Conversations on hell

One night after I had done a lot of reading about the concept of Universal Salvation, I decided I want to discuss the topic at this evening group I go to. About eight or so people in this group. The leader is always telling us we should feel free to bring up any topic we like. Nothing is sacred in this group. His name is Colin.So I ask the group, especially Colin, if I can discuss this topic I have been thinking about. Without telling him the topic.

‘Absolutely,’ says Colin, gesturing with his hands.

‘It is a controversial topic,’ I say.

The interest of the others is quickened, and Colin is not perturbed.

No, go ahead, that is what this group is for,’ he reiterates.

I start to feel nervous. ‘I mean it is quite an argumentative topic. It may cause dissension.’

But their curiousity is up now. ‘Please go ahead,’ several chip in.

I pause. ‘Okay, but I will keep it short, and we will just look at a few verses in the Bible to lay out the thing.’

Colin is very relaxed, this is what he is hoping this little group will do, feel free to discuss anything.

‘The topic is one that is called universal salvation. Now I’m not saying it is true now, I am merely saying I have been looking at it for a while, and it is a very interesting one.’

I can’t swear it, but I feel a stiff silence has suddenly descended. Could be just me. I push on in the still atmosphere. ‘I am going to get several of you to read verses out of the Bible that tell us how everyone in the world ends up being saved by the work of Christ. Everyone.’

‘Sandy, you first, your verse is Isaiah 45:22.’

I give everyone in the group one of the following verses to read.

Isaiah 45:22
“Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
my mouth has uttered in all integrity
a word that will not be revoked:
Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.

I tell people to take notice of words like ‘every’ or ‘all.’

John 12:32. Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

1 Corinthians 15:22. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Phillipians 2:10. that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

1 Timothy 4:10. (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.

The silence is deafening as they finish reading their verses. I am aware of this, but force myself to bring my piece to a close. ‘We’ve only looked at a few of these verses, but they do seem to suggest that all men will be saved don’t they? Like I mean that eventually the love of God through Jesus is so great that it will totally overcome evil. And the devil gets nobody in the end.’

‘Any thoughts on this,’ I ask.

The floodgates immediately open. From Colin. ‘This is a classical mistake of taking verses out of context. If you look at verses like this without reading the context they are placed in, then this is how this fallacious type of thinking can emerge.’

Bryan, you silly fool, I tell myself. You should know better.

Bill chimes in from the other side of the room. Bill loves controversy. ‘Why, what has Bryan said that is wrong? He just read some verses out, and tried to start a discussion. Now we are getting told at the outset he is wrong without even examining the topic.’

Colin is in full flight. ‘I had to deal with this sort of thing at Bible college. These modern professors with all their liberal theology. The Bible is very clear on the fact that there is a heaven and a hell, and that the unsaved are going to hell unless they repent. I will not allow this group to be exposed to such heresy as is being suggested here.’

Oh boy, oh boy, I lean back in my chair. Should have shut up son, should have shut up. Keep your opinions to yourself.

But Bill is at his throat like a tiger. His blood is up. ‘Look, not five minutes ago, you were telling us that anything could be discussed here, and now an interesting topic comes up. Suddenly it is out of bounds. Let me ask you this. Are you saying that if a baby is born to unsaved parents, and then dies before it reaches the age of understanding, that baby will go to hell? Is that what you are saying?’

Colin pauses. He is trapped. But he commits. Courageously. ‘Yes.’

Bill explodes. ‘You may be entitled to your opinion, and I will be entitled to mine. I cannot believe that a God of love would do that.’

I hardly say a word for the rest of the evening. But tempers flare up and down. Eventually the host phones the Pastor for an opinion. I’m thinking, well this is Christendom yesterday and today. You want an authoritative answer, ask the clergy.

He comes back with his answer. ‘Peter says it is another of those AFLs. Awaiting Further Light.’

Oh, you religiously correct animal Peter, I murmur to myself, unsure whether I admire or despise his one liner.

I try it again. I want to discuss this topic. I want it public. I am a guest at a large house, sitting with the hostess, and a younger man. He is leading an evangelical team. We loosen up awhile, then I broach the topic.

He leans back. The lean contains the feel that he has an intelligent person in front of him, that he should be calm here, and lead me through the mire of strange opinions I have. All that in one lean. The brain is marvelous isn’t it, sensing these attitudes which may or may not be correct, but seem to fit the occasion.

‘I can understand how you feel on this one Bryan.’

Whoa now, that’s my line. This guy has been Dale Carnegied too. Watch it.

‘I think none of us would be human if we didn’t ask that question of ourselves. None of us want our neighbours or friends to go to hell.’

Oh, that is good. Laying out the baited lines, agreeing with me. He must pounce soon.

‘You know Paul never mentions the word hell once’, I inform him.

‘Correct. That’s not where the problem is. It’s Jesus who talks about hell a lot.’

‘True, but some commentators feel he is talking about a hell on earth that people lead themselves into.’

‘I concede that, but we need to look at the general breadth of understanding of the church over the centuries. The church, and theologians in general, have taken the topic seriously and believe that the Bible does point towards a distinct hell.’

I’m going to get this joker. Didn’t think it would be so easy though. I expected better from him.

‘Surely just because the majority of theologians believe in it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be examined again. Plenty of theologians, and the church in general, were against women voting.’

I can’t resist being the funny guy here. In front of my wonderful female host. ‘Of course, that judgement does give them some credibility doesn’t it?’

Polite laughter, but my opposite sees the comment as flight rather than fight. He won’t let go.

