Posts Tagged ‘hell’

Are people in hell repentant?

October 19, 2017

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on the parables of Jesus in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago, we looked at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.

Recently some Bible scholars and theologians have rejected the depiction of hell in this parable. The parable isn’t about hell, they say. Jesus was merely adapting a well-known (at the time) Jewish folk tale to make a theological point about something other than perdition.

That may be true for all I know, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words about hell aren’t truthful.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell us the Parable of the Good Samaritan in order to describe the highway connecting Jerusalem with Jericho, but the road that he describes certainly existed! With its twists and turns, it afforded many hiding places for brigands to rob passersby, as they do in the parable. Even though the highway isn’t the point of the parable, the setting is a real place, and Jesus describes it accurately.

My point is, I believe we can learn a lot about hell from this parable.

In my Bible study, we discussed whether the rich man was truly repentant. After all, instead of begging forgiveness of the poor beggar, Lazarus, whom the rich man mistreated throughout his life, he instead wanted him to leave his place of comfort to fetch him water—even through the flames—and warn his brothers of their fate.

Even in hell, it seems, the rich man still wanted to treat Lazarus with condescension or contempt, just as he did in the world.

But there’s another clue that the rich man remained unrepentant, as Clay Jones points out in a chapter called “How Can Eternal Punishment Be Fair” in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?

Further, the rich man’s suggestion that his brothers needed to be warned betrays a lack of repentance because it implies that he ended up in hell because God didn’t provide him with sufficient warning. Finally, the rich man disagreed with Abraham’s assertions hat the Law of Moses was sufficient evidence to lead his brothers into repentance. As R.C. Trench says, the rich man’s “contempt of God’s word,” which he showed on earth, follows him “beyond the grave.” Ironically, Lazarus was the name of a man who did come back from the dead [See John 11], and the chief priests responded to this resurrection by trying to kill both Jesus and the resurrected Lazarus (John 12:9-10)![1]

Why is lack of repentance important? One of the biggest fears that we Christians have about hell is that people who go there will realize immediately that they were wrong, will want to repent, but will be unable to. In at least a couple of his apologetic works, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis argues against this idea, saying that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.” In other words, in some twisted way the people who are in hell will want to be there—at least more than they’ll want the alternative, which would involve their humbling themselves before their Creator and repenting.

I’ve always hoped that Lewis was right about this. Whether he is or not, I have no doubt that God will be perfectly just. But until I read Dr. Jones’s book, I had never considered the biblical evidence for Lewis’s point of view.

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 100.

If you want to stop talking about hell, join a mainline Protestant church

January 29, 2015

A theologically-inclined evangelical friend of mine (who’s not United Methodist) linked to this post, “Giving up Hell for a Year: How it could revolutionize our relationships,” which struck me as a solution in search of a problem—or at least one that creates far more problems than it solves. Read it and tell me what you think.

Here’s how I responded to my friend:

The United Methodist Church tried this around 1950, and every year since then. It’s been wildly successful as everyone knows. I’m sorry… The grass is always greener, I guess, but if one dislikes evangelicalism so much, there’s always mainline Protestantism.

How about we resolve, instead, to tell the truth for one year, and see how that goes? This includes the truth about hell. People don’t go to hell because they fail to accept Christ; they go to hell because their sins have separated them from a holy God. This is humanity’s main problem. We are failing to tell the whole truth about the gospel if we omit that.

So, no, I think the blogger’s idea is terrible.

My friend responded:

Brent, how do you think our view of hell impacts our ability to develop healthy, service-based relationships with others? If we love them with the agenda of “winning” them out of hell, what happens when it becomes clear they’re not going to budge? Do we sever the relationship? That seems to happen all too often. I think that’s a valid point the blogger makes.

