Will all be saved in the end?
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight looks at the controversial issue of salvation.
I want to spend a few messages analysing a pretty complex issue – the issue of salvation. Will we all be saved in the end? Will only some of us? Opinions are heavily divided, and have been since the 1st century. We’ve come to that point in the messages where the most devastating proposition ever conceived (Hell) comes face to face with the proposition that all either desire (Heaven), or wish it were true, or in a few cases, won’t entertain the idea of belief unless the latter is ensured and the former is made up as falsehood. Before we talk about heaven and hell, I think we ought to look at how Christians have probably messed up quite badly in getting ‘hell’ so wrong.
The two biggest extremist in Christianity seem to be, firstly, those who preach a gospel of judgment in which they feel called to terrify children (and adults) with threats of hellfire, and secondly, those who adopt an anti science position (denying things like evolution) and accuse anyone who doesn’t conform to their beliefs as being reproachable. On the surface this is a problem that opens old wounds, but I think the underlying intent of Christians who do this is probably based on a form of decency. In the same way that creationists have a genuine desire to act faithfully to the gospel by feeling threatened by an evolution that they believe undermines the great commission, I believe that those who preach hellfire and employ scare tactics are themselves overwhelmed with a troubling persona. The desire for moral probity has somehow been twisted into pathological insecurity, which is what is behind the threats and warnings. But the inferiority complex is compensated for by believing that in pointing others towards their sins they are doing God’s work.
As a rule, I have enough faith that humans can continually survive an in depth reality test whereby the quotient of beneficial growth can be met and sustained, even aside from threats of damnation. As always, the hard reality of the Christian life goes on for most, at least in as much as it is capable of surviving the best test by which conscious cognition probes for that reality; namely, that human beings comprehensively submit to (at the very least) a theoretical simulation of collectivity in individualism and individualism in collectivity. With that in mind, idle threats of hellfire are only likely to bother those who are too young to know how to protect themselves, those who are too intellectually pliable to have proper independence of mind, and those who are willing to subject themselves to the thrall of the powerful in order to lessen the burden of personal responsibility. To this extent, such people have a necessary emotional involvement, and they are not likely to be swayed by arguments that point towards the primacy of outrageous grace and love.
The driving desire to do God’s will is itself a good thing, and I would suggest that God’s outrageous grace and love is so grand, and His heart so spacious, that He will be able to see the best in you, in recognition of your good intentions, far more than other humans will. If I may be permitted to suggest something, I think focusing on love and grace makes us more emotionally astute, and improves our acumen for seeing the potential in others – therefore those who are convinced that for some hell is the ultimate destiny might be better deferring judgement altogether, and accepting that God can be trusted to see things that you or I have no business thinking we can see.
The cross is superior to any form of legalism. And it ought to be noted that drawing all to Himself is a fairly explicit promise that God’s love and grace will supersede His judgment. This is particularly relevant as we are also told that we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear – so I doubt whether the issue of ‘Can one lose one’s salvation?’ was ever really an issue to begin with. The Bible tells us to defer judgment and trust God, and that is the most we can do. But notice that this leads us to an inevitable precipice; we are plainly aware that we are not cajoled into deferring judgment and trusting God – if we choose we can preach hellfire and block out the signals of grace and love that Christianity is intent on sending. This means that for a time being, while we are still responsible for our own subjective interpretation or God, the mind has a big say on what sort of disciples we are. Even the power of grace and love in scripture won’t retain its force if we choose to stand in the way of it and allow our own insecurities to disfigure the gospel
If after reading this section you have found my demeanour a little frank, you will, I hope, forgive me. The reason you may sense this is because I cannot abide all this pernicious talk of hellfire. My first introduction to Christianity involved meeting people who were very outspoken in telling people they were going to be sent to hell if they didn’t become Christians. What I object to is that this sort of talk rarely does any good – I do not think that there is the first hint in the New Testament that Christians are to bring in on themselves to issue such threats. In fact, when it comes to judgment, all we are called to do is believe that there is nothing we can do to improve our chances - because we are told that we can do nothing but trust God when He says that Christ has it covered – our debts are paid, and they are debts for which He shows us that only dying would put us right with God.
For this reason I will disclose my position on universalism, because I do not think it is a subject about which we can speak dogmatically (either for or against) – it is worth drawing special attention to trusting God; in trust, I believe that what we are permitted to do is to ‘hope’ it is true, because to hope for the eventual salvation of everyone is the position that every Christian ought to be compelled to take, and one with which he or she remains beyond impeachment.
