Note from author: The Bible’s teaching on hell is so widely caricatured and misrepresented that many people dismiss it and the Judeo-Christian faith. Indeed, it’s common to see Christian college students struggle with the doctrine of hell almost as soon as they begin college and are confronted with non-Christian world views. Fundamentalism is often the problem here, promoting a doctrine of hell so extreme that no one deep down can believe it.
I took on fundamentalism in my TBS interview with James Barham. Given fundamentalism’s propensity to misconceive hell, I decided to piggyback this essay about hell onto that interview. Note that I believe in hell’s existence, but I also believe that hell is grossly abused by religious people intent on asserting their authority and superiority. Overhyped views of hell bring unnecessary scorn and embarrassment on Christianity.
1 Consigning People to Heaven and Hell
Actress Jessica Alba, I learned recently, lost her faith at age seventeen when she “fell crazy in love with a cross-dressing ballet dancer. I was like, ‘There’s just no way he’s going to hell!'” Alba, it seems, reasoned that Christianity consigns a lot of good people to hell, so Christianity must be false.
To Alba’s rejection of Christianity, the conventional Christian response is, “No one is really good. We’ve all sinned. It’s only by God’s grace that we can be saved. Given our present sinful state, hell is our natural destination. It doesn’t matter whether the cross-dressing ballet dancer is a really sweet guy. Without faith in Christ, he and all others are on their way to hell.”
Was Alba familiar with this explanation of hell? Did she previously accept it? And if so, did she feel confronted with an impossible choice: either reject Christianity or think that her friend was on his way to hell?
But what does it even mean to say “someone is going to hell”? For years I’ve watched Christians and non-Christians discuss the topic of hell, and the one lesson I’ve drawn is that we are tempted to think we know far more about people’s ultimate destinies than we actually do, and that includes confidently consigning people to hell, heaven, or none of the above.
God alone knows eternal destinies, and it’s not for us to say who’s in and who’s out regarding hell, or for that matter to offer odds about the likelihood of individuals ending up in hell (e.g., “I give him a 99 percent chance of landing in hell”) or for that matter to put too much confidence in logical reasonings or theoretical grounds for membership in hell (e.g., “He has not accepted Christ, so if he were to die at this moment, he would be in hell”).
Rob Bell begins his book Love Wins by describing a church exhibit on peace that included a quote from Gandhi, to which someone appended a sticky note: “Reality Check — He’s in hell.” Bell uses this incident to illustrate the harshness and presumption of Christians who think they know who’s going to hell. He’s right as far as he goes. But then he uses this incident as a springboard to argue that God’s love eliminates the very possibility of hell.
Most Christians are not so ready to give up on hell. And that holds doubly for heaven. In fact, many Christians are even quicker to consign people to heaven than to hell. Bell does so as a matter of course (everyone for him ends up in heaven, because, after all, love wins!). But how many times have I heard a preacher talk about someone who has died and is now in the arms of Jesus, reunited with loved ones, residing in heaven?
To comfort grieving family and friends, that surely is the appropriate thing to say. Moreover, we’ve seen the consistently well-lived life of certain people and the winsome witness to their faith, and we conclude, reasonably it seems, that if there’s a heaven, they are surely there.
Of course, people with a record of good works and faith may be living a lie (what if Jerry Sandusky, the pedophile coach at Penn State, had died a decade before his criminal trial? — Wouldn’t many people, especially for his “charitable work with boys,” have concluded that he was a wonderful man who was on his way to heaven?). But in general, consigning people to heaven raises few eyebrows.
As it is, the Bible gives more cause to say someone is in heaven than in hell. On the cross, Jesus says to the thief next to him “today you’ll be with me in paradise.” That certainly seems like clear proof that the thief is going to heaven. Jesus seems to guarantee it, and he, as the savior of the world, certainly is in a position to guarantee it.
But what about the other thief, who did not embrace Jesus on the cross — the one who reviled him? Jesus did not say to him, so far as we know, “today you’ll be with the Devil in hell.” There thus seems to be an asymmetry here: Jesus is willing to tell particular individuals that they are on their way to heaven, but not that they’re on their way to hell (of course, Jesus does speak in general terms about people going to heaven or hell throughout the Gospels).
Indeed, there’s only one human being mentioned in Scripture where the evidence seems convincing that this person is in hell (and thus that hell is not an empty set), namely, Judas. Jesus comments on the person who would betray him, namely Judas, as follows (though note that he does not address Judas by name): “it would have been better if he had never been born.” Now, it seems that if heaven is real and as great as it’s supposed to be, then anyone who ends up there is better off being born. So I conclude that Judas is not in heaven. And since heaven and hell are mutually exclusive and exhaustive (yes? no?), I conclude that Judas is in hell. Case closed.
Or is the case really closed? If I were forced to bet, I would bet against Judas being in heaven (presumably, that’s something I’ll only learn in eternity, in which case how do I collect on the bet, or pay up if I lose?). Still, I’m not particularly convinced or satisfied with this line of reasoning, and mainly because I think that all reasoning about who goes to hell and who doesn’t is inherently problematic. The problem is that Scripture and Christian theology generally give so many mixed and paradoxical messages about hell.
2 How Bad Is Hell?
Hell, in Scripture, is portrayed as a really bad place: no one consigned there wants to stay there. In Jesus’ story in Luke 16, often titled “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” the rich man really doesn’t like it in hell. In fact, he doesn’t wish hell on anyone else. He thus urges father Abraham to send word, via the poor man Lazarus, to his brothers to avoid hell. The rich man knows Lazarus because while they were both still alive, Lazarus had begged and suffered outside the rich man’s home.
Unlike the rich man, Lazarus is spending eternity happily with Abraham. How the rich man and Abraham are able to communicate in the afterlife is left unspecified in the story. But alas, Abraham tells the rich man, sending Lazarus to his brothers is not an option. As Abraham explains, the rich man’s brothers should be listening to Moses. If they did, they wouldn’t be on their way to hell. That seems to be the upshot of the story.
But wait a second. Moses can’t save anyone, according to Christian theology. The law of Moses simply demonstrates our incapacity to follow God’s laws. No one gets into heaven by listening to Moses; one gets to heaven by listening to Jesus, who has superseded Moses.
But why then is Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom (heaven?) and the rich man in hell? Lazarus presumably predated Christ and so didn’t trust him to be his savior. Certainly there’s no evidence that Lazarus consciously received Jesus as his personal savior. Nor is it clear that Lazarus was an avid follower of Moses. In fact, since Christian theology teaches that all (other than Jesus) have sinned, it’s safe to say that Lazarus would at some point have violated Moses’ law (perhaps he coveted the sumptuous food on the rich man’s table).
How then did Lazarus make it to heaven? Is Lazarus in heaven because he was poor and begging in front of the rich man’s house — does being poor and oppressed guarantee a ticket to heaven (as in liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed)? But in that case, let’s all be poor and oppressed, so that God takes pity on us and takes us to heaven. And let’s also pity the rich, who are lulled by their riches, and will soon enough be consigned to hell.
Where am I going with this? Among my very conservative Christian colleagues, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a factual story — it really happened. But even among my conservative (but not very conservative) Christian colleagues, it is regarded as a story that could nonetheless have happened (the names, but not the story, have been changed to protect the innocent/guilty).
But perhaps the story is less about hell and more about being caught up in riches and losing one’s life to them. Or perhaps it is also meant to comfort the poor with the promise that the inequality they are now experiencing will shortly come to an end (Karl Marx would, of course, regard such a promise as an “opiate”). Perhaps it is about a lot of other things, like shaking the Pharisees out of their blindness and hypocrisy.
How painful is hell? The rich man was clearly in discomfort, but apparently not in such great torment that he was unable to communicate — he wasn’t screaming so uncontrollably that he couldn’t converse with Abraham. But perhaps the rich man really wasn’t in hell hell (i.e., Gehenna, the ultimate destination of the damned, the place of burning and eternal torment), but only in hell (i.e., Hades, the temporary holding area for the damned until they receive their eternal judgment from God on the way to Gehenna).
Is the pain of hell hell, abbreviated in the sequel simply as hell, worse than the worst pain people experience on earth? To listen to Jonathan Edwards, one would think that it is:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince.
Well, if the supreme being of the universe is this angry with you, then you’re in a heap of trouble — expect more torment in hell at the hands of God than any torment earth has to offer. Forget about “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” For the damned, it’s “earth has no sorrow that hell won’t amplify.”
Digression: I’m not a big fan of spiders, amazing creatures though they are. I used not to mind them too much, but dealing with brown recluse spiders in Texas and Tennessee and having one of my sons bitten by them turned me less charitable toward these creatures. I’ve also never been a big fan of cockroaches. With all such arthropods, however, I don’t ponder their fate by holding them over a fire. Rather, I squash and kill them as quickly as possible. In the case of poisonous serpents, my preferred mode of dealing with them is a 12 gauge shotgun aimed at the head. But again, I wouldn’t think of holding them over a fire.
What is only implicit in Jonathan Edwards (i.e., hell as the ultimate place of torment), Thomas Aquinas makes explicit (all quotes from the Summa Theologiae):
The unhappiness of the damned surpasses all unhappiness of this world. [PIII/suppl-Q98-A3]
In the lost there will be a succession of punishments, so that the notion of something future remains there, which is the object of fear. [PII/1st-Q67-A4]
The disposition of hell will be such as to be adapted to the utmost unhappiness of the damned. [PIII/suppl-Q97-A4]
Quotes like this from Edwards and Aquinas make me proud to be a Christian, underscoring the love and mercy of God toward humanity! Jonathan Edwards has been held up as the greatest of American theologians and Thomas Aquinas as the greatest of Catholic theologians. Yet who in one’s right mind believes such statements?
As good theology professors required to sign statements of faith at conservative theological institutions and denominations, my colleagues and I had to exhibit due deference to Edwards, Aquinas, and others who write such things. We go through the motions of pretending that we take these sorts of pronouncements seriously. Yet I seriously doubt that anyone does, as I’ll attempt to show shortly. To be sure, there’s more to the theology of Edwards and Thomas than these statements. But in these pronouncements about hell and God’s vengeance, it’s hard to say that they were “taken out of context.” They say what they say. Their words are stark, harsh, and grim.
But back to the question at hand: how painful is hell? If the mildest experience of hell is worse than the worst experience of pain on earth, that would be truly horrific (by contrast, Dante’s outer circles of hell were a cakewalk). But let’s spend a moment and think through what it would mean for hell at its best to be worse than earth at its worst.
In that case, God would have to attune our being (our resurrected bodies?) to be exquisitely capable of pain. But more than that, God would need to design those consigned to hell for the express and only purpose of experiencing pain, ever increasing pain, pain that at its start dwarfs all the pain of the world, and that, if Thomas is to be believed, will only intensify throughout eternity. Thomas again:
The fire which will torment the bodies of the damned after the resurrection is corporeal, since one cannot fittingly apply a punishment to a body unless that punishment itself be bodily. [PIII/suppl-Q97-A5]
In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. [PIII/suppl-Q94-A1]
Comment: Christian physician Paul Brand, to whom I dedicated, along with his wife Margaret, my intelligent design textbook The Design of Life, coauthored with Philip Yancey some interesting books on pain. Brand was one of the key movers in the cure of leprosy/Hansen’s disease. This disease attacks nerve cells, thereby removing pain and thus causing people with the disease to injure and disfigure themselves because they lack the natural protection afforded by pain. Brand’s point in these books was that pain is a gift, which serves a benefit. Hence the title of one of his books: The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt and What We Can Do about It. As this book makes clear, the incapacity to experience pain is more terrifying than pain itself. Pain is a response and defense to an attacked good. There is thus something perverse when theologians characterize hell as a place that makes pain an end in itself. What if hell is the total absence of pain, a total numbness to evil and acceptance of it without any resistance?
In case the idea of hell’s pain at its mildest exceeding earth’s pain at its most extreme isn’t quite grim enough, let’s not forget that Christian theology traditionally teaches gradations in rewards and punishments, so one wonders what hell at its worst would be.
