Although universalism has never been a mainstream doctrine within the Church the discussion of its credibility has been prevalent for most, if not all, of its existence. The early church fathers wrote extensively on the topic, one notable example being Augustine (354-430 AD) who recorded that there were many in his day who did not believe in hell. While it is hardly a new belief, the notion that everyone who has ever lived will eventually be gathered into heaven despite previous actions or beliefs, has gained a considerable foothold in modern society. And it really begs the question: “What the hell happened to hell?”
In pondering this inquiry, we are free to point the finger numerous directions. Many within the Church, however, proceed to trace this line of thought to its most beloved of scapegoats: post-modernity. Universalism, they posit, erupts from the epicenter of atheistic philosophy from which anti-authoritarianism broods disregard for punishment and accountability. Hell has ceased to exist in the mindset of the populace, they might argue, because of the pluralistic notions that circulate among them. Thus we need to recover, wrote Southern Baptist theologian Timothy K Beougher , “the exceeding sinfulness of sin”. Christians such as Beougher would claim that we’ve placed too much value on humanism, the ability of our own race to achieve and overcome, to be “good”. Inasmuch we’ve come to believe that humans are so good that hell can’t possibly exist.
But such a statement is terribly ignorant of history and betrays a mutated understanding of the current cultural mindset. While some may put on a front of unfaltering faith in humanity, we are all still confronted with utterly horrific shortcomings of human “progress”, particularly on the heels of the 20th century in which a larger percent of the world population died due to conflict related deaths than ever before. It is the rotting trunk of humanism from which post-modernity has sprung. Beginning with the slaughter of World War I and weaving its way through the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Rwanda and into our modern newsfeeds is the undeniable message that hell, be it through genocide, rape, cancer or tsunamis, if not on our very doorsteps, is somewhere out there barking. The post-modern philosopher who is unable to recognize that some form of “hell” exists must simultaneously admit to having his own head stuck in the sand, for we witness it all around us.
What the Church is experiencing now is not so much a denial of the fact hell exists as it is the denial that heaven exists. What culture is incapable of admitting is that heaven could possibly be real, that redemption can come. And the blame for this falls directly on the Church. For it is the Church that has failed in its commission to distinguish itself from the world in vital areas and thus has allowed our heavenly testimony to fade. Our task is not to pronounce judgment upon the world but rather, as theologian N.T. Wright says, our commission “as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness.” How pitifully we live in contrast to this commission.
We preach love but practice judgment, preach grace but practice oppression, preach truth but practice hypocrisy. “You can’t frighten anyone into heaven,” John Piper says, and yet our evangelical tactics seem to have adopted such a technique. We nit pick our scriptures, aligning ourselves more practically with political parties than any sort of dogmatic or articulated theology. We have turned, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “Jesus into a generalized savior rather than the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount.” And the message the Church proclaims, instead of being transformational, routinely consists of a cheap and downright heinous version of heaven. With such a view of heaven we cannot be surprised that an equally cheap view of hell has followed suit.
What the average person needs to be convinced of the fact that there is something greater than the hell of their every day lives, the hell that breaks through in tragedy, the mundane, the disease, the holocausts, the grey and downcast days of the soul that dominate our existence. They need to see something in opposition to what they currently accept as the best hand in the deck. Using a famous metaphor from C.S. Lewis, they need to told of the holiday available at the beach so they will no longer feel the need to go on making mud pies. They need to be convinced that heaven is real, and the commissioning of this purpose has been handed to the Church. Sadly, we’ve dropped the ball. And all to often we’ve also managed to kick said ball right into the face of all the other children on the playground.
It should come as no surprise that if our presentation of heaven is diluted then the concept of a hell worse than the one presently witnessed would also fade. If we blur the lines of “thy kingdom come”, then the lines of “deliver us from evil (such as eternal punishment and denouncing of thy goodness)” will naturally follow suit. There is no necessity for the polar opposite of that which does not exist.
If we’re to regain any urgency in our message, it begins with urgency in our communities, in our hearts, in our minds, in our longings and our passions. If we’re to regain any validity to our message, it begins orienting it upwards rather than down, setting the eyes of our hearts upon a God who came with the primary purpose of saving the world through His Son.
If the doctrine of hell is to be recovered, then our recovery begins with the reality of heaven boldly on display in our words, our hands, our hearts and our actions. Otherwise it won’t be hell that we loose sight of, but heaven itself.
And rest assured, the latter is a much graver loss.
“We who are disciples of Christ claim that our purpose one earth is to lay up treasures in heaven. But our actions often belie our words. Many Christians build for themselves fine houses, lay out splendid gardens, construct bathhouses and buy fields. It is small wonder, then, that many pagans refuse to believe what we say. ‘If their eyes are set on mansions in heaven,’ they ask, ‘why are they building mansions on earth? If they put their words into practice, they would give their riches and live in simple huts.’ So these pagans conclude that we do not sincerely believe in the religion we profess; and as a result they refuse to take this religion seriously. You may say that the words of Christ on these matters are too hard for you to follow; and that while your spirit is willing , your flesh is weak. My answer is that the judgment of pagans about you is more accurate than your judgment of yourself.”
-John Chrysostom; writing to the church of Constantinople in approximately 400 AD