The victorious gospel: Good news for creation, bad news for Christians
Christianity magazine recently published an open letter from RT Kendall to UK churches. In it, he made an impassioned plea not to “water down the message”, and to be straight with people about the wrath and judgement that awaits them if they reject Christ.
It echoes an accusation that often seems to be levelled at proponents of universal reconciliation: “This is just wishful thinking! You don’t like the idea of hell, and therefore try to soften it. You’re trying to give people what they want to hear, but you’re doing them a disservice if you don’t present them with the scary truth!”
I’ve received this criticism before, but it is misguided. I would suggest that the opposite is actually true; certainly it has been for me.
I didn’t come to the idea of universal reconciliation because of any aversion to the doctrine of eternal torment (hell, in other words). I didn’t, and still don’t, relish the idea of anyone dear to me burning in unquenchable fire because their mortal sins remain unforgiven – who would? The more I read, the more I think and the more I meditate on it, the more ludicrous it seems to suggest that eternal torment – aeons and aeons, trillions and trillions of years – of agonising misery are waiting to punish anyone who commits such a sin as being timid (Revelation 21:8). Nevertheless, I have always trusted in God’s justice. I recognise the illogicality of any position which supposes to condemn the judgements of God as immoral or cruel; If God exists, then He/She simply isn’t either of those things. If God exists, and hell exists, and God thinks that we deserve to suffer infinitely for our finite crimes, then we absolutely do. It may not be a pleasant thought, but it certainly never drove me to think wishfully for alternatives.
However, I am not sure the same can be said for proponents of hellfire teaching.
Because there clearly is judgement in the Bible. There clearly is a time when the universe will be passed through a fiery sieve, the good separated from the bad, and all held to account for their actions. And Jesus makes it very clear what sort of percentages we’re talking about: Wide is the gate that leads to destruction. Narrow is the gate and difficult is the path that leads to life, and few find it. (Matthew 7:14). Not many will be saved.
If you are a proponent of eternal damnation, the traditional teaching of the church when it comes to hell, you presumably feel you are on the right side of this judgement. Jesus took your sins when you said that fifteen second prayer. You are “in”, as opposed to those poor helpless creatures who remain “out” unless they hear the frightening evangel preached. Though you may not like to imagine your loved ones writhing in burning sulphur, you perhaps are at least relieved to know it definitely won’t be you, and good things await you after death. And after all, no one could really enjoy heaven if they were constantly aware of their loved ones suffering, could they? So perhaps it won’t be something we dwell on in the afterlife. Out of sight, out of mind.
But what if, as a Christian, you are persuaded by the notion that God intends to be reconciled to His entire creation, including all inhabitants from all ages? That no one falls into the category of being so lost as to be beyond redemption?
Well, life gets more complicated. You start to realise that, even for believers, salvation is a hard process, and that judgement starts with the household of God. (1 Peter 4:17-18) These passages, perhaps previously ignored in the warm fuzzy glow of knowing how totally saved we are, start to feel a little harder, a little less comfortable.
And you start to realise that “being saved” may well not be a golden ticket into paradise. That, wonderful as it is to have the earnest of the Spirit and assurance of salvation, it may in fact involve some refinement, some purification, some pruning. And that, just like our earthly correctional facilities, the line between a process of punishment and restoration may not be as distinct as we would like it to be.
Universal restoration may do away with traditional notions of hell, but it is not wishful thinking, and it is not a coward’s route out of damnation. It does return the gospel to its rightful place as good news for all creation, rather than the threat of immeasurable torment to all but the few who “freely” choose to accept forgiveness. But it casts into doubt the easy labelling that we love to do as humans; It suggests that the full presence of God is an awesome, terrifying, purgative and healing thing, and that accepting Christ does not necessarily mean it will be an altogether comfortable experience.
[In support of RT Kendall’s letter, I will agree with him about the Old Testament: it is essential reading for Christians, and overlooked far too often. As noted elsewhere on this blog, it was serious study of the Old Testament that lead to me to change my mind about our eternal destinies, not a desire to water down the message.]