A Hell of a Question (July 1999)
This is a real letter, sent to a former student of mine, Brita, who raised a question on our Intro to Bible class listserv near the end spring semester 1999. I can’t recall if I even wrote a response for the listserv at the time. But this is how I answered her over the summer.
How the hell are you?
Sorry, that probably sounded crude. The fact is, I’m finally going to reply to your listserv query about “hell” from early May. As you may recall, you posed the questions: “Do you think there is, in its traditional sense, a hell? If all people are children of God, then how can they be condemned to eternal damnation? On the other hand, how can someone with the blackest of hearts go to the same place as saints?” As you probably gathered, I simply didn’t have time or energy in early May to post a response. These are, however, fair questions, and ones I’ve wrestled with myself often enough that they deserve a full reply, even if not until mid-July.
In fact, I did address this issue in my other Intro to Bible class when it just came up one day in open discussion. We were talking about the parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 25) where he divides people into “sheep” or “goats” based on how they’ve treated “the least of these” (the sick, the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned—the marginalized). Emma asked whether this didn’t seem to suggest we had to earn our way into heaven by doing good deeds. I replied that, well, yes, that was one way to read it. But then I reminded the class that parables—as parables, that is, as a specific literary genre (so not just when Jesus uses them, but when anybody uses a parable)—seek to make one single point. Unlike allegories which presuppose that all the main features in the story have a one-one counterpart in the meaning, in a parable, beyond the single main point, all the other details, however helpful in adding to the dramatic effect, belong in the background, not as part of the interpretation.
So I proposed that in this parable the main point (which, for Jesus, always focused on the dynamic character of God’s kingly activity, and was almost always a point of surprise), the rather astonishing claim that catches your attention (or certainly would have had you heard Jesus himself tell it) is that we ought to regard Jesus as present in the least of our brothers and sisters—and treat those brothers and sisters accordingly. Everything else in the parable—including the image of a final judgment—is detail. I went on to say that, in fact, if there is such a final judgment, I’m betting Jesus will find a way to make sure there are no goats. Someone asked a question about something else, then Emma, ever quick to pick up on my meaning, raised her hand and asked bluntly, “Did you just say you don’t think anyone is going to hell?” To which I replied, “Well, since you ask it like that, yes, that’s what I think.”
So, Brita, since you, too, have asked the question so straightforwardly, let me try to explain where I am at with this. Mind you, this isn’t an official Lutheran position, just my own personal thoughts. But then, you maybe have surmised by now that, as much as I respect the Lutheran tradition, I rather insist on doing my own thinking. After all, once all the official positions are stated, it isn’t churches that have to believe, it is persons who believe, one by one, and gathered in groups of two or three. So this is how I see it.
First, I should acknowledge, I simply don’t know how God will resolve the issue of what to do with the blackest of hearts. This is obviously God’s call, not mine. I’ll put my opinions out on the table, but if God has something else in mind, I’m willing to be surprised.
Still, I have to say, Brita, I’m with you. If all persons are God’s children—and I certainly believe that—and if God is more loving than any human parent—and I have seen human parents with almost unfathomable love—then surely there can be no children unloved by God. And surely God’s love cannot be content to love some children while at the same time condemning them not just to temporary punishment but to eternal torment.
Indeed, the biblical story, as we walked through it together in class, is a tale of God, time and time again, surprising us humans by an almost unbelievable capacity to include persons who seem so obviously beyond the reach of God’s love. I, for one, fully expect that this divine surprise will continue in joyful ways at the last judgment. And there are at least hints of this idea in the Bible itself—though there are admittedly images of a hell, too. One thing we saw last semester was that, whether we like it or not, the Bible is sometimes at odds with itself. It preserves the record of human minds and hearts, perhaps sincerely, but also imperfectly, struggling to fathom the experience of God. So there isn’t always clear-cut agreement on everything. But there are prophetic texts that seem to hint at a vision of a fulfilled creation in which “all flesh” is redeemed. And there are passages in which Paul seems persuaded that whatever God accomplished in Jesus, the entire cosmos is included, period.
