvation and wrote such a convincing argument for apocatastasis (universal salvation) that theologians today still find his insights helpful and profound. Belief in universal salvation has always been present within the wider church. It may have been and may still be a minority belief, but it has been consistently held throughout the entire history of the church be a sizable minority. (And I agree with those New Testament scholars and theologians who maintain that Paul himself was a universalist.)
So, if hell is not an ultimate reality, what kind of messages can the church offer? Here are some of my suggestions:
Heaven is in good hands. We have nothing to worry about when it comes to matters of heaven. Earth is where we need help.
The whole direction of the gospel is from heaven to earth, not from earth to heaven. Many Christians pray every Sunday the Lord’s Prayer where our Lord made it very clear that our concern should be justice, peace, joy, sharing, compassion, and reconciliation. How else can you interpret “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven?” Heaven is already better than okay. It’s earth that needs radical healing. And if one thinks that all this talk about compassion, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation is just a bunch liberal nonsense, I suggest such a person read the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, and the rich fool, as well as the only detailed picture Jesus ever gave of the “Last Judgment” in Matthew 25 where one’s destiny depends on the concrete compassion he/she demonstrated to the “least of these, my brothers and sisters.”
The Christian life is more about a way of life than an obsession with “right” beliefs. Jesus did not say, “You will know them by their beliefs.” He said, “You will know them by their fruits” which in Jewish thinking meant how one lived. Those early followers of Jesus were known as “People of the Way.” The Way referred to following in Jesus’ path. It is possible to believe intellectually every “fundamental” of the faith and still not be Christian or a follower of Jesus. A parrot can be taught to utter words about God. As James reminds us, even the demons believe God is one, but it does them no good (James 2:18-19). Discipleship is all about continuing the incarnate love Jesus began during his life in this world right now.
If you must sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” (I love to sing it!), then remember that God’s grace is shown in unconditional and indiscriminate love. If God can save me, God can save anyone. And anyone who believes otherwise has never understood how amazing God’s grace is. The Good News of great joy (How could even the possibility, much less the certainty of an everlasting hell ever be good news?) is about God’s love. Those who experience and are open to such love will be transformed/saved/made whole. And we can be channels of that liberating and healing love to this broken, suffering world that God still holds precious.
Eternal life begins now. It’s about a quality of life brought about by God’s love. The good news is that we have life ASSURANCE now. Heaven can and will take care of itself. We can trust God in life and in death, but living under the threat of hell can never allow for loving and liberated people. So many Christians today may think they are saved but deep down they never feel safe. How can they be safe if hell is a possibility? Of course, the response of many is the quip, “Once saved, always saved.” But evangelists always know how to sow seeds of doubt in their revivals when they ask, “Are you really saved? You may think you are, but are you sure?” Such theological malpractice has resulted in many an anxious soul (not to mention a lot of money in the evangelists’ pockets). God is perfect love (read I John4:16-21), and perfect love casts out fear.
Jesus came to bring abundant life and to give us joy. The question for many Christians is not whether there is life after death. The real question is whether there is life before death. Threats of hell will never bring peace or contentment. Neither can it allow for courageous action and deep compassion. Fear leaves no energy for authentic love and solidarity with others. It also results in more exclusion as people smugly divide the world into the “saved us” and the “lost them.” I think Jesus would be appalled to know that we have taken his good news of great joy and turned it into one more religion to fracture humankind and multiply suspicion, rejection, and arrogance. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr is right on target. Jesus did not come to offer fire insurance. He knew the God he called “Abba” too well than to teach such heresy. Jesus came to offer life assurance right now “on earth as it is in heaven.”
[Some may wonder how Jesus’ teachings about hell can be reconciled with what I have said in this article. We must first realize that the word “hell” does not appear anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the Greek New Testament. Our English word “hell” is used to translate many different words, most of which never had the meaning of eternal, punitive punishment (The few exceptions where hell can possibly mean eternal, punitive punishment are found in writings outside of the Bible). “Hell” as everlasting torture (whether that torture be physical, spiritual, or both) is our invention and not a concept from the Scriptures. For those who argue that certain passages (particularly in Matthew’s Gospel) speak of “everlasting” punishment, I would point out that the word translated “everlasting” focuses on the quality of time, not its quantity. Our word “eon/aeon” comes from the Greek word translated as “eternal” and “everlasting” in most Bibles. The word refers to a segment of time or a quality of existence associated with that time. See the blog entry John 3:16-17 Series “For God So Loved the World” (Part Two) for a more extensive treatment of the word “eternal.” If you want to discover what the Bible really says about the ultimate fate of humans and of the cosmos, I would suggest two books–Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak and Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment by Sharon L. Baker. If you want to study the topics of hell and universal salvation in depth, I recommend That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart. However, a word of warning: Hart’s book is a most difficult book to read and understand. He is known for his long sentences, erudite and extensive vocabulary, and extended arguments.]