Clarification: In the five quotes by Thomas Aquinas given above, I am actually representing his views on hell and not just views to which he gives expression. His Summa Theologiae is constructed as a set of articles each of which begins by stating a disputed point, then offering some objections that Thomas doesn’t actually accept, then stating his actual position, and finally offering his own responses to the previously raised objections. In all five quotes above, I’m going with what Thomas actually believes. This can be contrasted with the following quote about hell widely attributed to Thomas, but which appears in the objections of such an article and thus doesn’t actually reflect his views: “The magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin… Now a sin that is against God is infinite. The higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin — it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen — and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against God.” [PII/1-Q87-A4] Thomas actually doesn’t hold to the latter.
3 Our (Pretended) Belief in Hell
It’s natural for people who haven’t been indoctrinated in such a gruesome and unrelenting view of hell to reject it as untrue (like Jessica Alba) or at least to question its truth. Certainly one can cite biblical proof texts that jibe nicely with the teachings on hell of a Jonathan Edwards or Thomas Aquinas. Consider, for instance, “They [i.e., the damned] will be tormented with burning sulfur [this is where we get “fire and brimstone”] in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night.” (Rev. 14:10–11)
Leaving aside debates about the proper interpretation of such biblical passages and what truths they may rightly be said to teach about hell (debates that show no sign of getting resolved any time soon), let’s ask a related but different question, and one that does admit resolution: Does anyone really believe such teachings, namely, that hell at its mildest is more painful than earth at its worst? Sure, many Christians pretend to believe that the answer to this question is Yes. But pretending to believe is different from actually believing. Actual belief means acting on the belief, and with hell no one acts as though it’s really that bad.
Why do I say we merely pretend to believe in hell’s exceeding horribleness? Consider these words of 1 John 3:17: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” If hell is really as bad as Edwards and Thomas make out, then the avoidance of hell is people’s most urgent need, bar none. Starvation, disease, war, natural disaster, and torture all would in that case pale compared to what awaits people in hell.
But why, then, are Christians doing so little to keep people from going to hell? Why do we give so little to missions or charities? Why don’t we make soul winning our number one priority? Why do we waste so much time watching and playing sports? Why do we put such a premium on leisure activities, such as hunting and fishing, or quilting and scrapbooking? Why do we spend so much money on vanities such as cosmetic surgery, designer clothes, and expensive jewelry? Why do we fast and pray so little? Why do we spend so much time and energy on theological squabbling (cf. 2 Timothy 2:23-24)?
If hell is as bad as Edwards and Thomas make out, then there is no respite, no break, no relief for the inhabitants of hell. Prayers won’t help them. Care packages won’t get delivered. Well wishes will be in vain. Accordingly, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — to be done to lighten the load of someone in hell. So any good we can do for people, we must do NOW. And the ultimate good then becomes keeping people from going to hell; after all, heaven will take care of itself — once you’re there, you’ve got it made.
Peter Singer, an atheist and villain for many Christians, spends 25 percent of his income to help the poor. By contrast, U.S. Christians give about 4 percent of their incomes to charities. According to Singer, if we see someone in dire need, we are morally obliged, even at grave cost to ourselves, to try to meet that need. Christians may demur about how Singer arrives at this conclusion, but the conclusion that desperate human need demands action to meet that need seems entirely consonant with Christian belief. Consider, for instance, James 2:14–18:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
If hell is as urgent and dire a peril as claimed by Edwards and Thomas, then I submit that the overwhelming majority of Christians think that Singer and James may safely be ignored. In fact, I’d go further and say I’m unfamiliar with any Christians who demonstrate this belief by their actions (myself included). But how else do we know what people actually believe except by their actions? Indeed, we can pretend to believe anything we like. Only action demonstrates belief.
Now one might argue that the failure of Christians to act with the urgency that hell demands does nothing to undercut the reality of hell and its unfathomable pain for the damned. There’s simply the truth of hell and then simply our failure as Christians to adequately live out that truth. We’re all imperfect, after all.
But consider again 1 John 3:17: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” If we’re not doing everything in our power to prevent people from going to hell, and if hell is as bad as said, then this verse teaches that God’s love is not in us.
But if God’s love is not in us, then we’re not truly Christians. And if we’re not truly Christians, then we’re not on our way to heaven. But since heaven and hell are our only two possible destinations, we’re on our way to hell. Ergo, I conclude that since none of us is really meeting the needs of those in danger of hell, in fact all of us are on our way to hell.
Now I’ll grant that the logic here isn’t perfect. But it’s no worse than the logic used to justify that complacent Christians can be on their way to heaven while the bulk of humanity is on its way to hell. The logic here runs something like this: “Christians are saved by faith, not by works. Thus, when they don’t do everything in their power to prevent people from going to hell, that’s too bad, but it doesn’t jeopardize their own salvation and thus their ultimate success in getting to heaven.” In this way, logic helps complacent Christians to justify their complacency.
The real question, however, remains, namely, does faith trump the absence of God’s love in our hearts, as demonstrated by our failure to meet people’s most urgent need to avoid hell, so that faith gets us to heaven despite our lack of love? It would then seem that we really don’t need to have God’s love in our hearts for our needy neighbors. All we need is faith (though evidently not the faith of James 2, cited above). But then what do we do with 1 Corinthians 13, in which the Apostle Paul says that faith, hope, and love are great, but that the greatest of these is love? If such reasonings about hell have an air of unreality, perhaps it’s as I indicated earlier: reasonings about hell resist firm conclusions.
Comment: Given that Christians don’t do nearly enough to keep people from going to hell if they really think hell is so bad, the question arises what they should be doing to keep people from going to hell. I hinted at Christian missions and alleviation of poverty, but these are non-coercive. If hell is really all that bad and Christians have the energy and will to prevent people from going there, coercion becomes readily justifiable. (Can anyone say “Spanish Inquisition” or “Taliban”?)
Imagine someone to whom the Gospel is preached and who receives Christian charity, but still doesn’t explicitly acknowledge faith in Jesus. Why not torture such a person into accepting Jesus, perhaps even killing him or her right after giving evidence of faith lest the person recant once the torture is removed? Alternatively, if they still resist under torture, give them a slow and painful public death to deter others from their example.
As it is, torture in so-called Christian nations has a long history, and why not: If God is the master torturer, as demonstrated in his design of hell, then humans would merely be imitating their master, giving people a foretaste of the hell to come (do a Google search on images of medieval torture implements, and prepare to have your hair curled). Torture could even be rationalized as an act of love, helping people avoid the torment of eternity by exposing them to the relatively mild and temporary torments of earth.
Of course, I regard this entire line of reasoning as obscene.
4 Conscious Explicit Faith in Jesus
I’ve suggested that logical reasoning about hell is problematic, but perhaps we’re giving up on logical reasoning too soon. Let’s therefore ask if there are any clear criteria for who’s in hell and who isn’t — in other words, is there some clear way of deciding whether someone is going to hell? When I used to teach at conservative theological seminaries, the safest course for keeping one’s job was for faculty to take the hardest line possible on hell: only those with a conscious explicit faith in Jesus are exempted from hell; the rest face unending conscious torment.
Amazingly, this line was often taken without any qualification whatsoever. Take any less extreme view of hell, and you were in danger of losing your job. I even saw it stated by one professor at a seminary where I taught that only this view (i.e., conscious explicit faith in Christ alone avoids conscious unending torment) helps us “to properly love the lost and work most effectively for their salvation.” This is almost verbatim.
But again, who really believes this? To be sure, we can mouth any words we like and pretend to believe them. And as good Pharisees, we need to cloak the messiness of biblical teaching about hell with simple, pat formulas that allow us to keep the masses in check and maintain our sense of control and balance. But I don’t see anyone truly believing that only conscious explicit faith in Jesus is a necessary condition for avoiding hell and that without such faith one faces unending conscious torment.
4.1 Exception: Infants
How can I say that no one believes this? Well, what do you do with infants who die before they have language and can learn and believe the Gospel, thereby precluding that they have conscious explicit faith in Jesus as their savior? Okay, so here’s one exception. Or perhaps not.
Augustine, for instance, held that infants who die unbaptized go straight to hell. And yet, baptized infants for Augustine did go to heaven. How convenient — the church, as the agent of baptism, thereby guaranteed its necessity in the economy of salvation! In any case, even for Augustine, conscious explicit faith in Jesus was not necessary to avoid the unending conscious torment of hell, provided you were baptized and too young to know the Gospel.
Since Augustine’s day, and especially in our own, Catholic theology has gotten softer on the topic of hell. When I was learning the catechism for my first holy communion in the Catholic church 50 years ago, my teacher assured me that infants that died unbaptized didn’t in fact go to hell (what a relief!). Instead, they went to Limbo, a place of natural happiness, but not the supernatural happiness of heaven where we enjoy the beatific vision and union with God. (I actually remember as a seven-year old being quite troubled by the teacher’s cavalier dismissal of the fate of these unbaptized infants and the evident unfairness, to my mind, of it all.)
The difference between Limbo and heaven is something like this: imagine spending eternity eating at McDonald’s when you could be spending it eating like a king on a Royal Caribbean cruise liner — and all because you had the misfortune of not getting baptized as an infant before you died! Again, who deep down believes anything like this?
Since my experience 50 years ago, Catholic theology has grown softer still. It now appears that Limbo is itself in limbo — that the Catholic Church is seriously considering retiring Limbo and opening up heaven to all infants who die, baptized or unbaptized.
The Vatican’s Latest on Limbo: “It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis. However, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the theory of limbo is not mentioned. Rather, the Catechism teaches that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God, as is shown in the specific funeral rite for such children. The principle that God desires the salvation of all people gives rise to the hope that there is a path to salvation for infants who die without baptism (cf. CCC, 1261), and therefore also to the theological desire to find a coherent and logical connection between the diverse affirmations of the Catholic faith: the universal salvific will of God; the unicity of the mediation of Christ; the necessity of baptism for salvation; the universal action of grace in relation to the sacraments; the link between original sin and the deprivation of the beatific vision; the creation of man ‘in Christ’.”
In any case, even the hyper-conservatives with whom I used to teach and who claim that conscious explicit faith in Jesus is required to avoid conscious eternal torment admit this one exception. But once there’s an exception, there’s a slippery slope, leading to more exceptions. What do you do with my autistic son, who’s a teenager, but is nonverbal and incapable of understanding the Gospel in any “conscious explicit” sense (he functions at about the level of a 2-year old)? I take it that here we have another exception (if anyone reading this thinks my son is on his way to hell, please email me and share your concerns).
Comment on Conservativeness: When it comes to being conservative, just remember that there’s always someone more conservative than you, even if you think you’re as conservative as it gets (a similar observation holds for liberalism, but that’s not relevant to this discussion on hell since most theological liberals reject hell outright).
In my own case, I used to be regarded as theologically and politically to the right of Attila the Hun. I’m not sure I’ve actually changed all that much in my views over the years, but the theological conservatives with whom I rubbed shoulders have. It may not even be so much that their actual views have become that much more conservative (the increasing move to young-earth creationism in Baptist circles constituting an exception) as that they are that much more intent on enforcing their conservativeness on others and especially within their own institutions.
It was always interesting to me that many of the authors whose books I used approvingly and taught from at conservative seminaries would never have been allowed to teach or come on faculty at those institutions because their views on everything from alcohol to the Bible and salvation would have been unacceptable to the powers that be (examples of such authors would include C. S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, and Alvin Plantinga).
In any case, even though I’m using this article in part to vent about theological conservativism as I experienced it, it’s worth noting that even hyper-conservatives find their conservativism questioned by ultra-hyper-conservatives, who regard them as soft on tradition and orthodoxy.
In looking up the status of Limbo in Catholic theology, for instance, I came across a website with the domain name www.traditioninaction.org, insisting that Catholic teaching about Limbo remain unchanged. I frankly think that TraditionalismInAction would have been a more accurate domain name, in line with the late Yale theologian Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between tradition as the living faith of the dead and traditionalism as the dead faith of the living.
As it is, TraditionInAction.org has an article titled “24 Reasons Why Not To Reject Limbo.” Included among these reasons are the following:
- Because Pope Pius VI, in a formal magisterial decree, denounced the rejection of Limbo as “false, rash, slanderous to Catholic schools.”