To which I said:

Jerry Walls, a United Methodist scholar now at Notre Dame Houston Baptist University (he was at Asbury), warns that we cannot write hell out of Christianity (again, as too many mainline Protestants have done) without fundamentally changing Christianity. He argues that it does, in fact, change our mission and mute the urgency with which we do evangelism. If we’re promoting a caricature of the gospel, then let’s correct that caricature. But hell, as a doctrine, is by far the consensual teaching of two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject—whether hell is an everlasting state or annihilation.

Walls is writing to an audience, including me, who have already been where this blogger wants us to go. Walls is telling us it doesn’t work. He gives us permission to take hell into consideration when we’re sharing the gospel. We ought to be concerned about people’s eternal destinies.

Besides, where are all these Christians in America going around talking obsessively about hell? Where are all these Christians obsessed with winning non-Christians because they fear they’ll go to hell. I mean, I know they’re out there somewhere, but it hardly seems like the widespread problem this blogger makes it out to be.

Sermon 10-27-13: “Rich Towards God, Part 3: The Rich Man and Lazarus”

November 1, 2013

stewardship_web_hi_res

Most Methodists avoid talking about hell. It’s understandable: It makes us uncomfortable. It may frighten us. We may wonder how a God of love could send people there. As I argue in this sermon, however, hell is a natural consequence of God’s love. And it’s out of this same love that God sent his Son Jesus Christ in the world, to bring us into a saving relationship with God. We who place our faith in Christ don’t have to experience hell because Christ experienced hell on our behalf.

The parable that Jesus tells in today’s scripture is, in part, about hell, but it also speaks to the idolatrous faith that we often place in money and possessions, rather than God. Lazarus, by contrast, depended on God alone for life, security, and true wealth. Do we? Why or why not?

Sermon Text: Luke 16:19-31

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The PBS show Downton Abbey is set in England in the early 20th century. It tells the story of a family of aristocrats who live on a vast estate called Downton Abbey. The first episode of the show begins with the news that The Titanic has sunk. The lord of the estate, Lord Grantham, has three daughters. Under English law, daughters weren’t entitled to inherit anything. So the heir of Downton was a male cousin. Only that cousin died on board The Titanic. And the next heir in line also died on board the ship. So during the first episode, the family is scrambling to figure out who the next heir is.

"What's a week-end?"

“What’s a week-end?”

Turns out it’s a very distant cousin named Matthew. The family has never met Matthew, and they are shocked to learn that—get this—Matthew actually works for a living. He’s a lawyer. He’s—gasp!—middle class. During one of his first dinners at the mansion, Matthew refers to doing something over the “weekend.” And Lord Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess asks—completely innocently—“What’s a weekend?” Read the rest of this entry »

Preaching hell

October 28, 2013

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.


Yesterday, during the last Sunday of our three-week stewardship emphasis, I preached a sermon on Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I joked that visitors in yesterday’s services had chosen a perfect Sunday to attend: I would be talking about both hell and giving money, two favorite topics rolled into one!

I mentioned briefly that, having been to seminary, I’ve heard plenty of creative reinterpretations of hell as depicted in the parable. The most popular goes something like this: Jesus’ point wasn’t to say anything about hell at all, or even that hell was a real place to which God sends souls after death. His point was to say something about social justice, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and preaching good news to the poor.

[But even that’s not quite right: hell was hardly Jesus’ point, since, according to this stream of thought, we know very little that was said by that barely literate, itinerant peasant-teacher Jesus. Rather, the parable reflects Luke’s evangelistic concerns. These commentators always make Luke seem like a much more interesting fellow than Jesus himself. According to these scholars, we know that it’s really Luke speaking, not Jesus, because he has Jesus use the word Hades (translated from the Hebrew sheol) rather than gehenna (translated into English as “hell”). This is the giveaway, they say: Luke is importing Greek philosophy into the parable, portraying an immaterial afterlife rather than the embodied afterlife of traditional Jewish thought.]

This is all silly, of course. Modern liberal scholars rarely get so creative about the parables of Jesus that they “agree with,” like the ones from Luke 15.

