Today we have a guest post by Rev. Heath Bradley, who is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is also the author of Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation. Heath blogs at the Sunday drive home.
“Our God is a consuming fire.” – Hebrews 12:29
I hold to a hopeful conviction that ultimately everyone will be united with God through the grace of Christ. As I visit with people about this conviction (known as “Christian universalism”), inevitably folks will respond by saying, “Oh, so you think everyone goes to heaven.” In some sense, yes, I do believe that “everyone goes to heaven,” but I am not entirely happy with describing my belief in universal salvation in that way. Because of the popular idea of heaven that many entertain, it can be very misleading for me to say it like that.
I don’t think going to heaven means that we are transported to an ethereal Disneyland beyond the clouds. Heaven, in the Christian theological tradition, is held primarily to be a state of perfect intimacy and full union with God, and I believe that can be experienced here and now, and in the world to come. I don’t pretend to understand the metaphysics of an afterlife existence, but I believe that when we die we live on in the realm of God’s immediate presence, and that the words “heaven” and “hell” denote two opposite ways of experiencing the presence of God’s holy love.
If our lives and hearts are full of love for God and neighbor, the fires of God’s holy love will be experienced as warmth and light.
If our lives and hearts are full of apathy and hatred towards others, then I believe the flames of God’s holy love will be experienced for a time as painful and, in some ways, a source of great torture.
I also don’t pretend to know exactly what God’s judgment will be like. To some degree, we must all use our biblically-shaped imaginations in a speculative way when thinking about this difficult topic. Bishop Will Willimon describes the wrath of God as the ultimate encounter with the painful truth about ourselves. He writes, “Perhaps the wrath, the just judgment of God upon us is a kind of slaying, a kind of baptismal death to our illusions and lies, that pain that happens when we are given time to stare into the mirror of truth, the pain that is harsh but is also due to love?” (Who Will Be Saved?, 83)
This makes a lot of sense to me. God’s judgment is when all the lights are turned on and we must come to terms with the truth. It is the horrible experience of fully realizing the pain we have caused others and that we have caused God through our self-centered ways of living. It is a pain that can be experienced now or then, and it is a pain that can cut deeper than any other pain.
It is also the kind of pain that leads to repentance and reconciliation. This is why Origen, an early Christian universalist, said that even if we could escape God’s judgment, we shouldn’t want to. God’s judgment is like the tough diagnosis that is needed for the right kind of healing to take place. It might hurt like hell, but its purpose is to heal and make things right.
With this is mind, let’s consider one of the most frequent objections to my position, which goes along lines like this: “You don’t really think that Mother Teresa and Hitler are going to end up in the same place, do you?”
My response is a clear “no” and “yes.”
If by “Hitler” you mean a moral monster filled with prejudice and hatred, then no, that Hitler will not be in heaven. You cannot be perfectly united with God and enjoy the intimacy of his self-giving and other-centered love and be filled with anti-God ways of being. Heaven would be hell to someone whose heart is set against God.
But consider this thought experiment about what divine judgment might look like for Hitler. What if God were to punish Hitler in the world to come by transforming and softening Hitler’s heart to make him capable of truly feeling all the pain of his victims? Nothing could be more painful, and yet, at the same time, nothing could be more hopeful. This would be torturous to experience, yet it would also set him on the road to repentance.
Ultimate justice would be for God to bring Hitler to repentance by burning away all his self-protective delusions, giving him a long look into the mirror of truth, and enabling him to experience the pain of his crimes. But God’s justice that can make all things right would not stop there. God could also enable Hitler to participate with God in bringing healing and wholeness to his victims in the world to come, and God could enable his victims to extend God’s forgiveness to Hitler.
The scenario I have constructed for what divine judgment for Hitler might be like is speculation, to be sure, as all such reflection on this topic ultimately is. However, so much speculation about hell has been rooted in the myth that mere retribution achieves genuine justice, as if an eternity of pain for Hilter would somehow balance the scales of justice and make things up to his victims. But when it comes to real justice, scales do not need to be balanced; heart needs to be healed and lives need to restored. So, while this is speculation, at least this is speculation rooted in Jesus’ clear rejection of mere retribution (Matt. 5:43-48), and in God’s clearly revealed purpose, achieved in Christ, to reconcile to himself all things. (Col. 1:20).