- Because it is an unchangeable article of Faith, taught infallibly by the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence that the souls of those who depart this life in the state of original sin are excluded from the Beatific Vision.
- Because Pope Sixtus V taught in a 1588 Constitution that victims of abortion, being deprived of Baptism, are “excluded from Beatific Vision,” which is one of the reasons Sixtus V denounced abortion as a heinous crime.
- Because the theory that babies who die before Baptism attain Heaven was never taken seriously by the Fathers, Saints, Doctors and Popes of the Church throughout History.
- Because there are countless Catholic parents throughout the ages who have suffered the misfortune of miscarriages, but were not the least bit tempted to discard the teaching of Limbo, since they knew the souls of these unbaptized babies enjoy a state of natural happiness for eternity.
So when I say that contemporary theologians have gotten soft about consigning infants who die in their infancy to hell or Limbo, there will be exceptions even in this day and age. For some people there’s no such thing as being too conservative!
4.2 Exception: The Unaccountable
Usually, conservative theologians who want to take a hard line on hell (and thus ensure the safety of their jobs and standing among fellow hyper-conservatives) but who don’t want to seem unreasonable in sending infants to hell introduce a convenient theological construct known as “the age of accountability.” To justify this construct, Isaiah 7:16 is often cited, where we read about the time in a child’s life before he/she knows to choose good and refuse evil. Presumably, before that time, the child is safe from hell — how can a child (or adult for that matter) who doesn’t know the difference between good and evil be held accountable for moral fault and thus be consigned to the punishment of hell?
Augustine, with his view of original sin or guilt, was fine with consigning to hell even those who had not reached the age of accountability. But most theologians these days have grown soft and now are willing to let all into heaven who have not reached the age of accountability.
But the age of accountability is a curious thing when placed under scrutiny. When exactly does it begin? Does it happen gradually? If so, when is there enough accountability so that without conscious explicit faith in Jesus, one goes to hell? Or does it happen all at once, in a threshold effect, so that one day one wakes up, finds oneself to have reached the age of accountability, and thus, if not a Christian, to be in danger of hell?
Imagine Alice and Bob. Alice and Bob live in a region of the world where no one is a Christian (i.e., no one there has conscious explicit faith in Jesus). Alice, had she lived another day, would have reached the age of accountability. But she happens to die just before she would have reached the age of accountability, and so goes straight to heaven. Bob, on the other hand, is less fortunate. He wakes up one morning to find that he’s reached the age of accountability, but that very day he dies. Sadly, he goes straight to hell. Again, who really believes this?
Observation: It seems to me that age of accountability should play some role in our deliberations about who goes and doesn’t go to hell. That said, I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept. Certainly, I would regard newborns as unaccountable, and thus as not properly punished for any sins that they presumably could not, because of their immaturity, have committed or be predisposed to commit. I would add here severely mentally disabled individuals. But it seems that even young children quickly engage in selfish and even cruel actions, such as stealing from, bullying, and ostracizing their peers. Moreover, guilt is readily read off their faces. Is age of accountability a legitimate theological construct with a true point of reference in reality or is it more a convenient fiction? Depending on mood and day of the week I could go either way on this question.
4.3 Exception: Those Who Predated Jesus
As another exception to the claim that only conscious explicit faith in Jesus can prevent conscious eternal torment in hell, consider all those who lived before Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Obviously, they couldn’t have had conscious explicit faith in Jesus because, before God took human form in the person of Jesus, there was no Jesus to serve as the object of conscious explicit faith. So what happened to all those people?
The usual response of theologians is that there were true worshippers of the one true God before Jesus, who worshipped God with what light they had — and that this was therefore good enough to get them into heaven. That seems reasonable enough. All the same, when the fullness of God’s light came to earth in Christ Jesus, then people were obliged to believe explicitly in him. Before that, God cut them slack.
There’s also a tradition, adverted to in the Apostle’s Creed, of Jesus having descended into hell (Hades) and preaching to its inhabitants. This is consistent with 1 Peter 3:18–19: “Christ was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.”
This passage raises lots of questions, not least why Jesus needed to preach to the dead in Hades, what was the efficacy of this preaching, and whether any of those imprisoned spirits found liberation as a consequence of that preaching, thus ending up in heaven rather than hell (in this case, Gehenna — the final hell).
It’s a common Christian view that we have only this life to make our peace with God and that after the moment of death, we’ve exceeded the statute of limitations on God’s mercy. A common proof text in this regard is Hebrews 9:27: “It is the destiny of people to die once and after that to face judgment.”
Putting all these disparate pieces together, however, seems anything but straightforward. It’s evident from the Old Testament that people could be saved apart from the covenant of Abraham. Take Melchizedek, for instance, mentioned in Genesis 14, who is called a priest of the most high God and who, in Hebrews 5–7, is taken as emblematic of the priesthood of Jesus. Or consider Job, who, despite his travails and not being an Israelite, was obviously in right relationship with God and on his way to heaven.
Okay, so you can get to heaven before New Testament times if you’re righteous and worshipping the one true God (righteous here evidently doesn’t mean sinless, since the only sinless human being is Jesus; add to this list of sinless people Mary, Jesus’ mother, if you accept Catholic theology, though in Mary’s case, she was kept from sin rather than being entirely free of a sin nature). But after Jesus’ cross and resurrection, it becomes mandatory to have conscious explicit faith in Jesus, or else you go directly to hell.
Come again? Really? Let’s bring back Alice and Bob, only this time Alice and Bob are righteous worshippers of the one true God who are contemporaries of Jesus but live so far from the land of Israel that they never heard of him. Alice has the good fortune of dying before Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and so goes straight to heaven. Bob, sadly, dies right after Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection. Given that Jesus’ cross and resurrection are now a fait accompli, and given that God henceforward demands conscious explicit faith in Jesus for salvation, Bob goes straight to hell. Again, this just seems crazy.
But if Bob’s death immediately after Jesus’ cross and resurrection is not enough to consign him to hell provided he is a righteous worshipper of the true God, albeit without conscious explicit faith in Jesus, then why should it matter if Bob dies a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century, or a millennium after Jesus’ cross and resurrection? Why should time, or for that matter distance, from Jesus’ cross and resurrection matter?
4.4 Exception: The God-Fearers
Scripture itself suggests that spatiotemporal limitations that keep people from conscious explicit faith in Jesus cannot keep them from heaven or force them into hell. Consider Paul in Romans 2:14–16: “When the gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves, which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another, in the day when God shall judge the secrets in people’s hearts by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”
This is quite a remarkable passage, and it’s evident that Paul holds that there really are righteous gentiles such as he describes since in context he’s contrasting such gentiles with Jews who have the law but are not living it. But we need look no further than the book of Acts for an example of such a righteous gentile, namely Cornelius, about whom and his family Peter has this to say (Acts 10:34–35): “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Granted, Peter did also share the Gospel with Cornelius, who then became a conscious and explicit believer in Jesus. But surely there were others like Cornelius, God-fearers as they were known, who were likewise accepted with God, but without conscious and explicit faith in Jesus. So here’s the big question: if you are accepted with God, can you be going to hell? Obviously, not.
4.5 Exception: Retrograde and Anterograde Amnesiacs
As still another class of exceptions to the rule that conscious explicit faith in Jesus is required to escape conscious eternal torment in hell, consider two types of amnesiacs, the retrograde and the anterograde. There are people with retrograde amnesia who cannot remember who they were and what they’ve done before an injury or illness. Life, in a sense, begins for them anew. We can assume they are old enough and have sufficient cognitive and moral faculties to have reached the age of accountability. Moreover, before their amnesia, let’s assume they were sinners and on their way to hell. But now they have no recollection of their past sins.
Is the slate now clear for them? Do they get to start life afresh? What if they die right after suffering their amnesia but before committing any new sins? Do they now go to heaven? What if they had accepted Jesus in their old life, but now can’t remember doing so and henceforth remain unresponsive to the Gospel? I’m happy to let God sort this one out, but in any case it’s clear that demanding conscious explicit faith of retrograde amnesiacs would need some qualification.
In such ruminations about hell, even more interesting is anterograde amnesia, which usually is associated with certain brain lesions resulting from an accident. The victim, in this case, is able to recall his or her life perfectly up to the point of the accident, but thereafter only form memories of about a fifteen-minute duration (think Dory the fish in Finding Nemo). In other words, the person has short-term memory, but is unable to form new long-term memories. Let’s imagine therefore someone who suffered such an accident, reached the age of accountability, and was sufficiently sinful as to be on his/her way to hell before suffering amnesia.
The problem now, however, is that this person, without being able to remember anything long-term, is essentially living in the past. In the past, that person had no conscious explicit faith in Jesus. In the present, unfortunately, any conscious explicit faith in Jesus will be lost in fifteen minutes. Thus, day after day, you keep sharing the Gospel with this person. Some days he/she accepts the Gospel in one fifteen-minute time block, only promptly to forget having accepted it, and thereafter for the rest of the day refuses to accept it.
Comment: It may seem that I’m being flippant, but I’m actually not misrepresenting anterograde amnesia. Once such amnesiacs experience an event, the clock is literally ticking, and they will not remember the event within a few minutes. Thus, if there’s a funny story from their past (before the amnesia), they’ll recount it endlessly because they won’t remember that they just told it to you. If they’ve eaten a meal and a few minutes are up, they won’t remember that they’ve eaten.
Is a person with anterograde amnesia going to heaven or hell? What if this person died right before the end of a fifteen-minute time block during which he/she accepted Jesus, thus still having conscious explicit faith in Jesus? Would that ensure heaven? What if the person died only a moment later, having entirely forgotten the Gospel and his/her acceptance of it? I feel answering such questions with any conviction is even more beyond my pay-grade than with retrograde amnesia. At the same time, it should be evident that any who think they have a neat and pat formula for deciding the eternal destinies of such amnesiacs are delusional.
5 The Celebration of Life, Or Not
Leaving aside God-fearers and amnesiacs, let’s return to the very young and/or unaccountable (i.e., those who have yet to reach or are incapable of reaching the age of accountability). Once these are automatically admitted to heaven (or at least excluded from hell), another strange thing happens, which was hinted at in the first of our Alice and Bob examples.
Normally, we regard it as tragic when a young child dies — so much unfulfilled potential, so many unrequited dreams, so many songs that will never be sung. On the other hand, when someone dies in old age after a full, rich life, we don’t regard it as tragic. Instead, even if there are tears and loss, we also celebrate the life. And sometimes we even celebrate the life when the person isn’t that old but has left a positive mark on the world. Consider, for instance, the following memorial service for the Hawaiian singer IZ:
But if those under the age of accountability automatically go to heaven, then really we should be celebrating their deaths. After all, they’re now enjoying themselves with the delights of heaven. Conversely, if those over the age of accountability don’t automatically go to heaven, then we should approach their deaths with misgivings. Thus, when older people die who have not made explicit profession of faith in Jesus, we should lament their deaths as a tragedy in which hell has (or may have) just acquired new inhabitants. Again, who believes this?
Consider again my autistic son. Whatever one means by the age of accountability, he hasn’t reached it. And yet I yearn for him to be able to communicate with a full, age-appropriate set of language abilities. I recall one of his special ed teachers telling me that he was communicating and conversing with her through an iPad, but when I examined what that communication entailed, it was largely just random touches by him of various icons. I told her I was offended by her saying that she was holding a conversation with my son. I have never held a real conversation with my son. And I sorely miss not being able to do so.
But if my autistic son did come out of his autism and start to communicate verbally, with sufficient comprehension so that he could have conscious explicit faith in Jesus, he would also have the option of rejecting the Gospel and thus ending up in hell. So, which should I prefer, my son to stay autistic and be guaranteed a place in heaven, or for him to come out of his autism and risk hell, the sort of hell that Edwards and Thomas are convinced would await him if he rejected Christ?
In Pascal’s famous wager, you’re better off betting on God and heaven being real because if they are, then you’ll be more likely to get there; but if you think that they are unreal, then if they are in fact real, you’ll end up in hell. The risk of being wrong about hell thus totally outweighs the risk of being wrong about heaven. So a risk analysis suggests you should believe or pretend to believe that heaven is real.