Already in the early church, Origen (around maybe 240 A.D.), widely regarded as among the most brilliant of the “first generation” of true Christian theologians—as well as a Christian mystic (someone experiencing a deep, ecstatic encounter with God)—wrote his theology placing God’s love at the very center, as the impulse behind the yearning to create, the longing to redeem, and the ecstasy of fulfillment. He was so bold (indeed, it cost him the favor of the early church for several generations) as to declare that the last work of God’s longing love before the ecstasy of fulfillment held sway would be to reclaim even Satan for heaven. This is a guy I think I would’ve enjoyed going out for a few beers with!
Many, many other theologians, often more covertly than Origen, have come to the conclusion that somehow the “logic of God’s love” leaves no room for anything except universal salvation. I would hardly say that all or even a majority of theologians believe this, but I am certain the numbers are much higher than anyone would guess. So you are in good company to ask these questions.
Lastly, I said that if God had other plans, I’d be willing to be surprised. True enough. But not willing to be betrayed. I feel pretty strongly about this. Here is an expanded version of the example I used in my response to Emma in class. (The example is adapted from a favorite and haunting short story by Ursula LeGuin, “The ones who walk away from Omelas.”)
Imagine you are invited to a party. You arrive and everything is just perfect. The music is splendid. The food and drink are abundant and delicious. The atmosphere is both inviting and invigorating. The people, both those whom you know and those whom you are only just now meeting, are all friendly. And the Host is gracious in every possible way. And imagine that this party will last … forever.
Now, imagine that someone—maybe one of your friends, in fact—mentions in passing, in a tone of light laughter, that out back, behind the mansion, in a run down shack there is a 12-year-old girl, shackled, emaciated, sitting in her own waste, covered with open sores, and swarmed over by flies. She has no more energy left than to make a barely audible sound that vacillates between a whimper and a moan. Your friend assures you that she, too, was invited to the party, but foolishly failed to RSVP in time, so it’s her own fault. “Boy, isn’t the joke on her?” your friend remarks, taking another sip of her wine.
What do you do? Do you enjoy the festive affair—forever—and forget about the girl? Not me. I do one of two things in my imagination. Either I quietly excuse myself and go sit out on the front steps and weep—forever—for that girl. Or, if I have the courage, I go over to the buffet, fill a plate brimful with food, and go back to the shack. Once there, I feed her whatever she can eat (which likely isn’t much since she’s already gone without for so long), and then I sit down next to her and keep her company—forever.
Now replace that 12-year-old girl with my great-grandfather who murdered my great-grandmother in 1913. So far as I have heard, he died without ever expressing remorse. Me? I still leave the party. The music, the food, the atmosphere, the friendliness of the guests all seems somehow hollow all of a sudden. Now replace my great-grandfather with someone like Hitler. I don’t care. Even as much suffering as Hitler caused, the prospect of anyone suffering forever takes all the fun out of the party for me. I can—even if just barely—imagine myself forgiving Hitler once I see that God can somehow “redeem” all the suffering he caused. And I do believe God can do this, even though I don’t know how it will be done. But as soon as I say that I believe God is capable of redeeming all that suffering, then I cannot even barely imagine the notion of eternal punishment. In fact, even the idea of persons, not suffering forever, but simply having their God-given existence snuffed out once-and-for-all while I’m invited to this feast … well even that notion nauseates me—and leaves me wondering how well I really know this Host after all.
I don’t say that to try and pick a fight with God. I’m not saying, so God better be like this—or else. I guess I put the issue so starkly not to persuade God but to persuade others. Because what we think God is capable of doing (e.g., establishing hell) all too easily becomes what we’re capable of doing. The God I have encountered in my life would not throw a party like that. I can’t claim to know how all the invitations are being distributed or how all the RSVPs will be returned. But this much I know—and I don’t “know” it arrogantly or intellectually; I know it humbly, as someone whose heart has harbored it own share of blackness (haven’t ours all?)—that either this party is for everyone, or there is no party at all.
So, I hope all that was worth waiting for. And I hope you’re having a good summer, too. I’d welcome a word letting me know this letter did find its way to you. And I’ll look forward to seeing you around this fall.