Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

95 Theses, #93: Apokatastasis


To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction

 (Picture: Altar at Iglesia de La Compania, Quito, Ecuador)
Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0

93.) What Will Happen to the Unsaved? - This is perhaps the most controversial of my theses, and I offer it in a spirit of humility. In my experience of evangelicalism, there is unfortunately a bitter hardness against anyone who might suggest a possible softening of the most aggressive interpretations of judgment and hell. This, despite the fact that many of the leading lights of the early church, including the theologians whose insights we still lean on whenever we talk about the nature of Christ or the Trinity, held a remarkably more open and hopeful view of the eternal destiny of humanity, to the point where they were often knocking on the doors of universalism (read these two articles for more on this--"Universalism," and "The Church Fathers on Universalism"). C. S. Lewis, too, one of our most treasured modern sages, clearly had leanings towards an open and inclusive afterlife, as evidenced in both The Great Divorce and The Last Battle. Both of the most ancient traditions of our faith--Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics--hold similar sensibilities. Thus, I offer these thoughts as one humbly bringing back to light the insights of some of our tradition’s greatest theologians—they may not be right, and I fully accept that the more aggressive view of hell that is common in evangelicalism is a possible orthodox interpretation, but I rather hope that Lewis and the church fathers are right. 

I hold the possibility that eventually, within the eternal sequence of the renewed creation, some human beings that were not “Christians” in this life will nevertheless come to respond with a Yes to God. Because he is eternal love, he cannot stop giving chances for repentance. Could God, who is love, ever stop loving someone? Just as there was no limit that could have stopped God from offering redemption in the first place (he went so far as to drink down death on the cross), so there is no limit that will ever stop him from offering it to anyone who will come to him. I do not know how long it would take for someone who had solidified a long, volitional attitude of “No” to God in his earthly life to be turned from that answer. But I believe that many human beings, who are the crown of a creation, crafted to be the very objects of God’s love, beings who were created “very good,” a goodness which not even the blackest sin is capable of effacing, will eventually respond to the God for whom they were made, especially when they can see him in the fullness of his truth and beauty rather than merely the opaque vision now available “through a glass darkly.” I hold that this openness to a continued possibility of repentance in eternity is the only legitimate answer to “the problem of the unevangelized” and to the question of the salvation of those humans who do not have the moral or intellectual capacities to even be able to respond to Christ in this life; to say nothing of all those people who said No to the Gospel during their earthly lives because of the too-often poor, twisted, and unattractive witness of the people of the Kingdom of God. 

While we are on the subject of the potential open-ended salvation of humanity in the world to come, we must answer the objection of whether that invalidates evangelism and, further, whether it’s even worth becoming a Christian here and now. The answer is, “Of course it’s worth becoming a Christian!” We are not simply urging people to punch a ticket to heaven rather than hell when we engage in evangelism; we are pushing forward the restoration of all things in the growth of the Kingdom of God. We are welcoming people into the reign of God, into peace and joy and fulfillment, available even now, beyond what they could have dreamed. We are declaring freedom from bondage, the healing of pain, the building of a world of compassion and love, and the possibility of an experience of eternal love, starting right now. That is worth every possible effort to tell people about that reality, whether or not they get further chances to accept it in the afterlife. Further, by welcoming people here and now into the Kingdom rather than in the afterlife, we give them the possibility of entering into the full benefits of this painful vale of soul-making. We give them the possibility of growing toward those higher virtues which are not available to our development in the absence of pain and suffering. Indeed, Scripture seems to indicate that Christians—those who responded to Christ in their earthly lives and conformed their choices to the pattern of his being—are being trained in an upward course of virtue that will ultimately give them a place of greater authority, perhaps even of a greater possibility of experiencing the full depths of God’s being, in eternity.

In answering the objection that would regard such this idea—the open-ended invitation that extends into the Day of Judgment--as nearly blasphemous, an objection that demands the justice of punishment in response to evil, we must make a few remarks. First, there will be punishment in the new heavens and the new earth—the experience of God’s living reality in all its fullness will be, it must be thought, almost unbearable for those who have chosen to orient themselves toward their own selfish pleasures rather than toward Him—their choices, made in this life, will certainly come with consequences in the next. Second, it is more consonant with the love of God to view his justice as restorative justice than merely retributive justice. Retribution does no good to anyone, neither the giver nor the receiver, and no redeemed person in heaven, even if they had been the innocent sufferer of an injustice, could look with satisfaction or pleasure on the misery of another being’s pain. Third, it seems to me that the sort of judgment we really want for truly evil people like Hitler is not simply the exercise of pain on an unrepentant will. What goodness or satisfaction comes from pummeling someone who obstinately refuses to repent, who still looks with pleasure on his past crimes? No, what we want more than the pain of such people is for them to truly understand what they have done. We would want Hitler to come awake to the true reality of his crimes in light of God’s reality and in an empathic sensibility to the pain of his innocent victims. We want to see confession and repentance, even in our own broken systems of human justice. I tend to think that is what we will see in heaven—we will see such beings come to “know fully.” Whether that will be an instantaneous epiphany in the fully-revealed light of God’s love, or whether a long drawn-out process of experiencing the misery of God’s love in the presence of their self-love, I don’t know. But I think that will be much more satisfying to justice than any eternal beatdown of unrepentant beings who continue to see themselves as the captains of their souls.

Again, these are simply hopeward musings. As a pastor, I have never actually taught this as a doctrinal position in church. But it is a hopeward set of musings that was shared by many of the early church fathers, many of the greatest mystics of the Christian tradition, and perhaps (if “all” actually means “all”) by the Apostle Paul himself.

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