The Greatest Love

John 15:13 [1]

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.”

Author:
Steven HAuse
A

t a young age, I had asked God for forgiveness and had believed in Jesus for my salvation—although, of course, I did not understand much of the theology at the time. I knew Jesus loved me and I wanted to love Jesus back. My parents were missionaries working in South America and my life was saturated with biblical stories, Christian music, and talk of God.

As I grew up attending a conservative evangelical church and a conservative evangelical school, I was constantly taught about the love of God, learned lessons about the importance of the Bible, and heard sermons about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. However, what was also preached—and often seen as an essential doctrine—was the idea that anyone who did not consciously accept Christ as Lord and Savior during this earthly life was going to suffer eternal conscious torment in hell as a punishment for sin. According to this common understanding of humanity’s fallen condition, even one selfish act, a single sin, against the eternal and righteous God merits unending suffering.

In elementary school, the logic of damnation was not something I thought about often, but I was glad that my friends and I were not bound for everlasting misery. However, as I got older, the problem of how to think about those who die without ever hearing of Jesus became more and more prominent in my mind. My friends and I would talk about hypothetical situations: a man alone on an island with no missionary or Bible to learn from, people who die very young, people with certain mental conditions that bar them from comprehending a presentation of the Gospel.

“Surely our loving God accepts whatever faith is genuinely given, however confused it may be by the various difficult circumstances people find themselves in,” I thought to myself (though in different words, I’m sure). As I talked with people more and read more on the subject, it turned out not to be as common a position among evangelical Christians as I had imagined it might be. I was glad, though, to read a number of examples from the great Anglican author C.S. Lewis that propose something along the same lines.

My acceptance of this position, commonly called “inclusivism” in Christian theology, was not so much a change in belief as a clarification of something I already tacitly held to, but it did at times make me feel a bit like an outsider in conservative Christian circles.

But, even though this concept helped me to understand more about the love of God for every single person, it did not resolve the issue of eternal suffering. How could God, if he truly loved each person, allow some to suffer without end—even if they had blatantly rejected him? I decided to read more on the topic of hell itself.

C.S. Lewis, again, had answers to these kinds of questions.

In Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce,” the narrator recounts a dream where he explores heaven and hell and comes to see that, although God desires for all people to join him in heaven, they are allowed to continually reject his gracious offer. In this understanding of things, God does not want to force anyone into his loving presence, and this means allowing some to reject him and live in misery, if this is what they choose. In other words, God, out of his great love, allows for the freedom to make tragic choices forever.

I found this explanation quite compelling, but it only made sense to me if there was an allowance for post-mortem repentance. It only made sense if people could still turn to God after their earthly deaths. The Protestantism I grew up in made no room for something resembling the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and I did not find many verses in the Bible that seemed to support the idea of further opportunities for repentance and change after death.

After some time, I came to believe in “annihilationism,” an understanding of hell as a temporary conscious state of pain that ends in the total non-existence of the person being punished. There were so many Bible verses that talked about “death” and “destruction” as consequences of rejecting God, but only a few fairly ambiguous texts that seemed to point to eternal conscious torment. I could see no strong reason to read “death” or “destruction” differently from how we often use those terms in daily conversation—meaning, being “annihilated” or “no longer existent.” The verses about “darkness” and “fire” also seemed in line with this idea.

As I kept reading and exploring theology, I continually came back to the vital concept that “God is love” and that “love” is best understood as being willing to sacrifice for the good of others, even those who are violently and vehemently opposed to you. Jesus suffering on the cross out of love for everyone in the world, even for the sake of those who physically whipped him, spat on him, and hung him there, is a powerful revelation of this kind of love. He even said, “Father, forgive them” while he was dying in horrible pain!

More and more, I came to accept the idea that each thing God does is an act of love. Every act of God is based in a loving motive. So, while I believed annihilationism was a more merciful alternative than the traditional understanding of hell, I still could not understand how hell itself could be consistently understood as an act of love. Why would God give up on people after the only 80 or so years people often live in this confusing world, with its various ambiguities, difficulties, and pains? What was the logical necessity, moral regulation, or metaphysical restriction that made God draw the line for redemption at the point of somatic death? I didn’t see any good explanation, so I just thought of it as a mystery. I didn’t want to make a significant theological shift without scriptural support.

Gladly, the scriptural support for a more hopeful view is actually there. While I had originally felt that verses explicitly demonstrating the possibility of personal repentance after death were necessary to make sense of hell as an act of love [2], I became convinced that there were many verses that pointed to the idea of post-mortem reconciliation without explaining it in those terms. These verses, however, display a picture much grander than a simple “possibility” for reunion with God after death. They direct us to a sure endpoint for suffering, where all people will be made alive in Christ, everyone will worship the Lord together, and God will be “all in all” (not “some in some” or “most in most,” or even “most in all” or “all in most”—“ALL in ALL”).

I could see no possibility for every tear to be wiped away in the new Jerusalem if people were eternally suffering outside of the city gates or had passed out of existence, gone and never seen again. I believe that if we were to come to love every person as expansively and deeply as God does (and Jesus commands us to do this difficult task), we would find it impossible to enjoy eternity if some people were lost forever.

This is no rejection of hell, however. It is only a rejection of eternal tragedy. I still think that the many annihilationist arguments I have read over the years make some strong points:

For example, a temporary sin cannot merit eternal conscious torment. Even in the Old Testament there are different punishments for different crimes, implying differences in degrees of evil. The consequence for wrongdoing must be proportionate to the deed that was done. This logic still makes sense in the concept of justice as understood by many Christian Universalists. The difference, however, is that these punishments are ultimately restorative in the universalist understanding of things. They are not simply an infliction of retributive suffering before annihilation. God’s “wrath” is still an aspect of his love, even if it is experienced as quite painful. It is loving because it leads to healing (no matter how long this process takes).

Another example of a common understanding between annihilationism and universalism is in their concepts of “death” and “destruction” in hell. In both schools of thought, these processes lead to completion. They do not carry on without end. Death kills. Destruction destroys. Of course, in annihilationism, death takes everything—the entire person—and leaves no trace except, perhaps, rising smoke and memories of the person who once was. In universalism, if someone suffers the death and destruction of hell, it is their “flesh” and “old self” (their false self, sinful desires and corruptions) that are eventually and completely done away with. Through the work of the refiner’s fire, they “die” to what they have to die to, in order to be made new.  

And through this process, freedom is not suppressed or tampered with. It is restored. Only in finally becoming what we were made to be can we be fully free. I think C.S. Lewis’ picture of hell in “The Great Divorce” is quite accurate in many ways, but there will be a Great Reunion—a time when everyone will have finally been freely reconciled with God and with each other. This does not explain away all the horrible suffering and confusion plaguing the world now, but it can give us comfort in the big picture of God’s glorious plan for the universe. We can find solace in the fact that God loves us, has incredible plans for us, and knows us better than we even know ourselves.

As Thomas Talbott wrote,

“If supreme power lies on the side of supreme love, then none of us, whether Christian, Muslim, or even atheist, need fear that the One who loved us into existence in the first place might wantonly abandon us in the end. Nor need we worry that an honest mistake in abstract theology will somehow jeopardize our future. For if a perfectly loving Creator does exist, then he knows us from the inside out far better than we know ourselves; he appreciates the ambiguities, the confusions, and the perplexities we face far better than we do; and he understands the historical and cultural factors that shape our beliefs better than any historian does. Such a Creator—so loving, intimate, and wise—would know how to work with each of us in infinitely complex ways, how to shatter our illusions and transform our thinking when necessary, and how best to reveal himself to us in the end" (The Inescapable Love of God, chapter 13). [3]

[1] In Matthew 26:50, Jesus even calls Judas (the betrayer) his friend. I do not think he meant it sarcastically. I think, from the perspective of Jesus, we are all friends. However, if we are in rebellion against God, we act towards him like enemies (Romans 5:10). So, Christ laid down his life for all people, whether they are acting like friends toward him right now or not.

[2] 1 Peter 3:19-20 seems to talk about Jesus descending in spirit to preach to unrepentant people who had died in the days of Noah, but it is a notoriously unclear passage.

[3] While Thomas Talbott has many great thoughts on Christian Universalism, the book that convinced me the most thoroughly was “That All Shall Be Saved” by David Bentley Hart. His arguments are very thorough and are anchored in a God exemplified by love.

Steven HAuse

Steven HAuse is an English language teacher who has lived and taught in Bolivia, Spain, and Japan. He loves learning more about different cultures, exploring theological topics, and watching all kinds of great movies.