Besides, as I said in my sermon:

The point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not that the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous, crime-ridden place; the point is to say something about loving our neighbor. But just because the highway isn’t the point doesn’t mean the highway didn’t exist, or that it wasn’t filled with bandits who wanted to rob you. Just as the Jericho highway was real, so hell is real.

Regardless whether it’s called hell or Hades, Jesus depicts a two-tiered afterlife immediately following death, a Paradise on the one hand and a place of torment on the other. As for the question of whether the afterlife is embodied, orthodox Christian thinking has always understood that the afterlife consists of two stages: a disembodied intermediate stage followed by general resurrection, final judgment, and resurrected life in a newly re-created world (for the redeemed). Since the rich man’s five brothers still walk the earth, it’s clear that Jesus is describing the intermediate stage.

As I said in my sermon, many Christians object to the idea that a loving God could send people to hell. These same Christians believe that God is a God of love in the first place mostly because of what Jesus revealed. Yet most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself. How is this not a classic case of picking and choosing?

A worse alternative to believing that we misunderstand what Jesus says about hell is saying that Jesus—limited in his understanding, a victim of his time and place—was wrong about hell—as if we’re now the moral geniuses who know better than Jesus what a “God of love” would and wouldn’t do. I’ve made this point about Satan, but it also applies to hell: If Jesus is wrong about a doctrine as central to his teaching, why do we trust him when it comes to doctrines that we agree with? If Jesus is wrong about hell, how do we know he’s right about God’s love, mercy, and grace?

So I appreciate that “new atheist” writer (I can’t remember which one) who strongly disagreed with many of his colleagues that Jesus was the proverbial (if condescending) “great moral teacher” because he found Jesus’ teaching on hell barbaric and bloodthirsty. Good for him! Unlike so many well-meaning Christians among us, he didn’t try to separate one part of Jesus’ teaching from another.

No, a far better alternative (to say the least) is to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt: if we can’t reconcile our understanding of love with Jesus’ words about hell, then let’s assume our understanding of love is wrong.

And here, as in so many other places, C.S. Lewis helps us out. Yes, hell poses a challenge to us, he concedes. If the Bible is our primary authority—not to mention the words of Jesus himself—we can’t simply dismiss the doctrine. But if we think about it, the doctrine is also reasonable, and reason is the cause that Lewis takes up in his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain (my all-time favorite book, by the way):

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’[1]

We may respond, “Yes, but who wouldn’t ‘give in’ if the alternative is an eternity in hell?” Lewis answers this question. In a nutshell, if we can’t see how that’s possible, then we’ve misunderstood the nature and power of sin. I also like Lewis’s saying that while “no one can make that surrender but himself,” many can help him make it. This gives urgency to evangelism.

I’m not persuaded (and Lewis isn’t, either) that everyone gets a second chance to respond to the gospel after death, because God knows that often a second chance, or even a millionth chance, may not avail. What we know for sure is that we have the opportunity right now to respond to the gospel. Again, our evangelistic task is urgent!

I agree with Notre Dame professor Jerry Walls that everyone, in the interest of justice, will get a sufficient amount of grace (which may differ from person to person), to decide whether or not to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ. How or when this happens we can’t say.

I especially like this (which I quoted yesterday):

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.[2]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 119-20.

2. Ibid., 130.

Sermon 06-02-13: “Devil in the Details, Part 1”

June 6, 2013

Devil In the Details_1_600

If we are Christians, we are at war. We face an Enemy who constantly works against our health and well-being, our family and friends, our success, our happiness, and—not least—the work that we do on behalf of God’s kingdom in this world. As if this struggle weren’t bad enough, many of us modern Christians also struggle to believe that the Enemy even exists. If Satan were real, wouldn’t he want to keep us in the dark about his existence? 

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes and graphics.

When Stephanie and I were planning out my last few worship services here in Vinebranch, she asked me, “Is there something that you’ve been wanting to preach over these past several years that you haven’t gotten to? If so, you’ve only got a few weeks left.” I said, “No. Nothing I can think of. Although there are probably several things I’d like to re-preach—preach over again—because I messed it up or didn’t do it well the first time.” Then I half-jokingly said, “How about a do-over sermon series?” Do-over! Remember those days on the playground or ball field? I call do-over on some scriptures and topics that I’ve gotten wrong or haven’t done justice to in the past. Stephanie thought that this was a great idea. In fact, she was a little over-enthusiastic about it, if you ask me! Read the rest of this entry »

Even if we say we believe in hell, do we really mean it?

October 3, 2012

Jerry Walls

Because if we mean it, how does that not instill within us a great sense of urgency about evangelism? I believe the question I asked at the end of last Sunday’s sermon is on point: Do we we think it’s possible that people we know and love can be separated from God eternally? (This is obviously a follow-up to Monday’s post.)

Jerry Walls, in his book on the subject, discusses the question in an interesting way:

Since I profess to believe in hell, I have often wondered what it would take convincingly to show this belief in my life. If I am in a supermarket, should I stop all my fellow shoppers and urge them to believe in Christ, lest they be damned? If I am at a concert, should I stand on my seat during intermission and warn everyone within earshot of the wrath to come? While these scenes may strike us as silly, I submit that such actions would be at least plausible for a person who took hell with utter seriousness. For surely, if I knew the concert hall were going to collapse before the concert ended, it would be appropriate for me to warn everyone of the impending danger.[1]

Of course, in my own life, I am often made uncomfortable by those very Christian evangeliststhere are more than a few of them out there—who do behave in ways similar to what Walls describes here. I haven’t seen them in supermarkets, but I often see them on sidewalks outside sporting events—with large signs, bullhorns, and a word of warning to passersby. I may question their methods, but not the sincerity of their belief in the wrath to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the doctrine of hell an essential part of Christianity?

October 2, 2012

The scripture I preached on last Sunday, Acts 4:1-22, includes these words from Peter, which go against the prevailing Oprah-fication of American culture: “Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved” (v. 12).

If it’s true that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus, then our mission as a church couldn’t be more urgent. Toward the end of my sermon, I expressed this urgency as follows:

If we don’t start speaking and acting and praying and inviting, don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love will miss out on the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might die without having given their lives to Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might be eternally separated from God in hell.

To our shame, we United Methodists rarely talk about hell, even though Jesus himself talked about it frequently. We often avoid it like the plague, although we may do so for the best of reasons: none of us, after all, wants to be judgmental.

How exactly is it judgmental to warn people about the possibility of hell? We Christians don’t have any biblical warrant to say who goes there: God is the judge, not us. What we can say—and what we ought to say loudly and confidently—is that through faith in Jesus Christ we will avoid hell. An important part of what it means to be saved from our sin is to be saved from hell.

Of course, we can also avoid talking about hell for the worst of reasons—which is, we don’t really believe it exists. If so, we should heed the words of theologian Thomas Oden, a United Methodist, reflecting on both scripture and the church’s traditional understanding of the doctrine:

The stark words “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire” [from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats] have withstood numerous attempts at generous reinterpretation, but they remain obstinately in the received text (Jerome, Ag. RufinusFC 53:109). The text remains resilient against our attempts to soften it. Every mitigating theory is wrecked on these words, which are “not as doubtful or ambiguous as represented; and even if they were, the rule is to interpret the obscure by the plain” (Banks, MCD: 362). The problem is not that the words are obscure, but that they are all too plain (Augustine, CG 21:23; Kierkegaard, On Self-examination).[1]

To fail to believe in or emphasize hell, as theologian Jerry Walls, another United Methodist, points out, is to risk trivializing the gospel.

