I stood in horror watching the blogosphere light up last week, but my horror was not simply over the accusations made against an author whose book was not even yet available nor just over those who were denouncing Rob Bell for what they were absolutely certain was universalism. No the horror was that there was a volley of posts put up about hell. It looked like a tug of war between Love Wins! and Wrath Wins! Is this what we need? the way to proceed? the way to find resolution?
My horror, then, was three-fold: first, the image of God that is depicted when hell becomes the final, or emphatic, word and, second, the absence of any context for how to talk about judgment in the Bible and, third, the kinds of emotion expressed: we saw too much gloating and pride and triumphalism on both sides. I felt like those who watched the sinking of the Titanic and who didn’t cringe at the thought of thousands sinking into the Atlantic to a suffocating death. They were instead singing and dancing to a jig that they were right or had been predicting the sinking all along.
If there is an eternity, and I believe there is, and if there is a judgment, and I believe there is, then let us keep the immensity and gravity of it all in mind and refrain from flippancy, gloating, triumphalism — and let it reduce us to sobriety and humility and prayer. When Abraham faced the prospects of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18, he didn’t gloat that he was on the safe side but supplicated YHWH for mercy for those who weren’t. We need more Abrahams.
I have myself weighed in on this Eternity.Life debate in my book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, so I don’t want to weigh in again or repeat what I have already said. Instead, I want to set this discussion into a slightly different context: the image of God that jumps from the pages of the Bible in passages that might be called final triumphant grace. I will put it this way: there are passages that sound univeralistic, that sound like somehow God will reconcile all things in the End, and that if we don’t occasionally sound universalistic we are not being as biblical as God — and as Jesus and Paul. Yes, these passages are not the only ones to consider, but — let this be said — neither are they cushioned or cautioned or cornered off by Jesus and Paul so they don’t give the wrong impression. What the Bible is talking about here is that God’s grace will win. God will make all things right. I’m not a universalist but I want this language to be the way I talk about these topics. So, here goes:
I begin with Jesus, whose parable of the Prodigal Son should make us stop in our tracks, from Luke 15:28-32:
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
And now to Paul, beginning with 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
And especially Colossians 1:15-20:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
And this line from James:
Mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13).
And, once again, I don’t consider these to be the only passages that have to be considered. But let this grand and glorious vision of hope and triumphant grace and putting things to rights be in our minds and on our lips and in our emotions whenever … whenever … whenever we talk about final matters.
To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God.
No one should begin to talk about hell without spending fifteen minutes in pausing prayer to consider the horror of it all.
I find some people can get intoxicated on wrath and it can lead them in a triumphalist dance of anger. And I find some who get intoxicated with a flabby sense of grace. Isn’t it better to get lost in the dance of God’s good and triumphant grace and of making things right? If we are to be intoxicated, let it be from imbibing the hope and grace of God’s love which will both win and be right in the End.
Remember the supplications of Abraham. Every.Time.