Since my Uncle Larry died on Thursday I have been finding myself in an abnormal amount of conversations about death, hell, heaven and the afterlife. My Uncle Doug is a pastor in Connecticut, has been at the same church for 22 years and it all started with him. After seeing my hesitancy to the idea that Uncle Larry might be in hell, he asked me a few days ago. “So I’m curious Nathan, what do you believe in when it comes to death.” Being faced with the reality of my Uncle that I found myself constantly in interaction with and on very close terms, I had to have some sort of understanding. Five years of questioning and confusion lead me to simple say “well in the end I believe that God’s grace is bigger than any sort of judgment (in the punishment sense of the word that we like to attribute to it).” I just left it at that. Really what else can I say? Five years ago I would have been devastated because I would have been convinced that my Uncle Larry was now being eternally tormented in hell.
I’ve been warned over and over again not to base my beliefs on negatives, but sometimes I just can’t get away from it and other times it helps me understand a lot better what I do believe. So here are some things that I am either having a hard time believing or don’t believe at all (I won’t tell you which one is which cause it’ll be too easy to call me a heretic.)
1. I don’t believe hell is a place of eternal torment, or a place that those that don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour go because they eternally rejected God.
2. I don’t believe that judgment refers to punishment.
3. I don’t believe that anyone (even Hitler) being subjected to eternal separation from God is an accurate view on grace, mercy or judgment.
4. I don’t believe salvation is limited to just going to heaven when you die. In fact I’m starting to think it has very little to do with that.
5. I don’t believe that God’s story ends in separation or a split, but rather in reconciliation and embrace.
6. I don’t believe salvation is purely personal; there is something universal and larger than just individuals getting saved.
7. I don’t believe cognitive understanding of Christ’s death is a ticket into the Kingdom of God and a get out of hell free card.
I don’t exactly know what these things mean for me. I do know though that my concepts of salvation, eternity and judgment have been vastly changed over the last few years. I feel like I am moving into sort of a limbo where people are afraid to talk about it but they love to warn you to be careful. Sure it’s a scary road to be on. Doesn’t it make sense to be on it though? Would we be true to ourselves if we didn’t ask these questions? Hopefully soon, I’ll start have a better understanding of what I do believe, and hopefully and more importantly it causes me to act more lovingly and more graciously to those around me. Here is a few quotes I’ve stumbled upon.
Most of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing…they have to do with the way God acts within the world and history. Most of them look back to language and ideas in the Old Testament, which work in quite a different way from that which is normally imagined.
– N.T. Wright-
There cannot be a kind of curtain which comes down at death, dividing humanity irreversibly into the companies of the saved and of the damned. God’s loving offer of mercy cannot be for the term of our earthly lives alone…Every turning away from God will make the return journey much harder….If these ideas are correct, they illustrate the claim that theology can make to be a discipline concerned with the progressive exploration of truth, not held forever in thrall to past understanding alone…Eternal punishment was a source of moral scandal which helped to alienate many thoughtful and sensitive people from contemporary Christianity. Charles Darwin called it a “damnable doctrine” and said he could not “see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true.” [The rethinking of the doctrine of hell] has come about, not through surrender to a secular sentimentality, but through the realization of its incompatibility with the mercy of a loving God, who cannot be conceived to exact infinite punishment for finite wrong. Theology has proved itself to be open to correction.