But in that case, a parallel risk analysis should get us to prefer that the young die and not go on to maturity so that they don’t risk the very possibility of hell. Accordingly, we should wish for and applaud the dying of the very young. Similarly, we should prefer that the unaccountable stay unaccountable.
As another variation on this theme, consider the view of many pro-life people in the abortion debate that human life starts at conception, the moment the father’s sperm locks into the mother’s egg. Now, it seems that most of these conceptions never implant in the womb, and thus end in death. And then there are all the fetuses that are deliberately aborted and end in death.
If all these are full human lives, then they must have an eternal destiny in heaven or hell. And since we are ruling out hell for newborns, infants, and those who haven’t reached the age of accountability, we are compelled to regard all these human lives as likewise ending up in heaven (if they end up anywhere in eternity — let’s lay Limbo aside in the sequel).
But consider what that means. If we think that conscious explicit faith is necessary for those capable of it in order to avoid hell, then we should be overjoyed at all these (naturally) aborted embryos and (artificially) aborted fetuses. All of them are then on their way to heaven. In fact, abortion could then be seen as an industry for populating heaven. Abortion, if you will, turns maternity wards into eternity wards!
But such conclusions are monstrous. Isn’t it better in the grand scheme of things if humans come to maturity and live a full life — mistakes, vices, warts and all? Doesn’t that make for a more interesting, more purposeful, more meaningful universe? What sort of worldview regards it as a net benefit to keep humans in a state of immaturity in order to forestall hell? What nonsense.
Perverse incentives: If we knew for certain that fetuses and infants that die (with or without being baptized) all end up in heaven, it could provide an incentive to kill them — after all, we would thus ensure their eternal happiness since otherwise they risk the hell of Edwards and Thomas.
Reformed theology (i.e., the theology of John Calvin and his successors), it turns out, has a convenient way around such perverse incentives. Within that theology, only the elect go to heaven. Thus, in the Westminster Confession (a prime document of reformed theology), we read:
“Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called [i.e., the “unaccountable”] by the ministry of the Word.”
So, are all who die in infancy elect? The Westminster Confession conveniently sidesteps that question, neither affirming nor denying that infants and the unaccountable who die in that state are elect. The Westminster Confession thus blocks perverse incentives that would make abortion salvific. But in leaving open the possibility that some infants who die in infancy may be non-elect, it betrays the harshness and austerity with which reformed theology is widely credited.
6. Money and Hell
Consider next what happens to our use of money on the extreme view of hell. By the extreme view of hell I mean a view that, as much as possible, tries to maintain the formula “only conscious explicit faith in Jesus can prevent conscious eternal torment in hell,” allowing no more exceptions than absolutely necessary (such as infants and the unaccountable). Practically speaking, this view makes hell’s avoidance the ultimate good (sure, we can talk about heaven, with its beatific vision and divine union, as the ultimate good, but on the extreme view of hell, that’s merely the flip side of the same truth).
So, let’s ask the following question: On the extreme view of hell, how should we spend our money and resources? Let me go autobiographical again. Early after my son John was diagnosed with autism, a severe form of it, my wife and I tried many alternative therapies. These were not cheap. I was earning good money speaking on intelligent design at the time, and I recall a few years where we were spending tens of thousands of dollars annually to try to get him well (with only limited benefit to show for in the end).
Now, given the severity of my son’s autism and how, as we’ve already discussed, this fast tracks him to heaven (on the extreme view of hell), wouldn’t all that money have instead been better spent on Christian missions or in some other way to help people in danger of hell fire? I expect that with the funds spent trying to recover my son’s health many people would have converted to Christ who now, because that money was never given, will never hear the Gospel and thus go to hell (if the extreme view of hell is true).
Accordingly, expressions like “charity begins at home” and “blood is thicker than water” mean nothing, at least in my son’s case, if the extreme view of hell is correct. But again, who in one’s right mind thinks this way? And if we don’t think this way, why do we push the extreme view of hell?
Digression: I personally take a hard line against abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. But the extreme view of hell raises the interesting prospect of “Christian euthanasia.” If the sick, the disabled, the weak, the criminal are sucking away resources that could be used to keep other people out of hell, might it not be better simply to kill off the former for the benefit of the latter, especially if the latter substantially outnumber the former?
Or course, there’s the problem that the executioner(s) in this case, by committing murder and thus violating the Sixth Commandment, would end up in hell. But any such executioner might derive some comfort, even in hell, knowing that he or she helped prevent many others from going to hell. Of course, overt advocates of “Christian euthanasia,” as I’m calling it, are likely to be few to zero.
But the logic of the extreme view of hell, in which only conscious explicit faith in Jesus avoids hell (minus a few minimal exceptions), should lead those holding this view to silently cheer whenever the death of certain resource-consuming people (the Nazis called them “useless eaters”) frees up funds that leads to a greater number of people avoiding hell and going to heaven. In this way, Christians would embrace a weird consequentialist ethics identical to the worst eugenicists of the past.
Just to be clear, I regard any such “Christian euthanasia” as a monstrous perversion.
7. What About Non-Christians?
Let’s shift gears and turn next to the eternal destiny of people who are not Christians. Comedians sometimes joke about how to expedite the breakup of a relationship with a significant other (e.g., “here’s what I did to get my girlfriend to leave me…”). Let me suggest a way to break up with (i.e., get yourself fired from) a conservative theological institution:
In the presence of the president, provost, and/or dean, such as at an all-faculty meeting, have someone ask you whether you think a Muslim (or Mormon or Mithraite or anyone whose orthodoxy is suspect) can go to heaven, and then answer affirmatively. Say with confidence and a broad smile “Sure, a Muslim can go to heaven.” Even if you get a severance package, you’ll be asked to clear your desk immediately because you’ll be regarded as too heretical and dangerous an influence on students, whose ideological purity must be protected at all costs.
But is it really wrong to say that a Muslim (or anyone from a non-Christian or insufficiently orthodox religious group) might go to heaven? Certainly, it would be wrong to say that non-Christians can’t go to heaven, period. After all, non-Christians can always become Christians by converting to Christianity (provided they’re not amnesiacs or too cognitively impaired). So the issue really is whether non-Christians as non-Christians and as remaining non-Christians can go to heaven. But how do we know whether anyone remains a non-Christian?
John Wesley, I’m told, regarded it as possible for an unbeliever to become a believer (and thus go to heaven) between the moment of being knocked from a horse and breaking one’s neck, thereby dying instantly. Accordingly, in that moment, in that very fraction of a second from fall to death, God is able to save, turning a non-Christian into a Christian. Jesus says that with God all things are possible, so this would certainly be possible, and any Christian would presumably have to regard it as possible if taking Jesus at his word.
Nor does this scenario, in which someone is converted to Christianity and thus saved at the moment of death, presuppose that the person in question had been previously exposed to the Gospel. Thus, this scenario doesn’t require that the moment of death trigger a memory of the content of the Gospel, from prior conscious exposure to the Gospel, which then finds acceptance from the person and thus leads to his or her salvation.
Presumably, God could impart the essence of the Gospel to the person who is microseconds from death, elicit faith in those few microseconds, and thereby save the person. Increasingly in our day one reads of people unreached by the Gospel who have had visitations by Jesus and who thereupon become Christians. So what’s to prevent that from happening at the moment of death? In fact, we have no idea to what extent this may be happening. But it’s certainly a possibility on even the most conservative understanding of Christianity and hell.
So, in response to the question “Can a Muslim be saved,” I would say “Sure.” As a Christian, I would add that ultimately it is only through Christ that one is saved, and thus that a Muslim, if saved, is saved in spite of rather than because of his/her religion. But the same could be said for any religion, even Christianity. It’s not religion that saves, not even Christianity, but the living Christ who rose from the dead and relates directly to our inner being. How this Christ chooses to save is not for us to specify.
Here one might ask what’s the point of preaching the Gospel, which according to Scripture seems to be the preferred method by which people are saved. For instance, it appears that lots of the people described as becoming Christian and being saved in the New Testament do so under the ministry of the Apostle Paul and do so in response to Paul’s preaching about Jesus. But there’s no problem here. God uses people preaching the Gospel to save people. But that does not preclude God imparting the saving power of the Gospel by other means.
Salvation worries. Consider the following passage from a young woman who was shot in the head for her faith and yet survived:
We human beings don’t realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colors and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love. As I found with my ear, no one knows how much power they have in their each and every organ until they lose one.
I thank [God] for the hardworking doctors, for my recovery and for sending us to this world where we may struggle for our survival. Some people choose good ways and some choose bad ways. One person’s bullet hit me. It swelled my brain, stole my hearing and cut the nerve of my left face in the space of a second. And after that one second there were millions of people praying for my life and talented doctors who gave me my body back. I was a good girl. In my heart I had only the desire to help people. It wasn’t about the awards or the money. I always prayed to God, “I want to help people and please help me to do that.”
These two paragraphs are from the Muslim teenager Malala Yousafzai (from her autobiography I Am Malala). She was awarded the Nobel Prize for her efforts to advance the education of Muslim women against the opposition of the Taliban.
Is Malala on her way to heaven because God, despite her lack of explicitly Christian faith, is nonetheless active in her heart and life? Is the good that Malala is doing simply a consequence of God’s common grace, but lacking the saving grace that’s necessary for her salvation? Is it more important that Malala continue her work for the rights of women to be educated, or for her to turn explicitly to Christianity — if it has to be one or the other?
A common ditty among Christians of a more pietistic stripe runs as follows: “Only one life will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” I’m fine with this ditty insofar as we’re talking about the real Christ who passes all boundaries and not a false Christ who insists on putting an explicitly Christian label on everything. Pietism, historically, was a reaction against a Protestantism that got cold and jaded. The original pietists had a fervency of heart in their devotion to Jesus and desire to help humanity. But all good things seem to get bent eventually. In the case of pietism, it became overly introspective and even self-indulgent in its promotion of personal piety.
Where am I going with this? Far too often, it seems to me, as Christians we get overly focused on wanting to see the Christian brand explicitly marked on the events of the world before we are willing to endorse them as good and done with God’s blessing. In the case of Malala, are we able to see her efforts (imperfect though they are) as for Christ and with God’s blessing even though she is a Muslim?
It seems to me as Christians we should be able to celebrate the good wherever we find it, and even without seeing an explicitly Christian label on the good we find. In the case of Malala, she would have been unable to accomplish what she did if she were not a Muslim because as a Christian, for instance, she would have had no standing in her community to support the right of Muslim girls to be educated.
In all these remarks, I don’t mean to take away anything from the Christian faith. I’ve read the Koran and I’ve read the Bible, and I much prefer the latter in every way. But it seems that God moves where he wills, and our job is to follow God rather than to limit his range of motion.
The thought of someone being saved at the moment of death raises an interesting inverse possibility, namely, someone remaining a Christian up to the moment of death and thereupon renouncing the faith and going to hell (in those microseconds from fall to death). Some Christians hold to the perseverance of the saints or a once-saved-always-saved theology in which something like this could not happen — once you’re saved you stay saved.
But for those who see salvation as potentially jeopardized by human free choice, this becomes a possibility as well. Catholic theology, for instance, teaches that a good Catholic on the way to heaven can sin so grievously as to enter a state of mortal sin and thus be on one’s way to hell unless this state is reversed through confession and penance (Catholics contrast mortal sins with venial sins, venial sins being not so serious as to jeopardize one’s salvation). Personally, I would say that the mercy and grace of God precludes too much up-and-back/on-again-off-again between being on one’s way to heaven in the one case and hell in the other, but I raise such possibilities for completeness.
8. The Threat of Hell
The Catholic use of mortal sin to consign its members alternately to heaven or hell depending on whether they have repented or have yet to repent from such a sin raises the bigger question about the threat of hell generally. Let me set the stage autobiographically. My dad was raised during the Great Depression by a Polish Catholic mother in Chicago whose husband (my grandfather) had abandoned the family, which meant that my father from age seven was selling newspapers, setting up pins in a bowling alley, etc. He was out and about, at times barely skirting the law, and he was no angel.
