The question of heaven and hell, and who goes where, is one that has exercised Christians (and many other religions) for centuries. It is one of the key issues facing the evangelical church today. The typical dividing line is between those who read passages of the Bible that clearly state that not everyone will be saved, and those who read passages of the Bible that clearly state that everyone will be saved. Both positions exist. Both cannot be right. But maybe neither are correct. Maybe we’ve created a problem for ourselves by creating an interpretative framework for ourselves that was never intended in the Bible.
One of my friends and leading thinkers and authors in evangelicalism today is Brian McLaren. He has literally written a book on this topic (“The Last Word and the Word After That”). But he has often been accused of “ducking the question” when asked about hell. In a recent blog post, he spelt out his position as clearly as I have ever seen it, and I agree.
Here’s an extract:
… if by Universalist, you mean, “One who believes God perfectly and fully loves the entire universe, and every creature in it,” or if you mean that God will do everything possible to give everyone possible the best possible eternal outcome of their temporal lives, or if you mean that God is not a capricious and vicious torturer who will punish eternally all those who are not “among the elect” or otherwise successful in selecting and following the correct religion … then, yes, of course, sign me up. I am happy (and unafraid) to be counted among your number.
Perhaps I should stop there.
But for those who are interested, here’s why I don’t normally choose that label [of Universalist]. When the conventional question – who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – frames reality, universalism and inclusivism are preferable answers to exclusivism. But when that conventional question frames reality, and when one chooses universalism, we face a temptation to say, “Whew. What a relief! Everything will be OK! There will be a happy ending!” And that relief can lead to a kind of passivity, namely, that if all will be well in the end, then all is well now. But that isn’t the case.
In other words, I don’t think that the heaven-hell question is the one that should frame reality. But I acknowledge that it does frame reality for many Christians (and Muslims), and many of them need a better answer within that frame than the exclusivist one they’ve been given. They simply aren’t ready or able to reframe reality with a different question.
When a different question frames reality – how can God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven – then we have to acknowledge that for billions of God’s creatures, God’s will is not being done on earth as in heaven. Universalism may be good news for them after they die, but right now, they need good news that God cares about the mess they’re in … the mess of injustice, oppression, ignorance, prejudice, hunger, thirst, sickness, loneliness, guilt, shame, addiction, fear, poverty, etc. And that good news can not be in word only. It must come in deed and in truth, as 1 John and James both say (echoing Jesus) … which makes our reply very costly.
I guess this is a case of needing pastoral sensitivity to discern which problem people are facing. For some, the urgent need is to be liberated from a vicious and cruel depiction of God as eternal cosmic torturer. For others, the urgent need is to be liberated from a sense that God may help them after they die, but until then, they’re stuck and sunk. Perhaps what we need is a kind of activist universalism – that affirms God’s saving love for all creation, but doesn’t stop there … but rather sends us into creation to bear and manifest that saving love universally – for friend, stranger, and enemy … for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else … for humans and living creatures and all creation.
That is precisely why I am – and am not – a universalist.