I am preaching a sermon about heaven and hell this week to answer a person’s question, “Is Heaven an imaginary place.” I feel like I am on the verge of heresy here and I am needed some deep footing either way. Let me walk you through my thoughts and you tell me if I am heading in the wrong direction or not.
Heaven is real, it is being in the presence of God. But I know I will need to get deeper than that and answer the questions behind the questions. For example, if heaven is being in the presence of God than what is hell? Hell is the absence of God is my answer. Who will be in hell? That one is more difficult for me to answer…because I want to say no one.
I know Shakespeare says that “hell is empty because all the devils are here,” but really who is in hell? When we die and we are facing judgment, when we stand in the presence of God and feel the grace, mercy, joy and love in real and tangible ways…will people be able to say no to that? Will God’s agape love and the salvation that is open to all people in Jesus Christ be so overpowering that no one denies it?
Geoffrey Wainwright in his book Doxology says this:
That God wills the salvation of all is not a thesis which depends simply on formal traffic in isolated scriptural texts. as for example 1 Timothy 2:3….The substantial argument resideds in the inconceivability of the opposite intention towards any of his creatures on the part of a Creator whose motive in creation is irreducibly love. A love which took self-giving to the point of suffering crucifixion is likely to be deep enough to persist while ever there is any chance of response. God’s grace may then be expected to assume and develop even the slightest human motion towards love. Considerations of theodicy will point to particular divine care for those individuals whose own capacity for love has been intolerably restricted by nature or society. It may be that the only way to fail salvation is by willful refusal. Programmatic universalism would be totalitarian threat to the freedom which must characterize any human response in kind to the love of God towards us. Deliberate closure to the love of God to the point of irretrievability spells death. That such death should be subjectively experienced, permanently and eternally, makes no sense. Hell will be empty, though God may continue to bear in his heart the wounds he incurred through taking the risk of love in creation.
The fact that God so loved the world that he became flesh, died the horrific death on the cross, taking all of humanity’s sins with him, defeated death, and rose again, wouldn’t that be a waste if even one human being wasn’t next to God’s side for eternity? Why would God stop with our earthly proclamation of denial of his love? If God is relentless in his task to save us all from sin and death, than hell should be empty, right? Why do we assume our last breath’s decisions are the last one when we are told final judgment is to come.
This will get people mad because they believe in the punishment of our sins. The truth is they want to see people rot in hell, but is that God’s wish? Does God want one of his children to spend eternity away from him? The fact that we cannot fathom being in heaven next to Hitler may be more our problem than God’s.
Is this heresy? Are there others out there, beyond Wainwright, that have a theology like this? I don’t want to slip into universalism but I don’t know where the line is either. I believe in judgment (God’s not what we do on a daily basis), but it is amazing to think that God’s love is too powerful to resist when you come face to face with it.