I recently received a splendid comment from a reader, who asked me a very knotty question indeed. So of course your Anglocat, merrily rushing in where angels fear to tread, finds himself treading some fairly deep theological waters. Here is the essence of the question: Describing (fairly) my views on the afterlife as “universalist”, how do I reconcile these views with the fact that the majority of church teaching has not held to this position.
I know, bit of a yorker, right?
I am a universalist, but in (to steal a phrase from constitutional law), a faint-hearted one. That is to say, my belief in the Grace and mercy of God outweighs my knowledge of the sinfulness not just of the world, but of myself. I believe in the forgiveness of God because I need God’s mercy, and because the nature of God offers love and deep compassion. That is not to say that I don’t believe that sin harms us; it clearly does, and it hurts the soul. I just don’t believe that God ever gives up on us.
So here’s my response, lightly edited, as Lent slowly draws toward a close, and Holy Week approaches:
Before I give my own thoughts, let me refer you to two of my favorite theologians: C.S. Lewis, and specifically his book The Great Divorce, which addresses this very topic (as does his more famous The Screwtape Letters, hinting that God bends the rules for us). Lewis's point boils down to the contention that we can reject God’s love, and refuse to enter into joy; God will not force us into relationship with Him. (The book suggests that the door from Hell to Heaven is always ajar, but it is well worth a read.)
It occurs to me that Christopher Marlowe in his The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is heading in the same direction when he has Mephistopheles, on Earth, say that: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” In other words, Hell is a state of mind, not a place.
The second is Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, describing Grace: “God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word ... it's that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit. Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - like saying, ‘Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It's God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’” For Bolz-Weber, we are all sinners and all saints, and both at the same time.
So now my own thoughts, understanding that I fully agree with Lewis and Bolz-Weber. The first response I’d make is to refer you to the Gospels: Matthew 7:11 (“If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”). See Luke 11:13 for the parallel passage. Also, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
These passages are a reminder to me of two things: First, that God’s mercy is far greater than that of humanity. Second, that God loves everything He has created, and longs to put things right between sinful humanity and Himself. The first point, the mercy of God excelling ours, is important because in every criminal justice system, there is a concept of proportionality, that means that, for any crime, however horrific, there comes a point where the punishment outweighs the crime, and becomes itself unjust. God’s Justice is not that—think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the early morning workers are paid the same as those who only work an hour. That’s mercy to the latecomers, but not injustice to the earlier arrived workers. (Matt. 20: 1-16).
If Hell is in fact a state of mind, and not a place, it is self-inflicted by our inability to accept Grace. Lewis’s suggestion that the opportunity to accept Grace doesn’t end with death is hopeful, but not, of course, verifiable. But I cannot accept that the God who calls us ever hardens His heart against us.
As to traditional readings of Hell and damnation, I think we, as did our ancestors, sometimes look for what lawyers call “bright lines,” rules that are clear and unbending, guaranteeing clarity of outcomes. Life isn’t that way, in my 54 years on this planet, and I suspect that Jesus Christ wasn’t laying down inflexible rules, but speaking fortissimo to His followers to help them reevaluate their own lives and beliefs.
I hope you find this helpful and really do read Lewis and Bolz-Weber, who are each far more eloquent and learned than am I.
Peace and welcome.