This guest post is by Brian Niece.Theologian Jürgen Moltmann once said in a discussion, “In the final analysis I believe hell will be empty.”
This theological idea comes from Moltmann’s understanding that all who are dead are dead in Christ, just as the living are alive in Christ, whether they acknowledge the presence of the deity or not. God’s presence is in all and through all. Therefore everyone, the living and dead, are contained in the loving presence of the God who Jesus called “Father” and are moving with this God toward God’s future.
That’s some heady stuff, for sure.
Moltmann further asserts, as do many Christian theologians, that all time is already contained in the life of God. Past, present, future, and eternity all glow with God’s presence.
More heady stuff, I know.
If you, like me, are an outsider to the Western institutional church, it could be for any number of reasons. It pains me to know how many friends I have who walked away from the whole faith thing because they were told that anyone who didn’t measure up to an institutional standard was going to hell.
Maybe you’ve experienced the very damaging and un-Jesus like narrative that creates an “us” versus “them” mentality. The kind of thinking that elevates groups of the “ins” over the “outs.” Please hear this: you aren’t going to hell.
See, God’s grace, as displayed through Jesus of Nazareth, is unbounded grace. There is no limit to it. So there’s no way that someone can “fall out of grace” (another theologically incorrect phrase that exists in the Western church system).
And if God’s grace is so amazing, and so boundless, and so infinite, then at the end of all things being made new this God could very likely open the metaphorical gates to the new reality that has been reconciled and say, “Everybody who has ever lived or ever died, come live with me!”
Churchified critics would say I’m talking about weak universal salvation. Branding an uncomfortable idea with dismissive labels is a way to mask what we humans so often do: we place the emphasis of salvation on ourselves. But the focus of salvation has always been on God, not us.
Critics might also say that speaking of unbounded grace lessens God’s justice. But when we talk of God’s justice, we tend to just recast the divine in our own image. God’s justice has a lot more to do with reconciliation, restoration, and redemption than most of us are comfortable with.
Salvation is primarily about God’s grace and power displayed through the love of Jesus. It’s not about any of us being saved from something, but about God saving everyone and all things for something.
The concept of “hell” is such a quandary. I mean, what the hell is hell, anyway?
In the Hebrew Scripture hell was not a concept. Anyone who died went to a waiting place, a time of gestation, called Sheol. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of a literal place called Gehenna, which was the name of the city trash dump outside Jerusalem. “Gehenna” often gets translated into English as “hell.” Other New Testament writers barely even address the concept of “hell” because they were too busy celebrating the new reality that all of life is contained in God’s life. Or as Paul put it: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”
Great minds like C.S. Lewis and N.T Wright resist the traditional literal view of hell entirely. Lewis sees hell as a diminishing of one’s humanity. Wright, similarly, envisions hell as a process of one’s choice to dehumanize what was once human.
So what about Jesus?
The heaven/hell dichotomy for Jesus was a matter of life in the present, not specifically something after death. When Jesus spoke of “eternal” life, he was referring to a quality of life to be experienced right now, in the present. If all time and all the living and the dead are already contained in the life of God, then responding to such grace allows for God-quality life, right here and right now.
Finally, God’s infinite presence cannot be kept out of “hell” whatever and wherever it may be.
So if you’ve ever felt like you don’t measure up to some perceived standard that has been preached at you, remember this: the last will be first.
If you’ve ever felt like the church people who easily throw around words they don’t understand like “hell” and “sin” and “Lord” are barring your way to Jesus, remember this: he once said there will be many who call him “Lord” who don’t know him.
Look, I’m not some expert saying that this is what the future will definitely be like. But I tend to agree with Moltmann. If the God I know, in the final analysis, empties “hell” (whatever that may be) then I won’t be at all surprised. God’s grace is that powerful.
About Brian Niece
Brian Niece is a storyteller who communicates to and for outsiders, outliers, and people on the fringes, inspiring them to speak truth to power and live sacramentally in order to reimagine their stories.