Yesterday, I talked to you about hell and what it may be like. At the end of that missive, I noted that I hadn’t said anything about hell as a place of eternal torment and that I would tackle that today. Well, it’s today, so let’s get cracking.
A quick internet search will bring you plenty of articles about Universal Reconciliation and its place in Christianity. Several of them make the claim that the earliest Christians were universalists and quote scripture to back it up. Now, much as I wish it were true, quoting Bible verses that seem to support your belief doesn’t really prove anything because, with very little effort (and something called proof-texting), you can find scripture to back up most anything. For example, in the mid-1800’s southern churchmen repeatedly quoted scripture that appeared to legitimize slavery. Because of that, we need additional resources to back up our scripture claims. In this case, we turn to the early Christians like the church fathers. Origen of Alexandria (a hotbed of universalism), was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council for his embrace of the doctrine. St. Isaac of Nineveh is considered an advocate of universal reconciliation. And, Gregory of Nyssa spoke of
“The annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be ‘all in all,’ embracing all things endowed with sense and reason.”
In truth, we’ll never know beyond a shadow of a doubt what these people truly thought, but I say where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
So, if hell isn’t a place of eternal torment, where did that idea come from? Those who hold the doctrine dear aren’t going to like this, but it’s really a pagan concept. The Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians all believed in the idea, but Jews did not. As The New Jewish Encyclopedia says “Judaism does not teach a specific concept of hell. It is assumed that evildoers will be punished, but the manner and place of chastisement are left to the justice of God.” Yesterday, I speculated about who first translated the word “Gehenna” as hell, mentioning both John Wycliffe and St. Jerome. But, the seeds for that mix up were sown much earlier, say around 318 AD, when the Emperor Constantine began the process of usurping the church for the empire’s purposes. When that happened, the church became les a community of poor, oppressed believers and more a tool of power. The Romans, who knew all about power, ruthlessly suppressed anything that didn’t benefit them. That included the idea of universal reconciliation.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking I accept the idea that everyone will be reconciled to God. I do, but it took me quite a while to get here. I’ve always liked it, because the idea that God would condemn God’s children to eternal punishment for acts committed (or not committed) during a few years on earth didn’t square with the idea that God is love; the hang-up was free will. I’m not a Calvinist, so I believe I have a choice whether I accept God; the idea that everyone will be reconciled (will be, not may be, could be or should be) seemed to negate that. Two things changed the way I think. One was The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis, a piece of theological fiction that reflects on the nature of heaven and hell, where those who have died and gone to hell are given chances to repent and enter heaven. The other is a conversation I had at Wild Goose ’11 with Bart Campolo. I mentioned my reluctance about universalism and he said “Given an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of patience, why can’t God reconcile everyone?” Why not, indeed?
I’ve already said I don’t see hell as a specific place unsaved souls go after they die, so let me go a step further and say that hell doesn’t last forever. Like listening to Joel Osteen, it can feel that way, but it’s not eternal. I believe we encounter heaven and hell on a daily basis. There are times when there are times when I feel so miserable, so broken, so deeply mired in the muck that I can’t see a way out and I am most certainly in hell. But, it doesn’t last forever because, even in the depths of the shit hole my life has become in that moment, God is with me. Eventually, I remember that and, while it isn’t exactly heaven, it’s not so bad.