I’ve been thinking a lot recently about hell, cheerful subject, I know!
I’ve just come back from, yet another holiday, (thank you generous St. Anne’s parishioners), where I finally found time to read a book I’ve scanned through a number of times, but never had time to read. The book “The Evangelical Universalist”, by Gregory MacDonald: which argues that it is possible for a bible believing Christian to believe that, ultimately, everyone will be saved. While admitting his is very much a minority opinion, he argues that he still believes the orthodox Christian faith (unlike some universalists), but believes that, ultimately, God will have his way and bring all things, including all people, into his new creation power.
The truth is I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but last year had to read books that linked to my academic work (in order to get it all done) and then moving house and starting my new curacy has taken up my time since then. Despite that, I’ve been desperate to read it for a while. Why? …. well, because of my Grandad.
As I’ve shared before, my Grandad was an amazing man (see here) and I find it incredible to believe he’s been dead nearly two years. Our last correspondence was by letter, where he shared a copy of a sermon he had recently given and asked me for my opinion. I won’t share all of it, but one bit jumped out at me and gave me some concern:
“A few months ago now, there was a series of programmes on TV called ‘Revelations of God’. One thing highlighted was the ‘Alpha’ course & its complete emphasis on getting individuals saved, (in some suspect ways!)
Is it right for me, as a Christian, to get myself saved? My friends, let me tell you frankly, that if I got saved in some way, when my wife & family were not, then I don’t want to be saved! And if I am on my way to salvation & my friends in our Christian & other communities are not – then goodbye salvation!
The individualism that talks only of saving itself, cannot, in my mind, be Christian. Salvation, in Biblical terms, is a communal act; we belong together, & in a real sense, we hang together.
All the great biblical aims & requirements & themes, such as Shalom (Peace), Justice & Mercy are about community, & so is Salvation.
Well, what do you think? The sermon was entitled “Salvation … Are you being saved?” and was looking at a biblical understanding of salvation being past, present and future. Here’s some of how I, at the time, responded (slightly edited for personal reasons, but I assure you the sentiment expressed is the same):
I completely agreed with almost everything you said in your sermon. Salvation is past, present and future. When Jesus rose from the dead he brought the future new creation crashing into the present. The task of the Christian is the bring this new creation, the kingship of Christ, to bear wherever we are and in every area. Bringing healing, wholeness, reconciliation, peace etc. Wherever we find anything in this world that doesn’t match the values of the kingdom, we are to strive to bring Jesus’ kingship into effect. Personally speaking, I accepted the kingship of Christ (“was saved”) at 13, although I didn’t really understand it at the time, I’m continuing to be transformed more and more into the person he wants me to be (“am being saved”) and will serve him in his perfect kingdom when he comes again (“I will be saved”). However, this is a small picture. The whole creation will be renewed when Christ returns. It’s not a case of individual souls being carried away from the “evil” world to go and live in some disembodied heaven, but instead a renewal of the whole creation. We ourselves will have transformed resurrection bodies (still physical) and heaven and earth with be renewed and joined together in a new physical world. However, this new creation has already begun in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.
When I turned to the extract I shared above I wrote:
Now, what does this mean exactly?
Is it, rightly, criticizing the emphasis on individuals in most current evangelical understandings? E.g. How can I, as an individual, be saved and go to heaven? If that’s what you’re criticizing, then I agree with you. Our current cultures worship of the individual has translated into many people’s understanding of the gospel and desperately needs to be changed. All Christians, together, are citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom and need to see themselves as in Christ together. I agree with this.
Or is it attacking the mentality of some that the sole purpose of any person is to make sure they get saved. That the whole point of life seems to be to get saved and then hang about until you get taken off to heaven, possible getting one or two other souls saved while you’re hanging about. As I hope is now clear, I am also against this view-point and desperately believe we have a job to do!
However, are you really saying, that all your friends and family are “saved” because you are? Perhaps, you’re proclaiming universalism, that all people will ultimately be with God in the new creation? I can’t agree with that. I believe that salvation will include all creation, but also that all those things that are not under God’s rule will be destroyed, or punished, including those people who refuse to accept his rule. Therefore, we must tell people to surrender to his loving rule. That’s not our only task, but it is one of them. Just as we’re to bring all the world, all the powers, all the political systems and everything else under Jesus rule, so we’re to bring all people under his rule. That’s not to say that people won’t benefit as we bring more and more of the world around them in line with God’s kingdom, but that doesn’t guarantee them a place in God completed future renewed creation. They can benefit from salvation in the present, even share in salvation as they are healed, share in reconciled communities etc, but that doesn’t mean they will be saved in the future. I continue to believe that all people are saved by faith, through grace. Do you, for example, believe that a person who continues to question whether God even exists, would have a part in the new creation if he died today, simply because you or I trust in Jesus? I really do wish that was the case, but I don’t believe that’s what the Bible says. God will not force his will on people. Tom Wright describes hell like this:
“Hell is what happens when human beings say to the God, in who’s image they were made, ‘we don’t want to worship you, we don’t want our human life to be shaped by worshipping you, we don’t want our “who we are as humans” to be transformed by the love of Jesus dying and rising for us, we don’t want any of that. We want to stay as we are and do our own thing.’ And if you do that, what you’re saying is you want to stop being an image bearing human being, within this good world that God has made and you are colluding with you own progressive de-humanization and that is a shocking and horrible thing.”
The choices we make in this life count. If we choose to follow the way of the cross, it counts, if we choose to fashion our lives in the image we decide, making ourselves king of our own lives, it too counts. I pray every day that my friends and family will accept Jesus as Lord, that he will ‘repent and believe’. But they won’t share in that future salvation just because you or I believe. This doesn’t change anything I’ve said so far, as I still believe in the necessity of holistic mission.
Like I say, I may well have misunderstood you, and will happily be corrected, but I can’t sign up to an universalist understanding.
So there we have it, that’s what I wrote. He replied by sending me a piece of work he’d done on Hell and his understanding (which I might share some of another time), with a post-it-note which said “I hope to respond more fully after this Op” … He never came out of hospital.
So was Grandad an universalist? If so, what kind? I really wish we’d sat down and just chatted about his views and beliefs. I wish I knew his understanding of the Christian faith. But I don’t, not properly. Instead I’m left reading bits and pieces he’d written over the years, and try to work it out.
So, anyway, it was with great longingly that I turned to a book that reported to give a biblical account of universalism. It turned out to be a fascinating read, not least because the authors overarching theology was clearly very close to my own. He argued for an overarching narrative of scripture, a final reconciliation of creation and for the need for evangelism and holistic mission. And it was from this understanding (which I very much share) that he moved to an universalist understanding. While, for me, he had to explain away far too many “problem texts” to be convincing, I would like to think my Grandad thought a bit like this, as it would mean our understandings were actually very similar, but I guess I’ll never know.
As for hell, the writer definitely got me thinking. How does the damnation of some fit with the reconciliation of all things? If human free will does not get in the way of God’s sovereignty (which I believe), and God wants all to be saved, why are some ultimately not?
So when it comes to HELL, I guess I still have a HELL of a lot of thinking to do!