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[2]

I don’t think Walls would argue that the gospel doesn’t also mean personal fulfillment, or a positive self-image, or a better outlook on life. I have certainly experienced it that way, and I preach that. But long before we get there, the gospel must mean salvation from sin, death, and, yes, hell.

1 Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 827.

2 Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

A hopeful universalism?

June 30, 2012

When I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, from which critics unfairly inferred that he was a universalist, I said on this blog and to others that this book wasn’t written for me. It was written for people who lean in a fundamentalist direction on the question of hell—who haven’t allowed themselves to consider the difficult questions that the doctrine raises.

As for me and my tribe, we need a book written from the opposite perspective: We need to be re-convinced that God could actually send someone to hell. We emphasize God’s grace to the point that we easily forget what it is about which God has proven himself gracious—namely, our sin.

With these issues in mind, you might imagine how I responded to the cover of a recent Christian Century magazine. (Note: the article hides behind the subscription firewall, but you can purchase the individual article.) I groaned. Here we go: as if the typical reader of the Christian Century needs more reason to doubt the doctrine of hell.

But the story itself—as opposed to the cover—wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was quite good! The author of the cover story, Paul Dafydd Jones, nails my tribe perfectly when he describes mainline Protestant reaction to Bell’s book:

On the other side [of the theological spectrum], little more than a bored, smug shrug emanated from mainstream academics and mainline Protestants—so bored it hardly amounted to a shrug, so smug it implied that those still opposing universalism were no more than reactionary Neanderthals. This (non)reaction barely registered, but that’s all the more telling. In certain circles, universalism is no longer the preserve of theological radicals. It’s gone mainstream.

The author reviews a few books on the subject of hell, including Erasing Hell, a critical response to Bell’s book by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. He liked it more than you might think. He writes that it’s a “respectful critique of different kinds of universalism, some decent exegetical work and a laudable resolve to connect faith and social justice.”

I haven’t read the Chan and Sprinkle book. (I read another response to the Bell book, this one written by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli called God Wins, as I’ve mentioned before.) But I’m completely sympathetic with this critique from Jones, who, in discussing surprising parallels he finds between Chan and Sprinkle and Karl Barth, writes:

Chan and Sprinkle’s commitment to thinking with Barth doesn’t go far enough… A good example of this comes late in the book, when the authors write that “Jesus satisfied the wrath of God . . . the same wrath that ultimately will be satisfied, either in hell or on the cross” (my emphasis). Why the either/or? Primarily because Chan and Sprinkle balk at one of Barth’s most profound intuitions: that Christ’s death is the death of sin as such; that, by way of the cross, God rejects and overcomes all wrongdoing. On this reckoning, the cross is a decisive articulation of God’s wrath—a decisive no against sin that ensures that the positive yes of grace sweeps slowly but surely and savingly toward each and every one of us. Indeed, isn’t this what Paul meant when he wrote that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:21–22)?

In other words, if God’s wrath were only satisfied through Christ for those who place their faith in him—and all the leftover wrath, if you will, were satisfied through those in hell—then we’re back to Calvinism, with its vision of limited atonement: Christ died only for the elect, not for all humanity. No, I’m with Jones: if you go for penal substitution, go for it all the way. As he says later:

The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.

I preached a couple of years ago that, because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, the problem in the God-human relationship now resides only on the human side. Through the cross, God has taken care of the problem on God’s side—namely, the barrier of sin. I’m still, in other words, with C.S. Lewis’s camp: ultimately, hell is God’s giving human beings want they most desire, and that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. (See “Hell,” from Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like some kind of squishy near-universalism on my part. I believe people’s sinful choices on this side of death have eternal consequences. A person’s active cooperation with sin in this life can cause them, as Jesus warned, to commit the unpardonable sin. As my man Wesley preached, if a person continually fails to respond to God’s grace, he or she may lose the ability to respond entirely, at which point what can only follow is hell. As Lewis would say, this amounts to God’s giving people what they want.