‘Yes but you are left with an interesting question then. Why should people commit to Christ if they are going to heaven anyway?’

Gotcha. I’m starting to lose interest already in this conversation. Why doesn’t he read Romans chapter six where that exact question was asked two thousand years ago.

‘If hell is the only reason people should come to Jesus, then we are in a pretty bad state aren’t we?’

He knows he has overstepped, and takes flight again himself.

‘It is a very difficult one for us all Bryan. Take my parents. We have talked with them on numerous occasions about the Lord, but they have not made a decision to follow him. I dearly love my parents and do not want them to go to hell.’

I push him more. ‘We are talking here about a God of love. More love than we could ever understand. A supreme being, bigger than this universe, composed of love. Can you imagine him taking your parents, who loved you, did some good things, did some bad things, lived ordinary lives for seventy years, and then throwing them into a fiery pit for one hundred years. No, one thousand years. No, one million years. No, forever.’

‘I can’t claim to understand that Bryan. That is where faith comes in. I don’t know everything that lies behind the decision making of God. I just have to believe that his action for my parents will be based on love, even though it doesn’t seem like it to me.’

Well, that was honest even if it did sound screwy.

He engages me closer now. ‘You wouldn’t truly be a loving Christian if you didn’t ask these questions Bryan. Every believer would ask the same questions. But the Bible is plain about it.’

He is coming in for the kill.

‘Let’s pray before we get going. Do you mind if I commit us to the Lord?’

‘No, go ahead,’ I say, already feeling there is a manipulating prayer coming, remembering when I was younger and had discussed religion with the Mormons at the door, and they, too, asked if they could close in prayer.

‘Lord, each of us has many questions about how you work, and the nature of heaven and hell. There are many things that are quite difficult for us to understand, quite difficult. I know that I do not have all the answers. We also have friends and families that we love dearly and do not want to see descend into the pit. We pray that we will be fervent and faithful in witnessing to these loved ones, and we ask your forebearance with them. And also with us.

I would like to commit my brother Bryan, with his questions, to you. I pray that you would guide him into a clear understanding about these matters, that you would enable him to see your plan for mankind. We commit ourselves to you. In Jesus name, Amen.’

There is no need to extend the conversation. Why could he not analyse his own words? That if God works in Christians lives, and Christians cannot understand how God can chuck innocents into hell, perhaps God is telling them something of his nature?

But he was such a nice young man. He was so genuine.

I am talking with a lady now. She has been married and divorced twice. Can’t seem to make it in relationships. And she knows why. When she was a young child, she was sexually abused for three years by one of the elders of her conservative church. She had no-one to talk to, nobody to open up to. The situation was out of her control. Her compensation in later life is to create controlled situations for her social and relational life.

She knows she does it, but cannot change. Her marriages fail due to her attempts to manipulate controlling situations. Counselling and indepth therapy have revealed all this to her. But it is too deep to alter.

She looks forward to the rest of her life in loneliness. Her hackles rise when she hears of acts of love being performed by Christians. There is a block against the church.

Who can blame her?

Who can say to her, ‘well, it doesn’t matter, you should turn to Jesus despite these experiences.’

Who could condemn her to an eternity in a fiery pit for circumstances like this? She is enduring a version of hell on earth as it is.

Here is an older man listening to me. He is well respected nationwide as an adviser to young leaders in the church. I hardly know him, but am sharing my deepest feelings with him. He listens. Without comment. He is a loving man. He empathises with me. I can feel his strength. Here is a man who would always listen, who would weep with you.

Later that evening we talk again, on more general topics in a group now. One of us asks him how he feels about Moslems. He works in Islamic countries sometimes.

‘There is something about their religion that is disturbing, the violence. I simply cannot see how religion can lead anyone to do some of the things the Taliban do. Incredible cruelty.’

My attitude changes from that morning. ‘Sounds a bit like the Christians during the Crusades,’ I venture.

‘Oh, you’re right, there are many things that we in the church have to answer for. Our history is nothing to be proud of, you can be sure of that.’

I press on again. ‘In fact it must be pretty hard for some people to come to Christ, what with all the garbage the church has thrown up over the centuries. All the divisions.’

The word division reminds him of a story. ‘You know, the other day I got a call from a colleague who asked me to speak at a rally with John Brownley. Thing is, John once said from a stage in front of five thousand young people that he would never be seen on the same platform as someone from the Uniting Church.’

He laughs at this. ‘Anyway, old John has changed. Joins us at the ecumenical meetings. We have Anglicans, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Baptists and other denominations there. Even Catholics. Times have changed.’

I lean back in despair. Here is a respected leader, an advisor to up and comers nationwide, congratulating himself that he meets with Catholics these days. That progress is indeed being made. The vast irrelevance of denominational settings, of religion itself, overwhelms me temporarily. Is this where we are at? The world has more civil wars than ever, millions still starve, Aids is rampant in Africa, but well, you know, I’ve got some Catholic friends. God must be pleased with that sort of momentum.

But he is nice.

He is so nice. I can’t even blame him for his conservatism. He has suffered the non-thought of church committees, of religious conferences, of tentative conversations where niceness prevails, where the boat can only be rocked a little, where fiery young man are politely listened to, knowing they will eventually come down to earth and be doormen, handing out hymnbooks on Sundays.

On my wall is a painting by Rembrandt – Jeremiah lamenting the fall of Jerusalem. It was unthinkable in his day, as the demise of the institutional church is today. Or is it?