I’ve been thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. You know, the kinds that aren’t abstract, are doable, relatable, and reflect changes I’ve considered making but never followed through with or dared to start in the first place. With three or four days left until the official start of the New Year, today is as good a day as any to take a whack at my list.
I believe 2023 will be the year I stop believing (or giving lip service to) in a place called “Hell.”
After much consideration, I’m not sure I’ve ever believed in a literal “Hell .” In high school I read Dante. After living in Russia for two years, I started to think that if there is a Hell, it is as he described: cold and frozen. It’s also somewhere east of the Urals. I saw the cartoons; Bugs Bunny ended up there regularly but always managed to make it back to this side of eternity. I never gave it much thought where bad people went they died. As a child, I suppose, I thought people simply disappeared. I had this image, shaped by the first Superman movie, of villains floating perpetually in space, separated from God and surrounded by total darkness. If there was a Hell, that’s what I pictured it to be. I didn’t know to call this idea “Hell” but that’s what I thought happened to bad people when they died.
I grew up middle class in the middle of North Carolina in the mid-1980 in a mainline United Methodist Church. I am as middle as they come. We were there every time the church door was open. For the life of me, I can’t remember (even in the one revival I recall being held in our congregation) anything said about Heaven or Hell, and if we didn’t change our ways or accept a Jesus on specific terms, we’d end up in Hell. I didn’t drink or party like some kids. So my memory is pretty good. The youth group was fun, and I can’t recollect any fundamentalist or evangelical-style brainwashing. We weren’t a cult or a cult trying to pass as a church. I grew up in what I thought was a typical United Methodist Church. I only met people with radically different religious experiences once I went to divinity school. I thought everyone must have grown up in a bland, centrist church like mine. One of the reasons I wanted to become a minister is that I thought Methodists could spice things up a bit. I didn’t want to bring tent meetings back to Methodism, but we could be much more engaging. I found the Bible thrilling. It was full of great stories, and we were doing a pretty dull job presenting the “greatest story ever told.”
I remember one occasion when I was probably in middle school or had just started high school, and I asked our pastor about Judas. It was after a Maundy Thursday service.
I wanted to know, “If it was in the divine plan for Jesus to die and be betrayed by Jesus, why were we so hard on Judas?” He didn’t have an answer for me. I still have that question. That’s probably about as close as I came to questioning Heaven, hell, and universalism (a word I’d never hear until I went to college). I wanted to know about Judas’ role in the crucifixion. If Judas was integral to the plan, how could we damn him to Hell? Wouldn’t Jesus, who forgave everybody, forgive him too, especially if Jesus needed him at a cosmic level? His eyes glazed over.
He told me to go home and pray about it.
I’ve been praying about it for over thirty years now. And you know what; I think Judas was forgiven.
I can’t point to one single event, encounter, verse, book, or theologian which pushed me to the universal side. It’s probably rooted in my service as a pastor for over twenty years. I know I was well down the path toward universalism long before I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Reading Bell was like going to group therapy; I realized there were other people like me, and I’d found a safe space to share my feelings, even if it was only within the pages of a book.
I keep coming back to scriptures, both from Paul: Romans 8:37-39 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4. When Paul says in Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things, to come, nor powers, no height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe him with every fiber of my being. Paul says nothing will separate us from God’s love. How that works, I am still determining. I cannot read that passage and think the God who wants to overcome anything and everything in all creation to be with those he created would let an idea, yes, an idea, like “Hell,” get in the way.
Paul opens his second letter to Timothy with a call to prayer, “I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people-for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This and good and pleases God our Savior who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”
God wants everyone to be saved. That’s Paul speaking, not Richard. Why would God create a system then set the rules in opposition? Why would God want something for everyone then prevent God from obtaining it? Why would God not get what God wants? I thought nothing separated us from God’s love, yet if “Hell” exists, God denies God’s own will for humanity. Is God God if God is constantly overruling his own will? Why should anyone be left behind if God is as powerful as we proclaim? I am no longer content with the idea that God cannot or will not accomplish God’s desires for the reconciliation of all creation.
While serving in Northern Ireland a few years ago, I preached during a Holy Week service in Londonderry. A couple of days after my sermon, the circuit superintendent invited me for tea. He’d heard concerns about my sermon; some in the congregation had picked up “universalist themes .” I am trying to remember what I was preaching, but it had nothing to do with universalism. It was one of the bread of life texts from John. Nowhere in my mind did the idea of universalism occur when preparing the sermon. Yet, here, publicly, for the first time, my superintendent questioned me about being a universalist. He didn’t ask if I was a universalist. Instead, he asked, was that what I intended to say, and I answered truthfully, “no, I didn’t.” Looking back on that sermon in 2014, I guess I accidently beamed universalism. To be honest, I was a little mad at myself. The only time I’ve been officially called out by anyone in the church hierarchy for being a universalist and I did it unintentionally. I wish I had known that’s what I was about to do. I’d have made a much bigger statement: Protestants and Catholics will all go to Heaven.
I believe God wills and desires the salvation of all. I guess that makes me a universalist.
No one can prove Heaven exists. You also can’t empirically prove Hell exists, though I’d expect some Southwest airlines customers could make a good argument for the latter. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and James Tabor have described how both ideas developed over time through interpreting scripture, literature (Dante did more to shape our vision of Hell than anything in the Bible), and western history. It takes faith to believe in God. How much more faith does it take to believe in a God who wants to torture those who that same God created? (More faith than I’ve ever had in a God of love.) I don’t have faith in a God of cruelty and torture. I do not have enough faith to believe in a God that loves enough to create us and then, if we screw up bad enough, kills us because our God-given free will made us irredeemable. I’ve never had that faith. I don’t want it. You do you. It doesn’t work for me. I’ll keep my faith in the God of Love, and we’ll work it out in the end.
This began as a discussion of New Year’s Resolutions. I want to lose both theological and physical baggage. I think it’s time to bundle up and go for a walk. See you outside!