When he was still in his preteens, his mother would periodically be outraged about things he would do, crying out to him “that’s a mortal sin” and “you’re on your way to hell.” For a while, this used to get his attention and upset him, but, as he told me, eventually his reaction was just “Ahh, screw it.” (Actually, the language he used was more graphic, characteristic of the blue-collar Chicago neighborhood in which he grew up.)
Now there’s a semantically equivalent expression to describe his reaction, namely, “The hell with it.” This is interesting and perhaps not entirely a linguistic coincidence. The threat of hell, when overused and giving people no hope of digging themselves out of the hole they’re in, thus gets used as a way of dismissing hell. We see this in many other contexts, as for instance when people who are morbidly obese try to lose weight but lose all hope after repeated failures and thus give up trying to lose weight entirely, eating with abandon.
What’s my point? The threat of hell seems to have limited effectiveness at positively motivating people and can even become a profoundly unhealthy motivator. Some sensitive souls may respond to this threat with a fear that doesn’t abate over time. But most people after a while find this threat cloying, dismissing not just hell but also Christianity in the process. (By the way, my dad is now 92 and he did turn to Christianity later in life, no thanks to my grandmother’s constant outrages over his “mortal sins.”)
In either case, however, I doubt that the threat of hell significantly reduces our rate of or propensity for sinning. Psychological studies reveal that a certain level of threat can be effective at controlling behavior provided the threat can be readily avoided and is not played up too dramatically. But threats posed in apocalyptic terms often end up constituting a siren call, tempting people, especially when the threat seems to pose no immediate danger.
Leaving aside who goes to hell, who doesn’t, and the precise nature of hell, it’s fair to say the threat of hell as an ethical motivator leaves something to be desired. Indeed, what sort of moral accomplishment is it to say “I really wanted to sin and would have sinned and still want to sin, but the fear of hell prevents me”? Shouldn’t it be love of God and neighbor that motivates us and keeps us from sinning? And short of that, what about self-interest, to wit, the idea that sin will make life worse regardless of whether God adds punishment to it — if you will, sin, by being bad for us, is its own punishment. On this view, law is grace, telling us what not to do for our own benefit.
In this context, it’s also worth noting that very few people actually see themselves as on the way to hell. According to Pew Research, 72 percent of Americans believe in heaven, defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” and only 58 percent believe in hell, defined as a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” Those numbers don’t go up dramatically for Christians. Even among evangelicals, just under 90 percent believe in heaven and just over 80 percent believe in hell.
For even starker percentages, however, consider that according to a Barna poll about two-thirds of Americans think they’ll end up in heaven but only half of one percent think they’ll end up in hell (leaving the rest, presumably, unsure about their eternal destiny). That only half of a percent of the population thinks it is actually going to hell is remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising. We overwhelmingly, it seems, rationalize the evil in our hearts. Consider the following opening to one of the most popular books of the 20th century, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People:
When [the notorious criminal Francis] Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner E. P. Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. “He will kill,” said the Commissioner, “at the drop of a feather.”
But how did “Two Gun” Crowley regard himself? We know, because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed “To whom it may concern.” And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In his letter Crowley said: “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one — one that would do nobody any harm.”
A short time before this, Crowley had been having a necking party with his girl friend on a country road out on Long Island. Suddenly a policeman walked up to the car and said: “Let me see your license.”
Without saying a word, Crowley drew his gun and cut the policeman down with a shower of lead. As the dying officer fell, Crowley leaped out of the car, grabbed the officer’s revolver, and fired another bullet into the prostrate body. And that was the killer who said: “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one — one that would do nobody any harm.”
Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, “This is what I get for killing people”? No, he said: “This is what I get for defending myself.”
The point of the story is this: “Two Gun” Crowley didn’t blame himself for anything.
Is that an unusual attitude among criminals? If you think so, listen to this: “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.”
That’s Al Capone speaking. [Compare Tony in The Sopranos.] Yes, America’s most notorious Public Enemy — the most sinister gang leader who ever shot up Chicago. Capone didn’t condemn himself. He actually regarded himself as a public benefactor — an unappreciated and misunderstood public benefactor.
Carnegie uses this self-(mis)understanding of criminals to advocate for his doctrine of non-criticism and approbation (i.e., if you’re going to work effectively with people, don’t criticize them but focus on their positive points where you can offer genuine appreciation). In any case, the half of one percent statistic of people who think they’re actually on their way to hell should really be quite shocking to those pushing the extreme view of hell described earlier, who are ready to consign to hell any adults with normal cognitive function who have not explicitly acknowledged Christ as their savior.
Apparently, the truth about hell is simply not getting out. Indeed, well over half the world’s population is, according to the extreme view, on their way to hell, having failed to acknowledge Jesus. Yet, they are either ignorant of this threat or unimpressed by it (assuming Barna’s numbers for the U.S. can be extrapolated worldwide, which doesn’t seem unreasonable).
What a strange thing. If hell were really that big a threat, wouldn’t it be best to have some sort of window or portal onto eternity that everyone could access and confirm for themselves just how bad hell is and how much they should try to steer clear of it? “Hey, there’s Uncle Frank. He always was a nasty piece of work. Look at him there just screaming and shrieking and being tormented with unspeakable pain. I’m sure not going to follow in his footsteps.”
But we don’t have anything like that, not in this life. According to Thomas Aquinas, in an earlier quote, the saved will witness the torments of the damned in order to better appreciate the blessings of heaven. But while still living on earth, we seem to be denied convincing access to the torments of hell’s inhabitants, which might render the threat of hell more effective at producing right action.
Comment: What if Thomas was wrong about the saved witnessing the sufferings of the damned in hell to make their joy of heaven complete? What if, instead, the saved are so consumed with the joys of heaven that they ignore the damned in hell, and rather, the sufferings of the damned consist in watching the saved in heaven so enjoying themselves that they regret that they’re not there to enjoy heaven with them? In other words, hell watches heaven rather than the other way round. Accordingly, the torment of hell would consist not in being actively tortured but in the consciousness that its inhabitants have missed out on their greatest happiness.
Perhaps I’ve understated the efficacy of hell as a deterrent to sin and as a motivator of right action. Even though we have no window on hell itself, we have windows on the difficulties humans experience in consequence of bad decisions. Unbridled sexual activity, for instance, tends to produce STDs with all their attendant distress. Unbridled alcohol consumption likewise invites pain and misery.
In such cases, the act produces its own negative consequences. Is it possible that this is the closest thing we have to a window on hell? If so, this would suggest that hell is a natural consequence of a life lived in opposition to God rather than a punishment that God inflicts as a way of exacting vengeance. We’ll return to this possibility in due course.
9. Hope vs. Total Certainty of Salvation
An approach to evangelism from a few decades back known as Evangelism Explosion used as its starting point the question “If you were to die today, would you go to heaven?” When asked this question, a lot of people respond with a tentative “I hope so” and yet take the optimistic view that they’re likely go to heaven because their good works outweigh the bad. But for the purveyors of Evangelism Explosion, that wasn’t good enough. The conservative theology behind this evangelization program demanded not mere hope or probability of making it to heaven but certainty.
Now certainty is a great thing if you can have it, but is anyone really entitled to say “I’m sure I’ll end up in heaven,” or for that matter “I’m sure I’ll end up in hell”? The Protestant preoccupation with certainty or assurance of salvation, which is very much in evidence among present-day Evangelicals, goes right back to the start of Protestantism, beginning with Martin Luther’s scrupulosity about his own sin, always second-guessing himself, and never finding solace in the Catholic rites of confession and penance. His breakthrough came in reading the Apostle Paul and his teachings about being saved by faith through grace. Ah, here was the release Luther was looking for. Because he had faith, he could be assured that he was saved and on his way to heaven.
But is anyone really warranted in having such total assurance of going to heaven? Is it even a good thing to have such assurance? It’s interesting to me, as a philosopher, to see, around the time of the Reformation, philosophy taking an epistemological turn that emphasized how we come to know and how we can have knowledge that is sure and certain (Descartes, who came a few generations after Luther exemplified this approach to philosophy–cf. his cogito ergo sum, in which he found total certainty in his existence based on his capacity to think).
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with the quiet confidence of feeling right with God and believing that one is on one’s way to heaven. If such a person is asked whether he or she is going to heaven, a response like “I hope in salvation” or “I have confidence in God’s faithfulness to save me” seems entirely appropriate and winsomely humble. But anything much beyond that strikes me as presumptuous.
Do you have the inner witness of the Spirit assuring you, with complete certainty, that you’re on your way to heaven? Well, lots of people have claimed as much and ended up with shipwrecked faith. Are you impervious to temptation? Are there no circumstances that can draw you away from Christ? At such points, we are likely to recite Romans 8:37–39, which runs through the gamut of life’s challenges, and promises that these are unable to separate us from the love of Christ. The one challenge that’s unmentioned in this list, however, is our own volition in turning away from Christ.
I don’t mean to create doubts about people’s salvation simply for the purpose of creating doubts. Indeed, I’m not creating doubts at all. It is the apostles of certainty who create doubts by insisting on such overconfidence toward salvation that they actually end up undermining a true confidence in salvation.
Consider that when Jesus was at the Last Supper and remarked that someone at the table would betray him, all the disciples (and not just Judas, the intended target) asked the question “Is it I?” Now why would they do that if they were totally certain of their faithfulness to Christ and thus of their salvation? Oh, there was one exception: “If all the others betray you, I never will.” That was Peter, and we all know how successful he was at fulfilling his promise, denying Christ three times.
Okay, but that was before the cross, the resurrection, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost. And the disciples’ concern at the Last Supper was merely about betraying Jesus, not their ultimate salvation (is there a difference?). With the birth of the Church (capital “C”) after Pentecost, however, things would be different, right? Now Christians could boast of 100 percent assurance in their salvation. But what then do you do about Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian Christian leaders in Acts 20:25–30:
Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
I’ve italicized the last sentence for emphasis. What a cheerful thought with which to leave the Ephesian Christian leaders: “Some of you, and I’m not saying who, are going to turn against the truth of Christ!” So, if you were one of the people that Paul addressed that day, and you were asked whether you were on your way to heaven, you probably should first ask yourself, am I among those who will “arise and distort the truth” or among those who will preserve it? Will you, like Peter, protest that you’ll never betray your Lord (or, in this case, betray the truth)? Peter did betray Jesus, yet he was restored. But Paul gives no indication that those who will “distort the truth” will eventually also be restored to the truth. Quite the opposite. Paul describes them as “savage wolves.”
What, then, should you say if you regard yourself as a faithful Christian and someone with Evangelism Explosion comes up to you and asks whether you would go to heaven if you were to die tonight? In that case, it seems accurate to say that you have a firm hope in the salvation that God has provided through Christ, that you trust in God’s faithfulness to finish the good work that he has begun in your life.
Most likely you’ll then get the expected follow-up question, “Yes, but can’t you do better than merely hope in salvation? Aren’t you sure that you’ll end up in heaven? Let me show you how…” To this it should be enough to say that your hope in salvation is enough and that anything else is presumption. Hope, which the New Testament also describes as “the helmet of salvation,” is, after all, a virtue. Total certainty, by contrast, is nowhere touted in Scripture as a virtue. God knows who his children are; and if there are any to be disowned, he’ll decide the matter justly. Why is anything more needed?
In fact, nothing more is needed, except by modern-day Pharisees who need to sell total certainty/assurance as a way ensuring that their brand of Christianity has an increasing market share among the faithful. I don’t mean to be cynical, but there’s a big power trip in being able to say who’s in and who’s out when it comes to heaven and hell. And the only way to put yourself in such a position is to portray yourself as being someone who’s “in.” Indeed, can you imagine someone saying, “Trust me, you’re on your way to heaven [or hell]. I know. But as for me I don’t know where I’m going.” Or better yet, “As for me, I’m on my way to hell, but don’t let that stop you from believing what I’m telling you about your eternal destiny.”
To be an authority about people’s ultimate destiny, you have to be certain about your own destiny and make sure it’s the right destiny (i.e., heaven rather than hell). Only then can you convince others to have certainty in their destiny. The more honest approach, of course, is to leave certainty about people’s destinies to God (unlike us, God knows a whole lot more than we do and thus is entirely in his rights to be certain). But where’s the power trip in deferring to God?
