Reprinted from Leben 12
During the final years of our bookstore, a number of popular books were released about hell—several basing their authenticity on visions God had supposedly given the authors himself, including the most ghastly depictions of the sufferings of unbelievers.
The sad frustration to see my own and George MacDonald’s books languishing on shelves, gathering dust and going out of print one after another, while many of these zoomed to the top of best seller lists, was enormous. What sort of appetite in the Christian mind, I wondered, were these books feeding—written in juvenile fashion, luring to the surface what I can only call a base lust for horror and suffering? What could account for their widespread appeal, the feverish enthusiasm (wide-eyed, excited, anxious to pass them out like candy…Have you read this!) to read about the future torments of the wicked? They actually enjoyed it!
Having committed my professional writing life to the principle that sound, deep, challenging, thought-provoking fiction should and could find a home both in the marketplace and in today’s church, I have spent the last thirty years analyzing the quality and integrity of contemporary Christian writing—both in style and content. I have to admit that it is very discouraging continually to swim upstream against an overwhelming tide of mediocrity and doctrinal cliché. Place a George MacDonald book and one of these contemporary hell-vision books side by side in any Christian bookstore, and 99 out of 100 people will pick up the book on hell.
As we come to an end of this year’s examination of topics related to universal reconciliation, I think it is important to try to assess why these trends exist. What does the current fascination with hell (as one particular factor in what I would submit is a much larger problem) tell us? Something more far-reaching is at stake than merely what books sell in Christian bookstores. If we can look into this quandary with seeing spiritual eyes, it may reveal some very telling insights about why the orthodox doctrine of a Dante-hell has found such fruitful soil in the Christian church.
Disbelief or hope?
I can find in my brain only two legitimate responses on the part of serious, thinking, sensitive, scripturally astute Christians to the doctrine of punitive eternal hell—outright disbelief or an uncertain hope in something more.
Many, of course, will disagree with the first conclusion. But right or wrong, a rejection of the orthodox view is a legitimate conclusion for a thinking individual to draw.
The second and, in my view, only alternative response, it seems to me, is the “hope” that the doctrine is untrue, but, if it is, weeping grief.
I can thus respect those on both sides of this scriptural conundrum who say either: “I cannot bring myself to believe it is true.” Or: “I hope with all my heart that God has in his power to save all men…but if some are indeed doomed to an eternity in hell, then may God be merciful to us, for we are all sinners together.” I see no other options.
Indeed, my own perspective of what I call an open-minded “neutrality” (though many will not interpret many of my words as neutral) is not so very much different: I hope universal reconciliation is true, but whatever is in God’s heart to accomplish, I trust him more than I trust in any doctrine that attempts to explain his ways.
But the third alternative—eager and enthusiastic belief in a tormenting punitive hell—I find a complete perversion, an embarrassment at the heart of the church, an affront to all Jesus taught about his Father. If one feels compelled to believe in the orthodox position, it should be with tears in the eyes. It should be a sad, regretful belief, certainly not an enthusiastic one. The fascination with a Jonathan Edwards perspective of hell’s torments that I have witnessed among evangelical Christians (curiously, I have seen it nowhere else in the church) indicates, to my thinking, something very, very wrong. All men and women should hope in universal salvation. No Christian can be excused for wanting eternal punishment to remain an intrinsic element of his or her creed.
I do not know what eternity will bring, either for believers or unbelievers. None of us know. But I know what I hope. And I trust God.
Not to hope for universal salvation is to deny the work of Jesus Christ himself.
The flesh relishes in hell
It must sadly be admitted, however, that the large percentage of evangelical Christians do not hope for universal salvation. Indeed, they are afraid to hope for it, and at the same time seem to feel a gleeful righteousness in envisioning the miseries of the lost.
I find this delight ugly, perverted, and indicative of a serious cancer in the church.
I think we must ask why this fascination exists. Why do the very people who have been commissioned to take the good news of Fatherhood into the world, reject the high and perfect and infinitely forgiving Fatherhood of God?
The answer lies in each of our hearts. The flesh relishes in vengeance. We do not want to relinquish belief in hell. We do not want to let it die away into a grander belief in an utterly loving God whose final victory will be gloriously complete. To do so requires relinquishing the final vestige of unforgiveness within ourselves. And for some reason, we resist—we don’t want to forgive completely. We enjoy unforgiveness. Fanning the flames of hell’s fire enables us to nurture our own sin nature under the guise of correct doctrine.
The story is told of one of George MacDonald’s Calvinist in-laws who vowed that she could never lie comfortable in bed at night if she did not believe in hellfire and everlasting pains for the unrepentant.
Jonathan Edwards said, “The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.”
We should recoil at the very thought of an everlasting, God-designed torment—recoil because it is a blasphemy against the character of God. Our response should be as Moses’, “No, Lord, it is not worthy of you!” With the prophet Amos, we should say, “Sovereign Lord, forgive!… Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop!”
These old men of God had the courage to doubt what was said of God that was unworthy of his love. But we don’t. We do just the opposite. With Jonathan Edwards, there are those who actually delight in it. And that ought to disgust us.
We spiritualize this latent vengeance of the old man by directing these unconverted corners of self at impersonal “evil,” or at Satan himself. We spiritualize it with platitudes about “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” But the truth is, we don’t love the sinner near as much as we claim to hate the sin. Our theology doesn’t require us to forgive everything. So unforgiveness itself remains. And therein is the lethal obstruction to Christlikeness.
