The Hell, You Say?

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics over the year. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Hell.”

Dante's Gates of Hell

Image by Stuck in Customs via Flickr

Today’s post is going to deal with heresy that I think is actually a bit too far out there for me.

These are some things that I have trouble accepting myself, that I don’t see as being Bibically-consistent, but that raise some interesting questions or possibilities to use as diagnostic tools for examining what I do believe.

Because, you know, really, hell is a difficult subject.

I’m empathetic to the question of why a loving God would send people to hell. I disagree with it — I don’t believe God sends anyone to hell — but I’m empathetic to it. I believe He allows people to choose hell. He doesn’t want them to, but will let them if they’re so inclined. He throws us the rope to escape it, but won’t make us grab it.

But even then, I still struggle with it. People do stupid things. It’s in our nature. It’s unavoidable. And God, being omniscient, knows that. Free will is great and all, but eternal damnation is a high price to pay for making a stupid, human decision. How does a loving God allow us to bear so high a cost for a stupid and, in the context of eternity, momentary lapse? It’s not even, really, an informed decision; we’re called to make the choice without having experience with either heaven or hell or even the cognitive ability to truly understand them.

And I don’t claim to have the answer. Don’t claim to begin to understand. There are times when the most spiritually honest and mature answer you can give is “I don’t know,” and for me this is one of them.

But I’ll share three things I’m not ready to believe that do color my thinking; three fascinating bits of heresy to play with in your free time.

The first bit of heresy doesn’t really fully answer the question, since it allows that there are still people going to hell, but it’s interesting because it comes from people like C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham, not traditionally known for being heretics.

Can you follow Christ, can you be saved through Christ, without confessing or even knowing the name of Christ?

In the Narnia book The Last Battle,Lewis writes this scene about an encounter between Christ-type Aslan and a soldier of Aslan’s enemy Tash:

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.”

But I said, “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.”

He answered, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”

Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said,” Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?”

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?”

I said, “Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.” But I said also (for the truth constrained me), “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.”

“Beloved,” said the Glorious One, “unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Billy Graham said much the same thing in non-allegorical form in a television interview with Robert Schuller:

“He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ, because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”

It’s an idea that I find disconcerting, but is not entirely unBiblical, per Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Even without hearing the name of Christ, you can know and follow Him.

And that’s a key part of this — in finding those passages, I found articles accusing them of being universalist; you can go to heaven regardless of what religion you subscribe to, that any religion will save you. But there’s a fine line there — under this view, the former could be true, but the latter is not. Salvation is still through Christ, whether you realize it or not. The soldier wasn’t saved through Tash; he was saved through Aslan while following Tash.

The second heresy I play with sometimes is the idea that Christ saved everyone; that Christ made the atoning sacrifice for your sins, whether you believe it or accept it or not. Another fine line, Biblically, the latter half of that statement is true, it’s the first part that’s iffy. But there’s no question that Christ paid the price for all sin; His death on the cross covers every transaction.

One could make the argument that this is true only if it’s always true. If it it possible for me to pay for something, then it hasn’t been paid for. If I can pay the price for my sins, then Christ didn’t pay it.

This, though, is a foundational heresy. Take away the idea that we have to accept Christ, and it shakes a lot of the faith. Interestingly, however, to me, this idea is really not that substantially different from a Calvinist view of the elect. It’s interesting that one is considered almost blasphemously Christ-denying and the other is considered orthodox, when, ultimately, they’re two variations on the same thing — salvation comes not through our choice but through God’s action.

As a pretty non-Calvinist believer, however, I’m challenged by what the scripture has to say on the subject. You can argue that John 3:16 pretty much shoots down this heresy: “… that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish …” seems to be a conditional statement.

At the same time, people have put together lists of scripture that they argue support this view. Me, I’m not ready to go there yet. But it is interesting to ponder.

The final heresy I wanted to write about is not really a formal theological doctrine, but a concept I came across in a play given to me by a pastor’s wife — The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

The play is about an appeal to get Judas out of hell. A trial is put on to weigh evidence that he should be acquitted of the “charges” against him and allowed into heaven; it weighs how guilty Judas was of Christ’s death, how big a part he played, and how much sin was involved in the part he did play. In the end — spoilers ahead — it becomes irrelevant. Judas is not in hell because God has condemned him to be there, but because he cannot reconcile himself to God.

I’ll interject here that the play is consistent with the view that hell is eternal separation from God. And if there’s a place where you can not be in God’s presence, then God isn’t really omnipresent. In the end, Judas is in hell, separated from God, in the immediate manifestational presence of Christ, who is seeking reconciliation. But Judas is so overwhelmed with guilt at his actions that he separates himself from God. Like a cheating husband whose guilt separates him from his wife despite lying next to her, Judas is out of God’s presence because he’s shutting God out.

And it’s not a view that’s hard to imagine. In the next life, a person could have full understanding of what God did for them, what God wanted for them, what they did instead and the extent of that rejection. And without the coverage of the substitutional atonement of Christ, that could be overwhelming. Sufficiently overwhelming that it could cause a person to withdraw from God, even when He doesn’t want that. God doesn’t condemn us to hell, we knowingly choose to be there, because we prefer it.

It makes sense, but I’m not entirely sure it’s scriptural.

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