Again, speaking to my tribe, many of whom don’t want to imagine that God would endorse or approve of hell, Jones nicely points out the logical necessity of it: If God is not going to force himself on us—and you can’t coerce love, after all—then God will respect our wishes.

It follows, too, that while damnation is difficult to imagine, it cannot be ruled out. God will not bully us into the kingdom; God waits, patiently, for us to receive and embrace God’s grace. And that allows the possibility—an absurd, baffling, but conceivable possibility—that some will forever resist God’s gracious advance.

Universalists who fail to appreciate this point aren’t so different from Calvinists: God, they would say, simply runs roughshod over human free will and saves everyone, regardless.

I respect any hopeful universalist who, like Jones, correctly grasps the fundamental problem of human sin.

While we mustn’t ever lose sight of God’s grace, we are obliged also to acknowledge the gravity of sin. We cannot suppose that God’s love is permissive, that God overlooks or condones our myriad failings. Just as sin matters in human life, sin matters to God. It is an abrogation of the covenant. It is the very reason that God’s saving grace passes through the horror of Calvary. And since the Bible posits some connection between sin and postmortem existence, theologians should take note. In so doing, one faces a truth that Calvin, Luther and others never let slip from view. No one deserves to be saved, given a refusal of right relationship with God. That God favors anyone bespeaks a love of unimaginable intensity and power.

Don’t misunderstand: Bell might be a universalist, although there’s no way of knowing from this book alone. As many others have said, Bell doesn’t say anything about heaven or hell that hasn’t been said—better, I would argue—by great thinkers like C.S. Lewis. More than anything else, I fault Bell for often writing as if great Christian thinkers throughout two millennia of Church history haven’t asked (and answered) these same questions or objections.

Why don’t they wonder?

April 23, 2012

According to this recent survey, fewer Americans these days wonder about their answer to the famous evangelistic question, “If I were to die tonight, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?” This brief article implies that Americans are less interested in eternal things than they used to be.

That could be true for all I know. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of living in an increasingly secular culture.

But not so fast. I do a lot of funerals in my job—most of them, in fact, for unchurched families who need a clergy person to solemnize their loved one’s funeral service. (I’m on a funeral director’s speed-dial.) I’m happy to do it. It’s easy work (which helps pay seminary student debt!) but also a good ministry opportunity that I take seriously.

I don’t know whether members of these grieving families ever wonder whether they’ll go to heaven when they die. But I don’t think I’ve met a person yet who has any doubts about their departed loved ones! See what I mean? Regardless whether the recently deceased person had ever professed the Christian faith, darkened the door of a church, or prayed, the bereaved seem extremely confident that their loved one is in heaven.

As a matter of professional pride, their confidence bothers me a little. It’s my job, after all, to know about eternal questions. We can only know for sure that we have eternal life through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the cross. If someone didn’t possess this faith in life, how can we know that they’re safely with God in death?

The implication of the article might be wrong: Maybe an increasing number of Americans presume upon the grace of a God who couldn’t possibly send anyone to hell. In which case, the church needs to work harder to shake their confidence.

Hell and “optimal grace”

September 7, 2011

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

One book I read to prepare for our two-part sermon series on heaven and hell is Methodist theologian Jerry Walls’s fun-sounding book Hell: The Logic of Damnation. In it, he seeks to overcome the most important objections to hell and damnation on moral grounds. And unlike our hyper-Calvinist brothers and sisters, Walls isn’t content to say, “God is perfectly good, even though our human understanding of God’s ‘goodness’ bears no apparent relationship to God’s goodness”—that God is good, in other words, even if our account of that “goodness” makes God out to be a moral monster.

In the real world, skeptical people of good faith do raise honest objections to Christianity on moral grounds. Let’s assume for a moment that they are doing so of their own free will, and that God isn’t simply making them be that way. We Arminian Christians, who live in that same world with them, should try to answer their objections. Hence Walls’s book.