What is the spirit behind our fascination with everlasting torment? Unbelievably, why do Christians seemingly delight in it more than non-Christians? Why do we want to cling to our belief in an everlasting torment?
Because at a foundational human level it appeals to the self-righteousness which resides in the heart of every man and every woman.
Our very doctrines of salvation allow “the elect” to cherish the illusion (however deeply hidden from the eyes of the conscious self) that they are more spiritually responsive than others of our kind.
Whatever we say to the contrary, Christians feel a certain meritorious virtue in their salvation. They pay lip service to the truth that it comes from no merit of their own. But the unspoken corollary is that there is something noble in having chosen to accept that salvation. As has been said of the Jews, we think of ourselves as the “chosen” people.
Self-righteousness, however, is self-delusionary and self-blinding. Those most in need of apprehending its subtleties are least likely to perceive them.
About our delight in hell, George MacDonald asks: “Why do we feel this satisfaction? Because we hate wrong, but, not being righteous ourselves, we more or less hate the wronger as well as his wrong. Hence, we are not only righteously pleased to behold the law’s disapproval proclaimed in his punishment, but unrighteously pleased with his suffering, because of the impact upon us of his wrong. In this way the inborn justice of our nature passes over to evil.” (Justice)
God’s perfect forgiveness
In only one place in Scripture are we commanded to be perfect. Jesus gives the command, not in reference to righteousness, but in reference to forgiveness of our enemies. God’s perfect, complete, infinite forgiveness is our example of what the perfection of God is, and what forgiveness is to be. Jesus says that we are to be perfect in the same way—perfect in forgiveness, because God is perfect in forgiveness.
Does humanity’s latent fleshly vengeance explain why Christians so thoroughly miss the astounding point of the last eleven verses of Matthew 5? Vengeance, revenge, and punishment, says the Son of God, are things of the past. Forgiveness must now be total and complete.
The Father’s forgiveness covers all mankind just as do the sun and the rain—they encompass everybody. No one is excluded. The words could not be more clear. Jesus simply says, the Father forgives all. By such forgiveness will our own sonship be measured. The love and forgiveness of the Father extends to the good and the evil! So must ours.
The message of Matthew 5:44-45 is unmistakable—God’s forgiveness ex-tends to all. Not mere potential forgiveness. Not mere forgiveness that is available if only man will receive it. Not mere forgiveness which God offers but which most reject.
Our theologies have manufactured such limitations to constrict God’s forgiveness. But those limitations do not originate in Scripture. Jesus was no Calvinist who constantly limited the extent of God’s love and forgiveness. (Can there be any more odious expression of our faith than the “limited atonement” of Calvinism’s TULIP belief system? The very word is an affront to God’s omnipotence, and a contradiction at the heart of God’s character.)
The astounding point of the passage is that God forgives even his enemies perfectly. Those who hate him, those who reject him, those who curse him. God forgives them all…and he forgives them perfectly. Then the command of conclusion: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Is it possible that there will remain souls unforgiven to all eternity, when God’s is a perfect forgiveness? Is it a perfect forgiveness which merely offers forgiveness, but finds that forgiveness rejected? Such a one-way forgiveness might be many things, but it hardly seems fitting to call it a perfect forgiveness.
Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
How far are we willing to forgive?
So then comes the question that probes yet deeper: How far are we willing to carry obedience to that command?
Laying doctrine aside, in quiet prayerfulness, how would we respond if the Lord said, “I want you to forgive Satan for the evil he has caused in the world. I want you to forgive him, because I may someday want to save him too.”
Do we shrink at the very thought? Does such a suggestion that challenges the doctrinal tradition of the elders anger some readers? “What…forgive Satan? Never!”
Perhaps such will never be required of us. I propose it only as an exercise to uncover our own attitude toward infinite forgiveness. How far are we willing to forgive? If the Lord told me to forgive Satan, I hope I would fall on my knees and ask his help, not argue about the theological implications of the command.
God would have us put all hatred to death completely except our hatred of lingering evil within our own selves.
Are such questions too huge? Admittedly they peer into regions far beyond the vision of our natural eyes. But am I willing?
Do I want to be fully the son of a perfect Father?
The great equilizer
If God’s victory over sin will be a triumph without reservation, distinction, or qualification, if indeed mankind is one…then the basis for pride is dead altogether.
For with God’s complete victory comes death of self, death of anger, death of vengeance—the complete laying down of any hope for thinking oneself more worthy than anyone else.
“He causes his sun to rise…he sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
He wants us to reach for perfection in ourselves, by claiming it also in our ideal view of his own divine and perfect Fatherhood!
With Jesus, can we lay claim to the perfect Fatherhood of God? Can we say with Jesus, laying aside once and for all the limited atonements of man’s theologies, “God, you are perfect in forgiveness. Give me your mind and heart.”
Are we willing to forgive… infinitely, whomever and to whatever heights and depths that forgiveness takes us?
Are we willing to lay down every vestige of anger and unforgiveness, all vengeance from within the hidden places of our hearts? Are we willing to forgive…all?
Are we willing to undergo the fires of purification ourselves, that all the dross of self and the impurities of the flesh may be burned out of us forever, that we may reflect the image and character of the Father’s perfect Son?
Let us then fall on our faces before the Father and beg him to send the fire of his purifying love into the uttermost depths of our own hearts and minds and souls!
Let us then rise and look upon his face, and then let us declare to the world that we have a Father who loves to the uttermost, and who will love us until we are all his children!