Comment: In the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In this vein, consider Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, in which weeds (tares) have been sown among the wheat. Jesus is unwilling to let the angels of heaven sort the wheat from the tares right then and there by pulling out the tares — not until both are fully grown and fully distinguished. Often we interpret the wheat as the good people who are on their way to heaven and the tares as the bad people who are on their way to hell. But it also makes sense to think of each individual as a field in which both wheat and tares are sown (Jesus in the Parable of the Sower compares the human heart to a field capable of growing various things, some good, some bad).
What’s the point? Precisely because good and evil cuts through each of our hearts, it’s not for us to decide who’s in and who’s out when it comes to heaven (or hell). The evil in each of us disqualifies us from heaven, from being in God’s presence and enjoying him forever, and not because God wants to deny us any blessing but because in our complicity with evil we deny ourselves that blessing.
10. Passport to Heaven: Faith, Works, or Their Combination?
If we assume that universalism, the view that everyone goes to heaven and that hell is therefore empty, is false, then something has to be the difference maker in getting people to heaven and helping them avoid hell. Since the prospect of hell is fearsome for anyone who believes in its reality — even if hell is not as gruesome as Edwards and Thomas make out — people want to know what that passport is that keeps them from hell and takes them to heaven. In the New Testament, we find that this passport takes three forms: faith, works, or a combination of the two.
Now the interesting (and paradoxical) thing is we can find passages in the New Testament that emphasize one of these three options to the exclusion of the others. Some passages suggest “faith alone.” Some suggest “works alone.” And some suggest the need for a combination of the two.
10.1 Works Alone
Let’s start with “works alone.” Most people unschooled in Christian teachings about faith and grace take good works as their point of departure, and reasonably so. God is good and expects us to be good. And what can being good mean except doing good? If we do good, God will let us be with him in heaven. If not, then we must go to the other place.
Evangelicals tend to dismiss such a works-based understanding of how we get to heaven as naive and misguided: sound theology, as far as they’re concerned, teaches that no human being is good, that we’re all sinners, that we’ve all done bad things, that we consequently need a savior, and that the only way this savior saves is if we have faith in the savior. To be sure, there is much teaching in the New Testament that takes this faith-cum-grace-based approach to salvation. But the New Testament also develops what appears to be a purely works-based line for getting into heaven.
Consider Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan is the hero in this story, who helps a person in need (someone attacked and bloodied, lying on the road). Yet the Samaritan is outside the covenant of Israel. Instead, it’s the priest and Levite in the story, who are clearly in the covenant of Israel (“the people of faith”), who are also the villains, ignoring the person in need. If anyone is going to heaven in this parable, it’s the Samaritan; and if anyone is going to hell, it’s the priest and the Levite.
Or consider the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Jesus gives an image of the end of the world, in which people are assigned alternately to heaven and hell, comparing this assignment to when a shepherd divides sheep from goats. In this story, the sheep are the good people, on their way to heaven; the goats the bad people, on their way to hell.
So, what separates the two? In the story, the sheep are those who acted compassionately, helping people in need (such as visiting the sick and imprisoned). On the other hand, the goats are those who failed to act compassionately, refusing to help people in need (such as leaving the sick and imprisoned unvisited).
Interestingly, in this story neither the sheep nor the goats recognize that their acts of compassion (or lack thereof) had any explicit connection with Christ. Jesus says that those who acted compassionately acted compassionately toward him and those who didn’t failed to show him compassion. But neither group made this identification of equating their acts of compassion for others with acts of compassion for Christ.
It is Christ himself who makes the identification, saying that those who show compassion to the oppressed show him compassion, and those who don’t show it fail to show it to him. Nothing in this parable suggests the need for conscious explicit faith in Christ. Quite the contrary. It’s only in eternity that the significance and consequences of their actions become explicit. Elsewhere, in Matthew (16:27), Jesus remarks that at his second coming he shall reward all people according to their works (no mention of faith).
Jesus also seems to teach that there is a “master” work — i.e., a supremely effective work — for getting into heaven. This “master” work is a particular act of compassion, namely, forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus secures humanity’s forgiveness and thus ensures a clear path to heaven (if only people will take it). But having forgiven others (“Father,” says Jesus on the cross, “forgive them for they know not what they do”), he also expects us to forgive each other and makes the refusal to forgive the one sin that cannot be forgiven.
We see this in the parable of the debtor (Matthew 18) who owed his lord 10,000 talents and was forgiven that huge and unpayable debt, only to have the debt reinstated when he refused to forgive one of his fellow servants for a paltry sum (a few hundred denarii).
Elsewhere, in Mark 11, Jesus hammers home the non-negotiability of forgiveness: “When you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone so that your Father, who is in heaven, may forgive your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, your Father in heaven will not forgive your trespasses.” Presumably, if God the Father forgives our trespasses, we successfully avoid hell and make it to heaven.
The importance of forgiveness is likewise underscored in the Lord’s Prayer. In praying this prayer, it seems we are not so much asking God to forgive us as simply acknowledging that God’s forgiveness occurs in response to our forgiveness of others: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Nowhere does Jesus suggest that unforgiveness can somehow be compensated for or offset by something else, such as faith. Unforgiveness renders us incapable of circumventing hell and entering heaven. We forgive and God forgives us. We don’t forgive, and we’re unforgiven.
Comment 1 on forgiveness: The guarantee by God that he will forgive us provided that we forgive others raises the interesting possibility of someone who sins grievously against others, inducing resentment and thus unforgiveness in them, but who yet holds no grudges against others and readily forgives them. This is someone who forgives and yet whom others will not forgive — an unforgivable forgiver, if you will. This possibility, however, seems to make a mockery of the principle that God forgives forgivers.
Such a person leaves a trail of destruction, people going to hell left and right because they cannot forgive him/her, and yet someone who, on the principle that forgiveness guarantees heaven (and unforgiveness hell), has heaven’s doors swing wide open for him/her. The absurdity of this possibility suggests to me that people who truly forgive also know how hard it is to forgive and will bend over backwards not to sin against others, who would otherwise have to deal with the stumbling block of unforgiveness.
Comment 2 on forgiveness: We are called to forgive, and only by forgiving can we ourselves be forgiven — that seems the clear teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. Yet, even though we often speak of forgiving or extending forgiveness without a clear reference of who or what is being forgiven, there is a sense in which “forgive” is a transitive verb: when we are called to forgive, it is you or I, as subject, who must forgive another, as the object of forgiveness. But who is the object of forgiveness? Usually, we think of the object of forgiveness as other human beings, whom we regard as having sinned against us. But really, in the passages above, the object is not specified in this way. It seems instead that forgiveness must apply to all humans, and that would include ourselves.
So to be forgiven would mean that we must also forgive ourselves. But to forgive ourselves, wouldn’t we need to acknowledge that we ourselves are in need of forgiveness and thus that we have sinned in the first place? That raises the interesting possibility of someone who professes total innocence from sin and consequently doesn’t forgive oneself because he or she sees nothing to forgive. Such a person, it seems, would also not be forgiven by God, in this case for never even coming to the place where he or she recognized one’s personal need of forgiveness. Such a person’s refusal to forgive oneself arises not from recognizing a fault and finding it too grievous to forgive but from not recognizing one’s fault at all.
Throughout this section I’ve focused on Jesus and his teaching about the importance of works to salvation (getting to heaven and avoiding hell). But one can find the same teaching in Paul. Consider, for instance, the following passage from Romans:
God repays all people according to their deeds. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, God will give eternal life [i.e., heaven]. But those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil will experience anger and fury [i.e., hell]. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. Yet there will be glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not play favorites. [Romans 2:6–11]
10.2 Faith Alone
Let’s now shift gears and consider another strand of New Testament teaching in which faith alone seems adequate to get us to heaven and avoid hell. Probably the best known verse in the Bible is John 3:16, which reads “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life here obviously refers to a good eternal life and thus to heaven, to the exclusion of hell.
In John 3:16, there is no mention of works, which leaves open the possibility that the faith in question here is one that nonetheless may require works. But certain teachings of Paul, when added to this discussion, suggest that faith to the exclusion of works is what saves and leads us to heaven.
Repeatedly in Romans Paul stresses that we are saved not by works but by faith. Perhaps the clearest statement of this view, however, occurs by Paul in Ephesians 2:8–9, which reads: “By grace you are saved through faith. This is not of yourselves, but the gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
In Galatians 2:16 Paul elaborates on how the “works of the law” fail to save us and that faith alone suffices: “A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law. For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
The idea that we are saved by faith apart from works has a sound rationale: all that we have and are comes from God, so even the works we perform result from the ability that God gives us. For us therefore to perform good works and appeal to them as justification for entering heaven and avoiding hell can only seem self-serving and pride-filled, especially in light of our sinful proclivities. Add to this that none of us entirely stops sinning even after we become Christians (a few heretical sects teach “sinless perfection” in this life, but that is sheer delusion), and it becomes futile to think that works will save us.
Instead of putting confidence in ourselves and the works we are capable of doing, we are therefore to put our confidence in God and the new life that God gives us in Christ and that empowers us to perform good works without an unhealthy sense of self-satisfaction. Thus we read in John 1:12, “As many as received him [i.e., Jesus], to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to those who believe on his name.”
10.3 Faith and Works in Combination
If it had been up to Martin Luther, the Epistle of James would not be in the Bible. Luther called it an “epistle of straw” because, as far as he was concerned, it confused faith and works. We’ve already quoted earlier in this essay the passage from James that so exercised Luther, namely, that part in chapter 2 to the effect that faith without works is dead and that faith is only properly demonstrated through works (an approach I endorsed earlier when I argued that only works demonstrate what we truly believe). For Luther, James did not give faith its proper preeminence in the economy of salvation and instead produced a theology that was inferior (in Luther’s view) to that of Paul’s “faith alone” theology.
My own reading of Luther is that he was overly taken with a “faith alone” theology and pushed it too far, seeing in it as the ideal instrument for dislodging Roman Catholicism, with which he came increasingly into conflict. It’s certainly true that many passages in Paul’s letters downplay works in deference to faith. But if one looks at these passages closely, one sees that Paul is talking about either good works or works of the law (which can be the same thing) and how these by themselves, when done without a genuine faith-filled heart, fail to benefit the person performing the works or have any salvific value.
In fact, there’s little mystery here. We’ve all witnessed, whether in our own actions or in those of others, the perfunctory performance of works, done simply because they were expected or convenient or laudable, but without the sincere intention of doing good thereby for no other reason than that it’s good to do good. At the same time, we’ve also witnessed sacrificial actions, done for no evident payoff or advantage, whose good is beyond question. There are good works that are done for the right motives and those done for the wrong motives. God sees the difference and rewards the one but not the other.
Nonetheless, if we probe more deeply, we’ll find that even in Paul’s theology, works play a critical role in the economy of salvation. Granted, Paul’s theology teaches that good works don’t save us — for that we need faith. But, Paul’s theology also teaches that bad works can sink us — regardless of the faith we claim.
Over and over in Paul’s writings we find catalogs of sins that, if we commit them, shut us off from salvation, God’s kingdom, or heaven (call it what you like). Consider the following passages from Paul’s letters:
The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. Regarding these I tell you now, as I have also told you in time past, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. [Galatians 5:19–21]
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. People will be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. From such turn away. [2 Timothy 3:1–5]
[Those who ignore God] are filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. [Romans 1:28–32]
In each of these quotes, I’ve italicized a line that suggests the peril and hell-boundedness of those committing the sins cataloged. Now the thing to note about the sins listed in these three Pauline passages is that gross sins constituting crimes are mixed indiscriminately with socially acceptable sins. Thus, for socially acceptable sins we see envying and strife in the first quote, covetousness and pride in the second, gossip and boastfulness in the third. I submit that the number of Christians who avoid such socially acceptable sins is close to nil. Who then can be saved and sidestep hell? Indeed, such passages suggest that few who call themselves Christians will actually be saved.
Other passages of Scripture likewise engender pessimism about the prospect of anyone at all entering heaven and avoiding hell. Consider 1 Peter 4:18: “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Or consider Revelation 21:8, where we read, “the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Who is not a liar (tell the truth!)?