This rather has the opposite effect of Greek mythology, and perhaps that's why Zeus included "hope" in Pandora's Box - seeing it as shaving off trust and leaving hope that one's future is in one's control and not the gods. In contrast, St Paul was delighted to put his life in Christ’s control, and that is where he tells us true blessedness will be achieved - so in that sense 'hoping' for universalism is a hope that is beyond reproach.
So my position is this; I wouldn't call myself a hard universalist - I'm more of a 'Go where the logic and emotions take me' kind of guy - which has led me to believing that Divine love won't have done its work until all are with Him in Heaven. This issue can't be solved with a priori or a posteriori considerations, so the best one can be is a 'Trust God implicitly' proponent, then it is win-win. On a scale of 1-10 where 1 = Hellfire-preaching extremist and 10 = out and out universalist, I would consider myself a hard 8 or a soft 9.
As a general comment regarding universalism, the Bible inerrancy issue, and other perennial issues that plague our faith - it is quite clear from the way people defend their hellfire, their Bible inerrancy, and the rest, that they are riding a vehicle that they find all but impossible to abandon, even though it must be known subliminally that they in control of an old rust bucket that needs new tyres and a most of the engine parts replacing. This is because these viewpoints are almost entirely cultural or locally fostered. If one comes from a church or a background then those beliefs will be like the old family car that the head of the house just will not trade in, and continues to insist that that car will never pack in. The healthiest escape from this stasis is to endeavor to cultivate a studied detachment from the vehicle(s) you're driving. This is a committed declaration for an MOT trial, if you like.
I think history clearly shows that the idea of this eternal torment with literal pain and flame-fuelled suffering occurred when pagan religions became mixed into Christian cultures, and clearly draining this swamp has proved pretty difficult, particularly when so many power hungry control freaks try to keep it in for their own horrible personal gain. Those who preach the worst kinds of hell are mostly those with the most hellish personality. But clearly, this is why Christ was so against religion, and His warnings so prescient, because God is love, and it is through a ‘relationship’ with Him that this love blesses and develops, and it is through ‘religion’ that this blessing is retarded and disfigured.
God is love, He is not the God of man's religion, the scriptures are very clear in speaking about all the apostasy of religion, because religion is modeled after man's disfigured perception of God used for their own ways, whereas relationship is modeled after God’s own heart for His people – those who have seen God in Christ have seen the real nature of the Father, not as some megalomaniac tyrant, but as a God of supreme love and grace – a God who would become what we are so that we could become like Christ.
I think hell, that is, the real reality of hell, will have nothing to do with flames and torture (that’s just a silly interpretation) the real pain of hell will be, I presume, rather like human heartbreak but on the grandest scale of all – a place absent of God, where one has chosen to live away from Him – a state of privation; a place where the true and real absence of God is fully realised, and where a person's creaturely position - that of being created to know God and to enjoy heavenly bliss - is made known. T.S. Eliot captured the pain of this realisation, in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, from the ‘Four Quartets’ by speaking about being in the presence of God’s love, and how it is only love that discharges us from sin and error:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
That is why, when it comes to fear of hell, I abhor all this scare-talk – because it is so far from the true answer of love. I suppose the only thing I could say that would constitute a justification for some kind of warning would be that if God didn’t make it known what awesome potential we have with Him we would have no urgency to come to Him and perhaps even no tangible reason to think about our eternal destination. We do not have a docile Sky-Uncle who one can lock away under the stairs when the Christmas party starts, rather we have a supremely powerful Father God who has great things for us should we choose to accept them.
And presumably, the torment of Hell can only be quantified as a comparison to the glory of Heaven, just as the feeling of not being in love is only felt in its fullness when the absence of that love is most tangible. Only when the heart is broken does the absence of love become unbearable, and I presume the torment of hell will be of that kind. Although the Bible clearly intimates that Hell will be an awful place, I really do think that it is a big mistake for a man to recognise that the God he worships is all-loving (as seen in the person of Jesus) and then go on to contradict himself by saying that such a God could subject finite humans to eternal torture. I’m amazed that so few Christians can see the contradiction here, particularly as so many atheists can see it quite clearly, and I don’t really know what those who preach hellfire are getting out of it – they certainly do not seem like content believers.
Christ is all about inclusion – the gruesome end to His life is perhaps so shocking that all cannot fail to be affected by it. Scripture says His suffering was greater than that of any man, and I can’t help but think in the deepest parts of our most inner-being we can all relate to that a lot more than many of us care to admit. The tragedy of the human condition is a cross we all have to bear because our empathy and solicitude locks us into it – and in the case of our own sins, ability to hurt each other, and willful neglect of the right path, such tragedy is like a bruise on the arm – it is easy to forget for a while but as soon as something presses down on it, the reality of it brings a dull pain.
That’s a brief introduction. Next time I will look at the big philosophical problem that underlies this issue, and how we can go about solving it.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk