(7 June 2002: from prior papers)
It is quite morally reasonable to assume that God would give every person enough knowledge and revelation of Himself, thus ample opportunity, to repent. Romans 1:18-32 and 2:12-16 would seem to make that clear. Romans 1:20 is a general statement, applying to all people. In other words all people know there is a God, through creation (cf. Job 12:7-9; Ps 19:1-6; Jer 5:21-24). Romans 1:19 says it is plain to the wicked as well. So all know that God exists, but some wickedly suppress what they know to be true (1:18,21,25,28,32). The truth of God and the moral law is known intrinsically by humans, but it is suppressed.
Also, passages about sudden death seem to me to imply that judgment follows, with no further chance of salvation: e.g., “Thou fool! This very night thy soul is required of thee!” or, “The Son of Man will come as a thief in the night” (i.e., some people will be unprepared). Many people never hear the gospel preached, but I do think that God gives sufficient knowledge and grace for all to know Him and to repent.
The ones who haven’t heard the gospel still know enough — simply by being made in God’s image, conscience, etc. — to possibly be saved. No one will have any excuse on Judgment Day, whether they heard the Christian gospel or not, because the law is “written on their hearts.” Scripture teaches that sufficient grace is available for all regardless of circumstances of time, place, and other variables. The damned reject what they know. They are not merely ignorant of what they could have known, given a different, more fortunate circumstance. This is the biblical position.
Purgatory offers an aspect of further grace after death, but it is not a second chance. Whoever goes there is already “saved” in the sense that they are destined for heaven. Purgatory is the anteroom to heaven; not a fire escape from hell. It is not a “minimum security” hell, but rather, a beastly and uncomfortable “hot room” of the heavenly mansion. Even so, there are more pleasures to be had there than on earth. One is much closer to God there.
The law is already on everyone’s heart. If a further chance for salvation after death existed (as some theological liberals claim), why the biblical warnings about sudden death? I would say the nonexistence of a second chance after death is presupposed in, e.g., the parables of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). This is even more evident in the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), where the damned persons in the parable went to Jesus (i.e., after the 2nd coming: 25:6,10), but the “door was shut.” It was already too late. Jesus did not “know” them (25:12). So the moral of that story is:
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matt 25:12; NRSV)
All of this makes little sense on the assumption that there exists another chance for salvation after death. Note that they are described as “foolish,” not merely ignorant. They obviously knew about the bridegroom. This is all harmonious with Romans 1:18-32. Hebrews 9:27 is clear anyway:
. . . it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment. (NRSV)
Furthermore, there is another frightening passage where Jesus discusses the coming of the Kingdom: Luke 17:20-37 (cf. Matt 24:26-28,37-44; Mk 13:32-37; Lk 21:34-36). He makes analogies to the Second Coming, which is alluded to in 17:24 and 17:30. “In the days of Noah” men were “eating and drinking, and marrying . . .” until “the flood came and destroyed all of them.” (17:26-27). They did have a hundred years or so to listen to old man Noah, but then that was all in this life, not the next. They rejected his counsel, and were judged and killed, and this is later compared to being thrown into hell, as I will explain shortly.
Then Jesus compares Sodom to those who will be alive at the time of the Second Coming. They were “eating and drinking, buying and selling,” etc. (17:28). Then “it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them” (17:29). Jesus says that’s how it will be when He returns (17:30). Our Lord urges vigilance and preparation in order to avoid damnation and judgment (17:31-33). Then the climax: He proceeds to explain that “on that night [when the Son of Man returns] there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left” (17:34). He reiterates the point in 17:35. This is our warning of (sudden) judgment, as compared to the situations before the flood and the destruction of Sodom. The disciples ask Jesus where the persons who are “taken” go. He answers:
. . . Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (17:37)
Now, apparently it is variously interpreted by commentators, but it seems to me that Jesus is here referring to hell, specifically Gehenna, which was His own word-picture for hell. Gehenna (from valley of Hinnom) was the garbage-heap of Jerusalem, outside the city walls. Much evil had previously taken place there (false idols, child sacrifice, pagan ceremonies, etc.). Gehenna/hell is described by Jesus in Mark 9:48 as a place “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (cf. Isa 14:11). Dead bodies of executed criminals used to be cast into Gehenna (see, e.g., Jer 31:40). Worms used to feed upon the bodies, and fires were kept burning, for obvious reasons. In Isaiah 66:24, we read:
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
Interestingly, the latter statement is also in the context of the Second Coming of Christ, as indicated by Isaiah 66:15-16,22. The conclusion I draw, therefore, is this: Jesus is showing how judgment is very sudden. There will be no time to repent, and judgment will be swift. Physical death is clearly analogous to spiritual death in these passages. No second chance for salvation is even remotely implied. If we had such a further hope as this, the Bible would explicitly mention it somewhere.
What is truly callous is a view which lets people do whatever they want, until they stand before God and “make it right” when all the cards are on the table. They had more than enough time while on earth. God reveals Himself to all who seek Him. Someone who willfully rejects God all their life will not accept Him once they meet Him face to face, except out of a desire to save their own skin. Human rebellion and wickedness is often greatly underestimated. Self-preservation is not a good enough reason for God to save someone. There must be real repentance, and an acceptance of salvation as a free gift, and a true desire to follow God. Jesus taught (recounting Abraham’s words) that if people didn’t believe Moses and the Prophets, they wouldn’t believe even if someone were to rise from the dead (Lk 16:27-31). This is sheer rebellion, not mere ignorance.
Hell is the equivalent of a son — properly raised and loved — going out and joining the Mafia or KKK and totally rejecting his upbringing. His parents love him but alas, he goes further astray with each passing day. They reach out — he spurns them repeatedly. Now whose fault is that? Is this lifestyle choice by the son directly attributable to a lack of love from the parents? God didn’t make robots. He made free agents whom He will allow even to reject Him if they so choose. If that free will is real and not just illusory, then hell is inevitable. There has to be a place reserved for people who want nothing to do with God. Free will makes both evil and hell inevitable. God has the power over life and death, and He is Judge. “The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away.” (Job, who understood this very well). All people know there is a God, through creation (cf. Job 12:7-9; Ps 19:1-6; Jer 5:21-24). Romans 1:19 says it is plain to the wicked as well. So all know that God exists.
When Hitler or Stalin stand before God, they will be forced to explain themselves and their evil actions. They will be made to know beyond any doubt, beyond any of man’s foolish rationalizations, delusions, blame-shifting, and excuses, that their penalty is just; that they chose it of their own free will, and that God respects free will so much that he will let them spend eternity without Him. In a realm where God is not, there is undescribable evil. That is all that is necessary to explain the existence and nature of hell. It is not God’s fault at all. Rather, it is Satan and man which have created the aberration of hell.
In the Catholic view, salvation is a process of continual growth. Righteousness (and sanctification) is an acquired habit, which we must cultivate, guard and “pamper” — all due to the enabling power of God’s grace. Everyone makes a choice at every moment of the day to follow the path of righteousness or the path of death and destruction. Choices become habits; habits form character. Someone who gives little thought to God all during their life is not likely at all to accept God, even after death. They have coddled and babied their rebellion and wickedness throughout their life. Many have concluded that God is evil, and are willing to say that to His face when they meet Him. I have heard people say this, many times. What folly man commits! This is what Malcolm Muggeridge (in his inimitable manner) called “unresisting imbecility” or “fathomless incredulity.”
This psychological/spiritual dynamic is amply verified by the treatment of Jesus. The truly humble and repentant ones instinctively understood who He was, or at least that they should follow His teachings and He Himself. Those who were prideful and trusting in their own works or the fact of their Jewishness to save themselves (Pelagianism) rejected Him, no matter what He did. When He performed miracles, they simply said He had a demon, and performed miracles by the power of Beelzebub. They saw Him as a threat to their political and ecclesiastical power, and so trumped up charges to dispose of Him (as John the Baptist was also treated).
This is similar to our rationalizations by which we pretend that God doesn’t exist, so that He doesn’t mess up our lives. Finally, even His Resurrection didn’t move these people at all (as He had predicted: Luke 16:31). They immediately adopted a ludicrous view that the disciples stole the body. It’s obvious that human rebelliousness knows no bounds. Yet some people simplistically assume that once such a person dies they will immediately repent. Such a “repentance” is likely only the self-preservation instinct and not true contrition. I can conceive of a situation in which God does offer one last chance right before He commences judgment, but the Bible doesn’t reveal it that way, and the Church has never held such a view. In any event, I think people’s minds and wills are already made up by the time they die — by virtue of the life choices they have made.
God is Judge, and He is holy. He has the prerogative to judge His creatures, who have rebelled against Him and rejected His infinite love and mercy. I don’t know why this is so hard for so many to comprehend. It all follows as soon as free will is accepted. People want to blame God (or, in effect, change His nature to fit the image they have of what God should be like); I put the blame squarely on man. It is a fundamentally different approach. I accept God’s Revelation and His self-description on their own terms; those who reject the biblical revelation try to judge God and His teachings recorded there by a moral sense which was given to them by God in the first place. The stream can’t rise higher than the Source . . . Without a moral and loving God (“God is love”) there can be no absolute and binding standard of morality in the first place.
As to people’s knowledge of God’s character and mercy: all men have enough knowledge to choose to follow and adore God, but some men are granted extra knowledge. And some choose not to accept what is self-evident. This necessarily follows in a fallen world, in which much unfairness exists. And it is always ultimately a great mystery why some are saved and others are not.
It is folly for us to try to perceive God as if He is limited in knowledge and in time, like ourselves. He is not. God is all-loving, all-holy, and all-knowing. He knows what people would have done, given the chance, and I believe He incorporates that into His Final Judgment of each individual, just as I believe this is particularly true for infants (e.g., those slaughtered in their mother’s wombs). God looks at the heart. We look at outward appearances. God is not arbitrary and petulant. A far different God is revealed in Scripture, history, and in our own individual experiences of His ever-present mercy and forgiveness.
All false beliefs come from below, and we allow ourselves to be deceived by the Evil One to a far greater degree than we are aware. All of us no doubt have sincere, false beliefs at this very moment. But there is an underlying spiritual battle to which Romans 1 refers. I believe that all individuals can arrive at spiritual truth if they just seek it wholeheartedly, and that this (necessarily) derives from the same grace which makes our salvation possible, because God is Knowledge as well as Love. Truth and salvation go hand in hand.
God distributes His grace sufficiently for all, despite differential circumstances and willingness to receive and act upon it. And God “evens things out” by taking into account the individual’s circumstances and environment, which affect both his judgment and culpability. Middle Knowledge allows God to know what people would have done, and I believe He acts accordingly, where the salvation of individuals is concerned.
“Equal opportunity salvation” is grounded in God’s sufficient grace for all, universal atonement, and God’s recognition of the unfair burdens and deficiencies that many of us labor under, through no fault of our own (without undermining man’s profound and willful rebellion and wickedness at all). God knows everything, including future conditionals, and this makes His final judgment fair and just and loving, whether or not we fully comprehend it. I submit that we will one day, as we will be given extraordinary knowledge in heaven. We will have all of eternity to ponder these questions and God’s ineffable character and Providence which trouble many people so much now.