Stupid, unbelievable love is heresy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about heaven and hell lately.  Maybe it’s that whole angelic visitation thing, which may or may not be related.  Maybe it’s because there has been a lot of death around lately.  The friends and family of my own friends and family, one concentric circle out from me in the Kevin Bacon game of life, have been suffering suicide, two murders, stroke, cancer.  Most likely, it’s because as 2008 rolls to an anti-climactic close, I’ve been reflecting on the ways this year has taught me about how many different ways I can turn my back on God.  The ways I can just wander off into the woods off the Path, sometimes intentionally and usually ignorantly, and just not find my way back again.  If you want to use ol’ time churchy language, the ways I can sin.  I’m not usually a brimstone, hellfire, damnation sort of person, but I won’t lie – I do wonder how much the fear of hell motivates my own actions… and how little the love of God has anything to do with the way I live in the world. 

I listen to (shameless plug here) the most excellent radio show since God invented sound waves.  It’s called This American Life, and last week’s show was “Heretics,” the story  of Reverend Carlton Pearson, a famous evangelical pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who stopped believing in hell.  I won’t ruin the story for you (listen to it online – it’s absolutely worth your time).  I am fascinated by Pearson because he and I have come, through the same process, to different conclusions.  I’m a progressive Christian who has a sneaking suspicion based on experience and study that there is, in fact, some version of really-very-bad-something when we die.  Pearson’s an evangelical who similarly, through scriptural study and revelation, has come to the conclusion there isn’t.  I wonder, though, how different we really are.  What do I really think about this hell stuff?  I do wonder sometimes whether it wasn’t invented by the church just to get butts in pews – hell’s a money-maker, for sure.  Nothing like some good old fashioned fear mongering to make people show up and try to make amends.  But then I think about the suffering in the world- hell on earth, but punishing the wrong people, pain in my own life and my reactions to it – my instinct tells me, and I think this is where most people land, that if God is fair, then people who are nasty or awful or inhuman get punished for it, somehow.  Even when it’s me that is “those people”.  Then I remember that the need for fairness like this, for things to be nicely squared away, is an important developmental level, but it’s not very advanced.  Ouch.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, though, I suppose.  God’s fairness, whatever that means, might just not look like mine.

And this is where I find some comfort.  Because I do sin, and I know that under what I’m calling the “fairness doctrine,” I’m going to be really in trouble.  And then I hear Reverend Pearson say that God won’t let anyone perish.  That’s what I’ve always thought, that maybe God is simply willing to wait us out and work through things with us, even the worst of us, so that at some amazing point in time, ours or God’s, we’re all going to be okay.  The prophets talk about measuring the people by a plumb line, seeing whether they are lined up with God, so to speak.  Whenever I read that scripture, I think of God sort of shoring us up, adding some height here, support over there, until we’re in line and aren’t falling down anymore.  There’s a passage in 2 Peter in which the author says, “the patience of the Lord is our salvation.”  I think of this, too.  It is God’s patience that is our salvation.  We’re going to be okay because God is willing to wait it out with us.  Whew. 

But this doesn’t really answer my problem of punishment, which I still think (following on many millenia of theological reflection by people more intelligent than myself) is a valid complaint.  What I’m saying is, I agree with Rev. Pearson – God’s love, the idea of grace, is far too extravegant and way too evident in my life, the lives of others, the history of the world, to allow for the possibility that some people just can’t be loved into the heart of God.  If even God can’t love people that much, then what’s the point?  But, God is also interested in transformation, so there has to be a point at which our little and big badnesses get addressed somehow, if only in order for us to change and understand where we went wrong.  If we can drop the idea of hell as a place, as something bound by time and space, then I think there’s some progress to be made.  I don’t have language for this, but perhaps we can call it a moment of absolute recognition based on meeting God (perhaps at the end of our lives, perhaps not) and feeling, knowing, next to that perfect Love and absolute Goodness, how we’ve messed it up – faced with ourselves, unable to deny it.  If we’ve broken a lot, we’ll feel that much more remorse, feel that much more pain as we’re put back into place, like a dislocated joint.  Not really “punishment” so much as reallignment.  Just getting put back to where we were supposed to be all along.  Perhaps this is just, if we can’t call it “fair.”  Because it seems to me that God doesn’t talk about fairness very much in the Bible, but God talks a hell of a lot about justice, which is more related to putting things into their intended place than about disciplining unruly children or hurting someone whose hurt you.  Is this enough?  Perhaps… I don’t want to face that moment, in my own life, after all.  It’s gonna hurt. 

A professor I love dearly said to a group of students during lunch this week that universal salvation is not something we can really prove.  Scripture might support it, but we can always find support for what we already think in the form of sacred texts.  She told us she only knows what she can hope, and she only knows what she can trust… which is that God is a God of love and that it is God’s mercy that she’ll preach.  That’s good news to me, come hell or high water.

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1 Comment »

  1. Jeff Said:

    Love your blog. I hope you are saving this somewhere, so that you and maybe many others, can read it later. I’m throwing my own theological curveball about Hell into the mix here. Take it as you will. The influence for my viewpoint comes primarily from C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, various Rabii’s teachings, and number of illustrations I’ve heard from preachers over the years.
    Heaven and Hell are illustrated by a series of concentric circles around God. When we are alive in this world we have complete freedom to move closer or further away from God or a closeness to God’s presence in our lives, if you like. God is drawing us to Him, and we have opportunities to move closer or further away from feeling/thinking in His presence and having it influence our lives. When we die, our actions here on Earth stop. We then have all of eternity to get to know and feel everything. The times when we moved toward the presence of God in our lives will bring us joy. The times when we moved away, sorrow. But, in the end we will know how everything fits and what our part of it all was and how every choice we made fit into the whole. God’s action and love will also be revealed. What we make of it all will either bring us great joy or unimaginable sorrow.
    For some, knowing that God and many people were there for everyone at crucial points along the way will be of great comfort. For others, it will be of great sorrow.
    This illustration puts Jesus as the ultimate example of the Way towards God’s presence. It also helps to understand an answer to the question that atheists love to throw at me. “What happens to unborn babies or Tibetan monks who never heard the Gospel?” Part of this illustration’s answer is that I don’t get to choose that for them, but since i know the joy of God’s presence already, I want to share that with all I meet.
    Maybe my story is just convenient. It covers all of the obvious bases, leaving the “evil” to contemplate their actions forever and everyone else is left at least possibly off the hook. But it helps me in the decisions I make to ask whether I will look on this decision later and regret it or celebrate it with God and everyone.
    Keep writing, it’s great stuff!


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