Many of my readers might be surprised to learn that I believe in the doctrine of hell.
Universalism is very appealing, and given my experiential and intuitive sense of divine love, as well as the splendid description of the same by Julian of Norwich, I simply cannot understand the notion that God is in the business of damning souls. I think the notion of damnation, of divine wrath meted out to the impenitent, is mostly a caricature of our very human thirst for revenge and punishment projected onto eternity.
Even the Bible subverts the notion of hell-as-punishment. “Perfect love casts out fear,” notes the author of the first letter of John. Jesus may have used hyperbolic language to describe the separation of the “sheep” from the “goats” and to depict hell as a place of eternal torment where “their worm will never die nor their fire be put out,” but he also tells parables of the prodigal son or the widow searching for her lost coin, where the emphasis on divine love and mercy clearly trumps any human fear of retribution. Really, only the Revelation to John leaves the reader with a truly harrowing sense of damnation, as the author notes how “anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake,” — but the entire book of Revelation is little more than an acid-trip-metaphor that declares God’s judgment on the time in which it was written; when we realize this, its potency as “prophecy” of the end times loses its sting.
Christian progressives and liberals will all be nodding with my fairly by-the-book deconstruction of divine retribution. How, then, can I turn around and say I still believe in hell?
The answer is simple. I believe hell exists, and I also believe it is possible that at the dawn of eternity, hell will be empty. In fact, it is my duty as a Christian to hope that it is.
The beauty and glory of Christianity arises chiefly from how it proclaims the superabundant reality of divine love and grace. The power of God’s love and grace knows no bounds. Whenever we human beings set up limits (such as religious identity, theological rectitude, believing in “sound doctrine,” or the more subconscious and insidious boundaries of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, economic and educational level, mental health or the lack thereof, and so forth), divine grace and love simply crosses the lines and presents itself to all beings. The salvation that, as Christianity teaches, was effected through Christ’s death and resurrection, is offered as a free gift to all.
But its freedom lies not in the fact that it carries no cost; rather it is free by virtue of the fact that it can be turned down.
The twentieth century Christian esotericist Valentin Tomberg speaks eloquently in one of his writings about how the angels of God are eternally present and available to offer us all kinds of assistance and blessing, but that they respect and honor us so much that they will not intervene in our lives until we ask them to do so. If angels simply walked in to our lives and fixed all our messes, regardless of whether we wanted them to or not, their presence would not be a blessing, but a constriction. Unless we are free to turn down the blessings of the angels, we are not truly free.
And so it is with God’s resistible grace. Freely offered to all, forced on none. We live eternally bathed in unconditional love and grace, grace we cannot earn or merit, and yet we are free to accept or decline this amazing gift. If we did not have the freedom to say no to God’s blessings we would not truly be free. And God would rather us be free than pure. God could impose a purity upon us, stripping us of our freedom and forcing us into a pre-planned model of heavenly behavior and being. But that’s not how things are. In the divine economy, freedom is a higher good than purity, and so we are free but impure. If we wish to grow, to as it were be purified, we can do so — not by our merit, but by simply accepting what has been freely offered to us.
If hell did not exist, we would not be truly free. Ironically, we cannot be truly free unless our freedom includes the freedom to bind ourselves into a place of radical imprisonment.
I think heaven, hell, and purgatory are vectors that begin here on earth. Think about your own life and the lives of those you know. We all know people who, regardless of the privileges or obstacles that define their lives, make choices that are loving, compassionate, and forgiving, or other choices that are hateful, hurtful and abusive (whether to ourselves, or to others). Most of us live messy lives with a choatic intermingling of both kinds of choices. Well, think about it: those whose choices are consistently kind and loving have accepted divine grace to such an extraordinary degree that they have already begun to manifest the consciousness of heaven. Meanwhile, those who consistently choose the path of hatred, resentment, and abuse have already begun to imprison themselves in the hell where they can more effectively resist divine grace. Meanwhile, the vast majority of us who bumble around making both kinds of choices are living out our own purgation, suffering from our unwise choices and receiving blessings great and small in the wake of our wise ones.
May we all learn to see how our loving choices are actually a dynamic of existential response — response to the eternal love and grace that has been so lavishly bestowed upon us. May we therefore learn to be more consistent in choosing wisely not to resist the kiss from God.