In his chapter “Hell and Divine Goodness,” he brings the problem in sharp relief by discussing a few hypothetical scenarios, one of which I excerpt below:

Next, consider the case of two young women, both of whom have been taught the Christian faith, but have rejected it. Both are involved in an automobile accident in which one is killed while the other lives. Let us say the second is eventually converted and becomes a saintly person, whereas the first is damned. Suppose God knows the first would also have become a saintly person if she had lived to a normal age before dying.

What all these cases suggest is that it is very odd, to say the least, to think that salvation and damnation might hinge in some way on such factors as the circumstances of one’s birth or the time of one’s death. If this is actually possible, it seems to raise doubts about the claim that God, in perfect goodness, desires to save all persons.1

In other words, doesn’t our salvation or damnation often depend on circumstances over which we have no control? And if so, doesn’t this reflect poorly on God’s goodness?

After all, I was brought up in a Christian home. I grew up going to Sunday school and church. I saw many Christians role-model the love of Jesus for me. I had one opportunity after another to respond positively to the gospel, which I eventually did. Clearly, the vast majority of people in the world today—and who have ever lived—have not had those same opportunities, to say the least. Would God damn them to hell without giving them a fair chance of hearing and responding to the gospel? (This was a primary objection to Christianity raised by Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century, and Walls frames his argument to meet Russell’s objection.)

Walls doesn’t think so, and neither do I. In fact, I think this opinion represents a consensus on the rightward side of the mainline Protestant spectrum in which the United Methodist Church finds itself (which is to say the leftward side of evangelical Protestant spectrum). I have believed (or hoped) for years that an equal opportunity exists for people to respond positively to the gospel, even after death if necessary.

Before Walls’s book, however, I’d read no writer who had explained in a plausible way what this might look like. Walls argues that God gives everyone an “optimal measure of grace” to enable a “decisive response” to the gospel. So, getting back to the hypothetical case above, Walls writes,

I am inclined to say the one killed had not decisively rejected God. Although her initial response to grace was negative, she would have become a saintly person had she lived longer. This suggests that her initial negative rejection to God was not really a settled response. If God knows this, it may be the case that God will give her the grace at the moment of death to begin to become what she would have become if she had not died. Further spiritual growth could occur after death.2

Walls concedes that this notion would involve some form of purgatory. Stripped of its medieval Catholic excesses, he doesn’t believe there’s anything inherently un-Protestant about the idea. Indeed, many Protestants of Lutheran and Anglican extraction (including my man C.S. Lewis) believe in some form of it.

Walls even addresses one objection I have to the idea: If God were to give people an opportunity after death to respond (because in this life they failed to decisively accept or reject the gospel), who could possibly say no? Wouldn’t it be rather obvious what the correct “choice” would be? I put the word in scare quotes because at that point, it would fail to be a choice. It would be coerced. Walls responds:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such a reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation  after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.3

Or maybe not… It’s obviously highly speculative. But I’m glad Walls is at least making the effort to explain it.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, what we know for sure is this: We have this time now, this moment now, to respond. Everyone who has life still has the opportunity to find salvation. This should give urgency to our mission. Moreover, along with Walls, I believe our choices in this life can have eternal consequences. I believe people can decisively reject the gospel. I also fear that if we continually fail to respond to the gospel, we may harden our hearts such that we can no longer respond, in this life or beyond. (This, I believe, is the “unforgivable sin” Jesus mentions.)

One thing is also for sure: We don’t know the mysterious ways in which God works in the human heart. We don’t know how the Lord might move in that liminal place between life and death. Could it be that Jesus meets everyone, arms outstretched, as he met the two criminals on the cross beside him?

Will we, like the first criminal, reject him? Or will we, like the second, ask him to remember us when he comes into his kingdom? The choice will be ours.

Footnotes:
1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 86.

2. Ibid. 90.

3. Ibid., 100.