Or consider Matthew 7, the last chapter in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Early in that chapter, Jesus teaches that we’re not to judge others. But then skipping down we find Jesus urging us to evaluate the “fruit” in people’s lives and that if it doesn’t measure up, we should at the very least be skeptical of their salvation (though only God knows the heart and ultimate destiny of the person in question):
[Jesus speaking:] “Enter by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many go in by it. Instead, narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and few find it. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits… Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’” [Matthew 7:13–16, 21–23]
Such passages are troubling. In effect, they raise the bar so high as to throw into question the destiny of just about everyone. Even when Paul teaches about the necessity of faith for salvation, he lists sins that are extremely common, sins that he also suggests exclude from heaven anyone who commits them. And Jesus suggests that the vast majority of people are seeking the easy way out, which leads to destruction and thus presumably to hell. Who, then, can be saved?
10.4 How to Live, Be Saved, and Go to Heaven?
The previous sections suggest that there’s no easy resolution of the role of works, faith, and their combination in keeping us from hell, saving us, and getting us to heaven. No place in Scripture does one find a permission of the form “go ahead, sin a bit, it’s okay, God will overlook it.”
Sinful works are in every instance proscribed in Scripture. God’s people are expected to perform good works always, to demonstrate obedience to God without respite, indeed, to be perfect. At the same time, Scripture presents faith as indispensable to salvation. Like bad works, faithlessness is universally condemned in Scripture.
Accordingly, Mark’s Gospel has Jesus begin his ministry by proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” Repentance is an act (it corresponds to the Hebrew for turning, which is an act of moving one’s whole body). Faith is a state and decision of the heart. Both are required.
It’s probably a good thing that the Bible presents faith and works in tension or paradox. If we focus unduly on works, we lose the generosity of heart and vitality of faith that needs to motivate works. If we focus unduly on faith, we tend to excuse works as unimportant. I think the latter is in fact the bigger danger for Evangelicals. Over and over I see Evangelicals excusing infidelities, as though faith can render sin innocuous.
I recall, back in the day when I used to lecture frequently on campuses, being picked up at the airport by a seminary student and driven to the school where I was to deliver a series of lectures on faith and science. In the car ride, the student shared with me how his father had cashed in his mother and found a younger woman to marry.
In listening to this familiar tale, it struck me that here was a man of twenty-five, a seminary student, in evident anguish, describing how his parents’ divorce and father’s infidelity had rendered him even suicidal. I had always thought that divorce and infidelity hurt young children more than older children, but here was a counterexample. Not his story — the general outlines of which are repeated endlessly among Evangelicals — but his painful reaction to it, I came to understand, was hardly unique.
The evil that we do can be forgiven, but it can’t be erased — its effects work themselves out even into eternity. I think this is one of the vital points about stressing the role of works in salvation. What we do in this life, especially as it affects others, is supremely meaningful and important, transcending time and having repercussions forever.
Jennifer Michael Hecht, despite her atheism, speaks to the need for right action when facing the temptation to commit suicide (click here for her article “Stopping Suicide”). Yet her observations hold for right action in the face of temptation generally:
Suicidal influence is so strong that if you want your niece, or your fellow soldier, your sorority sister, or fellow poet, to make it through their dark nights, you have to make it through yours. Those who have suicidal thoughts must know that resisting them is an act of generosity equal to that of running into a burning house and rescuing a child. Rejecting suicide saves more lives than one’s own.
This is not a new insight. Aristotle wrote, in his Nicomachean Ethics, that killing oneself is a crime against the community. Hermann Hesse said the suicidal person must struggle against suicide as a kleptomaniac must struggle against stealing. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Héloïse, a heartbroken young man writes a letter expressing his desire to kill himself — citing the famous ancient suicides, and claiming that he is expendable because he has no children or other dependents. The older man to whom he writes responds with fury. As a mourning friend, he himself would suffer, and the girl his friend is so upset about would suffer too. There is always, reminds the older man, some good one can do no matter how useless one feels at a given moment.
A comfort in all this is that God is able to bring good out of the evil we do. Think of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, and yet God using it in the end to save Joseph’s family. As Joseph put it to his brothers when they worried that he might want to avenge the evil they did to him: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20)
Nonetheless, it seems that we also live in a world of real tragedy. The evil we do has ill effects, and it’s not for us to blithely assume that God will reverse those ill effects. Yes, Scripture does say that God works all things together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose. (Romans 8:28) But did the seminarian’s father who cashed in his wife for a younger woman love God? He evidently didn’t love his wife enough to stay with her, and over and over again in Scripture our love of God is demonstrated in our love for people, especially family.
11 The Angry God
Why would God want to take humans, who live but a brief moment here on earth, and consign at least some of them, upon their deaths, to an eternity of torment in hell? The short answer, widely preached and promoted, is that God is really really angry and upset with the people he’s sending to hell (cf. Jonathan Edwards’s sermon title “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” cited earlier).
An analogy with human anger seems at play here: As we live our lives on earth, people make us angry, be it through injustice, thwarting our purposes, annoying us, doing horrific things, etc. A natural outlet for this anger (is it really “natural” or is it a “carnal propensity” consequent on the Fall?) is for us to inflict pain on those who make us angry.
Of course, with God everything is bigger, so when we make him angry, he can get back at us much worse than we ever could against others who offend us. So, in contrast to finite creatures like ourselves, whose anger must eventually get spent (if only because we ourselves eventually get spent when our lives expire in death), God can express his anger without limit, inflicting unimaginable pain and extending it through all eternity, since he can keep us alive indefinitely to experience pain unceasingly.
Many converging lines of biblical evidence underscore the idea of an angry God who wreaks vengeance on recalcitrant humans who won’t obey his will. The judgments in the Old Testament against the Israelites as well as neighboring groups of people immediately come to mind. And then there are the biblical concepts of propitiation, atonement, and sacrifice, all of which speak to an angry deity who needs to be appeased.
Now I don’t want to dismiss divine anger as an illegitimate concept. There are lots of injustices and outrages in the world, and it would be unworthy of God if he did not respond to them with anger. People do horrific things to each other, and it would be a contemptible deity who ignored or condoned such acts.
The Euthyphro Problem: Does it even make sense to ascribe some property or act to God that could render God contemptible? Presumably, in such a case, God would have to be guilty of falling short on some standard of good. But doesn’t God define the standard of good — whatever God does is good by definition? Or is there a standard of good independent of God but to which God nevertheless accommodates himself? This is the classic Euthyphro Problem: does God arbitrarily decide what’s good and thereby make it good, or does God embrace what’s good because it is good. In Thomistic philosophy, God’s essence and existence are identified, and problems such as the Euthyphro Problem dissolve because God and his goodness become identified as well. In any case, my point in the last paragraph is not to offer a doctrine of God but simply to note that whatever one’s doctrine of God, ascribing to God anger at evil makes perfect sense.
Still, there’s something amiss with turning anger as a legitimate and productive response to evil into an all-consuming occupation (if you will, making Hellmeister God’s chief job description). In this regard, it’s worth bearing in mind that anger finds itself among the seven deadly sins, alongside pride, greed, lust, envy, sloth, and gluttony. These seven sins are regarded as primal in the sense that all other sins are thought to arise from them.
Even so, it’s not the case that anger is invariably a sin. The same can be said for pride. Pride, in the sense of self-satisfaction, can be a good thing if it is based on valid effort and accomplishment. It becomes sinful when it becomes inordinate, failing to credit others and ultimately God for making whatever is the source of pride possible in the first place. Likewise, when anger becomes inordinate, in the sense of all-consuming without seeking a positive solution, it becomes sinful.
Aristotle’s View of Virtue: This discussion of the place of anger among the seven deadly sins merits a reference to Aristotle. For the philosopher Aristotle, all virtue lies between two vicious extremes, that of lack and that of excess. Think of courage. This virtue stands at the mean between cowardice (lack) and foolhardiness (extreme). Virtue for Aristotle thus took the form of a Goldilocks principle: “not too much, not too little, just right.”
Now, of the seven deadly sins listed, five of the names in English (i.e., greed, lust, envy, sloth, gluttony) are words specific to the extremes of excess (excess of proper appreciation of necessary goods, of proper sexual appetite, of proper appreciation of worth of other’s possessions, of proper regard for rest, of proper appetite).
English simply lacks the corresponding words for pride and anger that denote their excess. Without an adjective in front of them, pride and anger can denote an extreme of excess (and thus a vice) or a virtuous middle ground (and thus a virtue). Thus, for clarity, we may speak of “inordinate pride” and “intemperate anger” on the one hand, “deserved pride” and “justified anger” on the other.
This, then, is my problem with casting hell as the place where God forever vents his anger. Anger, if it is to avoid becoming sinful (at least in a human context), must always incorporate the desire that it constitute a temporary measure, designed at some point down the line to help make things right. Indeed, there is no glory in being angry for anger’s sake. The point of anger is to get beyond anger.
This is why some forms of anger are inherently sinful: they are inherently unresolvable, reveling in their unresovlability. Take resentment, which combines anger with helplessness. The helpless person is unable to redress the source of anger and thus is tempted to remain unceasingly angry. By giving into this temptation, nurturing resentment without any desire to get beyond resentment, the resentful person sins.
Now it’s clear from Scripture that God does indeed intend to get beyond his anger. As Psalm 103:9 puts it, “God will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.” On the cross, Jesus asks the Father to forgive those who are crucifying him because they don’t know what they’re doing. God, it seems, unlike many of us, doesn’t want to hold on to anger and is not eager to send anyone to hell. We see this desire on God’s part to get beyond anger and even to save the very people who have angered God in both the Old and New Testaments:
The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be their own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be their own. But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:20–23)
The Lord … does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
God desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
Comment on 1 Timothy 2:4. Augustine, in his writings on predestination, decided that the word “all” in this really didn’t mean “all” but rather “all the elect.” This is very similar to Luther modifying Romans 3:28, which reads “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” by adding the word “alone” after the word “faith.” The theology of salvation becomes much more messy when we take the Bible as it stands, without imposing our pet theories on it. Faith alone isn’t enough. God really does want all people to be saved, not just the elect.
So here’s another paradox. On the one hand, God wants to get beyond his anger, and indeed wants to deal with his anger by saving the very people who have made him angry. On the other hand, hell is an expression of God’s anger, a way of dealing with his anger, even a monument to his anger. Indeed, it’s inescapable that God is thoroughly angry when, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus portrays God as casting the unrighteous into a hell of “everlasting punishment.”
The decision of eternal destinies is in God’s hands. If anyone lands in hell, it’s because God has sent them there. At no point in Scripture do we get the sense that God is wringing his hands, second-guessing himself, desperately trying to find a loophole to avoid sending people to hell. When God sends people to hell, it’s because they deserve to go there, and it’s in anger that he sends them there. So why can’t God get over his anger at these hellbound folks? Precisely because they are folks.
12 The Family God
The word hell has appeared in this essay a lot more than the word heaven. It’s now time to focus a bit on heaven. Indeed, it’s only possible to understand hell in reference to the thing it’s a reaction against, namely, heaven. The relation between heaven and hell is much like that between good and evil. Just as evil makes no sense in itself but only in relation to a good that has been undermined, so hell likewise needs to be seen as what happens when access to heaven is undermined, through an act of self-sabotage, as it turns out.
What’s heaven like? I’m not sure to what extent I trust NDEs (near-death experiences) that report what the afterlife, and thus presumably heaven, is like. But we do have clear imagery in the Bible that describes heaven. The imagery is that of a banquet table, a feast, a convivial family meal in which harmony, good-will, and cheer abound. In this light, it’s no accident that God is referred to as Father and those around the table are God’s children.
Given this imagery of heaven as a communal meal (a foretaste of which appears in the Last Supper), we can now ask what would undermine its success. Obviously, it would be participants of ill-will desiring to upset the well-being of others at the table. Rather than enjoying themselves and the presence of others, they would be displeased with some at the table, wanting them kicked out or put down or otherwise diminished.
