The publication of Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins" has prompted a firestorm of blog posts, mostly relating to claims of people (most of whom have not read the book) that Bell is a universalist and does not believe in Hell. I have not weighed in, mostly because I haven't been blogging lately, but also because I haven't read the book (yet) and hate when people make all sorts of comments about something they haven't read (and generally have no interest in reading). So I'm not actually going to offer comment on the book or Bell's theology. But I had an interesting conversation this past week about Hell, and figured it was worth sending into the blogosphere.
Last Saturday, I was hanging out with a group of Trinity College students at a Russian Orthodox monastery (like you do). At lunch, the Abbott was explaining to the students the chief differences between Eastern and Western Christianity. One of the chief theological differences he explained was that Eastern Christians don't believe that God created a place called Hell where some spend eternity. The ears of the students were perked up by this claim, and he went on to explain that Eastern Christians do believe in the fire of God, and that eternity can either be joyful bliss in union with God or torment (in union with God). He used the image of light: when you walk from a darkened room into daylight your eyes are unaccustomed to that overwhelming light and you experience it as blinding and painful. Similarly, eternity with God can be overwhelming to those who aren't used to being in God's presence. In the Eastern understanding, he explained, the purpose of life for a Christian is growing more and more accustomed to being in God's presence. In this way when we die (and come fully into God's presence) we aren't blinded and don't experience union with God as torment. It's the same reality, the same eternity, the same unity of God with all creation. The difference between Heaven and Hell is in how we experience it. And how we experience it depends on how ready we are.
Now, I had never heard anything like this before. Hell, for me, has been one of those parts of Christianity that I haven't spent a lot of time worrying about. There's not all that much support for it that I can find in the Bible, (though plenty about fire and wrath) and it seems to me that popular media (starting perhaps with Dante's Inferno) have shaped the cultural understanding of Hell and it's ruler—a red-skinned horned dude with a pitchfork. From time to time I imagine that if I were in charge I'd send some folks there (not many people, mind you, but folks like Hitler, Saddam Husein, and the guy who wrote “It's a Small World”.) But my own theology of Grace and how I have come to know God in Jesus makes this somewhat arbitrary system of eternal room assignments based on human choice seem cruel. What sort of God sends billions of people to the furnace simply because I didn't get off my duff and force them to pray some prayer? And what about humanity before year 0? All of those folks in Hell? Really? Forever? Hell is one of those things I've assigned to the mystery of God, and have sort of adopted what has been described to me as Luther's view of “single predestination”. In the more common “double predestination” the claim is made that “some are predestined for eternal salvation, and some for eternal punishment”. Single predestination makes the claim that “some are destined for eternal salvation, and ...” at which point the person making the claim walks out of the room to find a more interesting way to spend their afternoon.
But something about the way this Russian Orthodox monk articulated his understanding of eternity is compelling to me. In some ways it is universalist in that everyone gets to spend eternity with God. It seems to me that a good God who created all that is and is bringing all creation into wholeness would want that. And yet, it's not as if our lives and our choices don't matter. To live as a Christian is to be preparing for eternity, to be little by little acclimating to standing in God's presence so that when that day finally arrives we aren't plowed under by the experience. And meanwhile, we are inviting and walking with others who are making this journey as well—helping one another see light in the darkness and encounter God in the midst of our own messy existence. Coming into God's presence is only hellish if you've been so inwardly focused—so accustomed to darkness—that the pure light overwhelms you. It also helps reconcile what I understand Jesus to be talking about when he goes on and on about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is not just pie in the sky when you die (I'm paraphrasing) but is breaking in to the world here and now—and if we pay attention we can participate in it. If the life of a Christian is a process of growing more and more accustomed to standing in God's presence, doesn't it make sense that along the way Earth begins to look more and more like Heaven?
It seems to me that the way we experience life has a lot to do with our own perspective and what we bring to the whole thing. What if after-life is the same?