Some like to yell about it. Others can’t stand the thought of even mentioning it.
But what’s the deal exactly? Who the hell (pun intended, hey-o!) am I supposed to listen to? Obviously different theological traditions will come at this differently but what are some things that we can all agree on? What are some things that, in light of revelation, we can say about that God awful topic, damnation (the reason I say “can” is because it’s my opinion that both extreme’s, those that yell about it and those that are silent, are saying things that we can’t say if we’re to be faithful to the whole of the Biblical narrative)?
It is here, yet again, that I must turn to a gentleman that is quickly becoming one of my favourite living theologians, David Yeago. In the final chapter of Apostolic Faith, ‘The Four Last Things’, Yeago highlights 5 constraints that our teaching on damnation should be bound by. I found these immensely helpful so I thought I’d take the time to share them and expound just a wee bit. If we are to be faithful to the apostolic legacy then these must guide what we say/don’t say in regards to damnation.
1. We have no right to teach with certainty either that some will be damned or that none will be damned, that many will be damned or that few will be damned.
A most important point about the Last Judgment is that it is yet to come. It has not yet happened. When this happens it will happen in the utter freedom of God, who is the judge, not us human creatures who are most certainly not the judge (we are, rather, the object of this judgment!). So then, to assume with any degree of certainty and detail the way in which God will execute his judgment is to “usurp his prerogative”, as Yeago says. Just as the coming of the Messiah totally surprised and subverted Israel’s expectations so too the course of God’s judgment is sure to surprise us. We must say then that all people everywhere are in God’s hands and that whatever happens to them/us will, in the end, prove to be entirely consistent with God’s character. This is all we can say about outcomes.
2. We cannot deny with certainty that the God who has conquered death has ways of bringing the gospel to the dead.
Once in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:7-10) and twice in 1 Peter (3:18-20; 4:6) reference is made to Christ descending to the place of the dead to preach the gospel: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does,” (1 Pet 4:6). The result of Jesus enduring death and descending to the place of the dead is not only that he was able to preach there but that he, in fact, defeated the powers of sin and death utterly exhausting them beyond their last breath. And so elsewhere in Scripture Jesus is described as he who holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). Jesus’ preaching to the dead is in no way portrayed as a one-time event. Like the crucifixion, which transcends time and confronts each and every person, it is possible that his descent into Hell may transcend time and confront each and every dead person. Given that Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades (the door is open) this is entirely possible.
3. We can and must say, however, that no human being will find a final fulfillment of his/her existence apart from Jesus of Nazareth and those who gather round him.
In Yeago’s words, “the Church does not claim simply that Jesus is a meaningful symbol; it claims that this particular person, as a particular person, is in reality the Lord of all, the one whom all go to meet, the active centre of meaning for the whole universe. He is in person the fulfillment of human destiny, and there simply is no other fulfillment than participation in his risen life. Indeed, the fulfillment is his risen humanity, into which he gathers his brothers and sisters.” Salvation, then, is not something which God has “attached” to Jesus which is unattainable unless you “believe in Jesus”. Rather, salvation is simply the “name for what it means to gather around Jesus and share in his life.” To be sure there is, nor can there be, any human fulfillment apart from Jesus the Christ.
4. If Jesus is the fulfillment of human destiny, then the way to that fulfillment for every human being must be the way of repentance and faith.
“Repentance” simply means to turn from a life without Christ and “faith” means to join our lives with his. So then, repentance and faith are of ultimate importance for each and every human being. Since he is the fulfillment of human destiny then turning to him and entering into shared life with him matters infinitely. Therefore, any sort of “wider hope” or “universalism” must be the hope that those who do not know Christ in this life will nevertheless be brought to repentance and faith in him (This is important to note. Proponents of a “wider hope” or “universalism” are all too often accused of pluralism. However, to be sure, one can hold to a “wider hope” and not be guilty of pluralism if they maintain that it is only in Christ that salvation is possible).
5. We must confess that in all God’s dealings with creatures, in mercy and in judgment, his aim remains the same: communion in love.
God’s aim always and everywhere and in every situation with regard to his creatures is “communion in love”. However, God is not coercive, so his love is nor forced upon anyone, now or after death. So then, because God is not coercive we cannot exclude the possibility of damnation even though we may hope it never becomes an actual reality. We cannot say that Jesus’ warnings are simply empty threats rather than real life-or-death warnings. However, before hurling these warnings at anyone else we must realize that they are first directed towards us.
Well then, what are we to do? On this basis, the most appropriate way in which to entertain a wider or universal hope is in prayer. “If it is not impossible that those who have not believed in Christ in this life may nonetheless be received into his fellowship in death, then it is certainly permissible to pray that it may be so”.
*The image featured above is a painting from the Chora Church in Istanbul depicting Christ’s victory in the place of the dead. I believe that is Adam and Eve whom he is pulling up out of Hades.