The natural state for a family is for its members to want to contribute to the well-being of others in the family. Yet from the Christian vantage, we’re all family. We all trace our ancestry to Adam and Eve. We all share common blood. We are all at some level brothers and sisters.
We tend not to think of the impulse to show kindness universally to others as a “natural state” because, as fallen beings, sin and selfishness too often reign in our hearts. But any unwillingness on our part to contribute to the well-being of others is in fact unnatural. Our very humanity calls us to give of ourselves and eschew selfishness. That’s why Jesus will say that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. That’s why the words humane and humanitarian have positive connotations.
What, then, to do with people who, instead of acting out of good-will to contribute to the well-being of others, act out of ill-will to invalidate others? Their very presence, by destroying the conviviality of the heavenly meal, would in fact make heaven impossible. Heaven can’t be heaven with them there. Accordingly, they need to be excluded from heaven. Hell is thus the place for those who would prevent heaven from being heaven.
What is it about these people whose very presence in heaven would destroy heaven? Perhaps the clearest example that I know of what’s at stake with those who can’t be allowed into heaven if heaven is to remain heaven comes from a story told by the late couple Arthur and Beate Wilder-Smith (both of whom I knew) about the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann was the Nazi bureaucrat charged with overseeing Hitler’s Final Solution to bring about the systematic destruction of European Jews. He made sure the extermination camps were properly supplied and that the trains taking Jews to those camps were running on time. He provided the infrastructure, if you will, that allowed his more brutal counterparts in the SS to butcher, gas, and torture the Jews and other “substandard races,” such as the Poles and Czechs. He was a pencil pusher whose hands were clean only in the sense that he had others do the more obviously dirty work.
After World War II, Eichmann avoided the Nuremberg Trials, escaping to South America. For fifteen years he eluded his pursuers, until in May 1960 Israeli intelligence captured him in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and smuggled him to Israel, where he stood trial and was condemned to death. The Reverend William Lovell Hull, a Canadian minister known to the Wilder-Smiths, counseled Eichmann during his trial and as he was awaiting execution by hanging.
As the Wilder-Smiths tell it, when asked by Hull shortly before his execution if he was ready to ask God to forgive his crimes under Hitler and the Nazis, Eichmann responded defiantly that he had done nothing wrong and that, in fact, God would thank him for his service to humanity when he got to heaven. This is consistent with Eichmann’s last words before he was hanged:
Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God.
Now I’ll grant that everything I’ve written so far in this essay indicates that we are not in a position to say who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. And perhaps Eichmann had a change of heart in the moment from the trap-door springing to the rope pulling tight and breaking his neck. What concerns me here, however, is Eichmann’s attitude. He betrayed no regrets about the pain he caused the Jews and other “inferior races.” He was doing his duty. Presumably he remained convinced that his efforts served the greater good by advancing the eugenicist program of improving the human stock. He thus saw himself as a benefactor of humanity.
So how do you put Eichmann and his victims at the same table together in heaven? Again, without a change of heart on his part, there’s no way to do this and keep heaven heaven. If Eichmann can be allowed into heaven without destroying it, he must first of all understand — really understand — the evil he did. He needs to be able to show those whom he harmed that he knows full well what he did and how it hurt them. Above all, he needs to demonstrate empathy and compassion for his victims. Eichmann evidenced none of this.
Eichmann was a victimizer. Yet victims can also exclude themselves from heaven. And usually people are both victims and victimizers. Victimizers can exclude themselves from heaven by continuing to despise their victims, refusing them the good-will that would lead to reverse the evil they formerly did to their victims and instead contribute to their victims’ well-being. But victims can likewise exclude themselves from heaven by refusing to accept a sincere change of heart from victimizers.
God as Father desires a family in which all his children can accept one another. Victimizers who refuse to accept their victims and victims who refuse to accept their victimizers — neither of these can live together happily in eternity. They make heaven impossible.
The key concept in play here is reconciliation. God requires that the inhabitants of heaven all be reconciled with one another. The problem is that we attempt to enter heaven from a fallen world in which all too often we are unreconciled. Reconciliation with the fellow inhabitants of heaven is a necessary condition for getting into heaven.
How does such reconciliation happen? From the vantage of Christian theology, reconciliation happens as people acknowledge their sins, repent or turn away from them, turn to God in faith, and as an ultimate act of faith and love forgive each other. Moreover, what makes such reconciliation possible is the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, which encapsulate all these elements of reconciliation.
Even so, to really understand reconciliation in action, I find it helpful to examine the work of counselors and psychologists. These have to help people deeply traumatized by others to work through their pain and thereby achieve reconciliation. Moreover, they need to succeed in reconciling hurting people not in the sweet by and by but in the here and now.
In this regard, consider the work of psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (1934–2015) on nonviolent communication. Rosenberg was a student of psychologist Carl Rogers and spent much of his later life reconciling people and groups that were violently at odds (everything from inmates of American prisons to Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda). Here’s an example of his approach, taken from a 2004 interview:
About eight years ago, I was mediating between a Muslim tribe and a Christian tribe in northern Nigeria. In their conflict, a quarter of the population had been killed. At that time, they were fighting about how many places in the marketplace each side would have to display their products. I started the reconciliation process with them by saying that I was confident that if we could hear each other’s needs, we could find a way to get everybody’s needs met. Inviting whoever wanted to start, I asked: “What needs of yours are not getting met?” The chief from the Christian tribe screamed, “You people are murderers!” Notice that when I asked him what needs weren’t getting met, his response was to tell me what was wrong with the other side. This provoked a counter judgment. Somebody on the Muslim side screamed back, “You’ve been trying to dominate us! We’re not going to tolerate it any more!”
Because our training is based on the assumption that all violent language is a tragic expression of unmet needs, when the chiefs finished screaming, my job was to translate the enemy image of “murderer” into language describing the needs of the person who screamed. I said, “Chief, are you saying that your need for safety is not being met and you want some agreement that no matter what the conflict, that it be resolved some way other than violence?” He looked shocked for a moment because this is different from how people are trained to think. Then he said, “That’s exactly right!”
But getting the chief to acknowledge his need wasn’t enough. I had to get the Muslim side to see through their enemy image. I said, “Would somebody on the other side please tell me what you heard the chief say his needs were?”
A gentleman from the Muslim tribe screamed back, “Then why did you kill my son?” In fact, there were several others in the Muslim tribe who knew that someone present had killed one of their children. So there were a lot of feelings. The Muslim tribe had to put down their rage long enough to hear the needs of the Christian tribe. And that wasn’t easy. I had to give them some empathy before they could do that. But finally I got them to hear just one simple thing, that the Christian tribe had said they had a need for safety.
It took me about an hour and a half to get both sides to release the enemy image long enough to hear a need of the other side. At that point, one of the chiefs came up and said to me, “If we know how to communicate this way, we don’t have to kill each other!”
In another example, a group of Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank were hoping to be able to work toward peace in that area. I asked, “What is it that you want from each other that would make it easier for you to work together?” The Palestinian mayor of the village responded by telling the Israelis, “You people are a bunch of Nazis.” Predictably, one of the Israelis fired back, “That was totally insensitive for you to say.” So instead of peace and harmony, they were creating violence and hostility. I helped them translate their judgments into what it was that they were wanting from one another. When you get people to talk about what they want from each other, instead of what’s wrong with the other, there’s a possibility for reconciliation to begin.
I’m not saying that Rosenberg is the final word on how to understand and implement reconciliation. But I do think he’s onto something crucial. The empathy necessary for reconciliation, which allows us to understand others and get into their shoes, requires that we be able to articulate people’s concerns. This is very much in line with the therapeutic approach of Rosenberg’s mentor, Carl Rogers, who stressed a nonjudgmental and nondirective role for the therapist, in which the therapist essentially tries to reflect back an understanding to the patient of what the patient is really thinking and feeling.
Rogers’s nondirective approach has been widely caricatured and dismissed, as with the clichéd phrases “I feel your pain …” and “What I hear you saying is …” There was even a famous artificial intelligence program called ELIZA, which attempted to act like a Rogerian therapist, simply taking statements by a client and reworking them grammatically to reflect back on and probe what the client said. “I never do anything right” might elicit from the program “Never is such a strong word; do you sometimes do anything right?” (I was assigned to write an ELIZA program in LISP for an artificial intelligence course I audited back in 1981.)
Where Rogers went too far in pushing nondirectedness is that patients/clients sometimes need more muscular interventions. They need to be forced to confront not only their own thoughts and feeling but also those of others, especially those they’ve injured, and do so nonviolently, in a communicative act that demonstrates genuine understanding of both self and other. In this way Rosenberg went well beyond his teacher Rogers. Moreover, Rosenberg always used as his guiding light that humans are at their best and most natural when they seek the good of others. Indeed, the phrase I used earlier about acting out of good-will to contribute to the well-being of others is pure Rosenberg.
Let me suggest that pure Rosenberg in this sense is also pure Bible. In 1 John 1:9 one reads “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The word confess here is the Greek homologeo, which, according to its Greek roots, literally means “to say the same thing” (homo = same, logeo = speak). In classical Greek, its fundamental meaning was “to speak the same language.” In any case, it signifies a state of being in agreement.
If we are to achieve reconciliation, true reconciliation, we need to get in the shoes of the other and be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings about wrongs committed as they would articulate them if all of us were honest with ourselves (note the strong underlying requirement of agreement). In other words, we have to say the same things as others about our sins and theirs. Or again, we have to confess, in the strict literal sense of homologeo, our sins — not just each person confessing one’s sins individually, but also corporately with each person confessing (acknowledging and agreeing about) the sins of all.
If we do this, we can live together happily ever after in heaven. But if we can’t, we turn heaven into hell. The problem with those who end up in hell is essentially one of dishonesty and false consciousness. They refuse to understand and face up to what they’ve done in injuring others, themselves, and ultimately God. Consequently, they short-circuit (self-sabotage) the reconciliation that needs to encompass all the inhabitants of heaven. The inhabitant of hell displays a recalcitrance to deal with the reality about oneself.
Herein lies God’s eternal anger with those whom he excludes from heaven and also his refusal to annihilate them. God is giving those in hell the opportunity to own up to who they really are, what they have really done, and how that has affected others — but to no avail. Self-deceived and self-delusional, like Eichmann, they refuse to see it, and eternally so. Could they see it? Having been consigned to hell, could sinners repent, thereby to leave hell and enter heaven? Scripture suggests that this is an impossible possibility.
To see what’s at stake here, consider a story told by English writer and critic John Ruskin about a rich man whose wealth consisted of gold coins, and who took all of them in a large sack on an ocean voyage. When a violent storm arose and those on board needed to abandon ship, the rich man strapped the sack of gold coins around his waist, jumped overboard, and promptly sank to the bottom of the sea. Ruskin now asked the crucial question about this man: “As he was sinking, had he the gold, or had the gold him?”
If the rich man merely had the gold, he could have relinquished it. If he didn’t drown but instead were able to survive under the sea, he could at any time have unstrapped the gold and risen to the surface, thereby resuming the life for which he was created — if he merely had the gold. But as long as the gold had him, he would be unwilling to relinquish it, even at the bottom of the sea and even though it would keep him there indefinitely. The metaphor here about heaven and hell is obvious.
Relevant quote: “If all things have been made by God and for his sake, then God is better than what has been made by him. The one who forsakes the better and is engrossed in inferior things demonstrates a preference for the things made by God to God himself…. Since the soul is better than the body and God incomparably better than the world which he created, the one who prefers the body to the soul and the world to the God who created it is no different from idolaters.” From Maximus the Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love.
There are plenty of biblical admonitions about not laying up for oneself treasures on earth, about forgoing idols, about not losing one’s soul for what this world has to offer. The problem is that if we don’t heed these admonitions, we change and become unfit for heaven. It’s not that God arbitrarily refuses us entry but that our hearts become so twisted that we can no longer make the right choices to guide ourselves to heaven. This is the impossible possibility. The bottle is there in front of the alcoholic. He doesn’t have to take it. And yet he can’t not take it.
In the end, hell ends up being a state in which the sinner is eternally queried and invited by God to admit the truth about oneself and others, but eternally refuses to do so. Hell is living an eternal lie.