What did I just say?
For those of you keeping track of my blogosophies, this blog will fall under multiple categories… I promise not to post to many blogs that are this long and this argumentative.
I’ve been wondering quite a bit lately how heaven and hell became such central aspects of the Christian faith. It seems like American Christians think the main purpose of accepting Christ is to get out of hell. And so the good news of the gospel is that we can get a ‘get out of hell free’ pass (monopoly style) and go on our merry way.
I am preparing to preach on Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) next Sunday and I realized that when she hears the good news that the Savior is coming, her reaction has little (if anything) to do with heaven and hell. Instead, it has to do with raising up the oppressed and bringing down the oppressors. It has to do with feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty.
Then I began to look at other places the good news or the gospel is preached… and as far as I can tell, the good news is never about heaven and hell. And the results of people accepting the good news are not so otherworldly either. In Acts 2, the results of 3,000 and more receiving the good news is that there is no needy among them… they never seem to say anything about heaven or hell. They don’t mention it in their preaching, nor do converts mention it.
So I started to wonder how this got to be the “good news” for so many Christians. I think this understanding began as soon as the church began to believe that hell would be more full than heaven. I’ve actually learned that most of the early church theologians are what we would now label as (modified) Universalists. Most thought that everyone would go to heaven except those who explicitly reject the gospel (of course, what exactly is the gospel is open to discussion). Origin thought that all souls would eventually become united with God, some would just take a little longer. Athanasius thought that most would be saved, except those were a part of the church and walked away. Clement of Alexandria thought that Christ’s redemptive work was so powerful, that it would pursue those “in hell” and save them after they have died. Gregory of Nyssa said that God would deliver all men and that only the devil would be in hell. St. Chrysostom believed that while the devil tried to take hold of Christ, he lost his grip on the rest of those he was holding. Eusebius of Caesarea said that God will “break” some people them, but only in order to remold them and redeem them. It wasn’t until the fourth century debates between Augustine and Pelagius that the church more officially adopted the position that everyone was going to hell except those who (whether by their own will or by predestination) accept the gospel.
And of course, this fits in perfectly well with the Bible. John the Baptist calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the kosmos” (John 1:29). Kosmos can mean “world, universe, or humankind.” In Romans, Paul makes the point that just as the sin of one man condemned all, the result of Christ’s sacrifice is justification for all people (Rom. 5:18). Also in Romans, Paul says that not all the Israelites accepted the good news (10:16) and then goes on to say that all Israel will be saved (11:26). Paul also says Jesus is “the Savior of all people, and especially those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). This is particularly interesting because it specifies that those who believe will be saved, but it implies that they aren’t the only ones who will be saved. Certainly, the Bible does say that the whole world will be held accountable for their sin, but it also says that Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The whole world means the whole world [whole from the Greek holos meaning whole]. And this verse explicitly states that Christ’s sacrifice is atonement for those sins. It’s not atonement based on believe or a half and half deal either.
I think another problem is that Christians have tended to replace orthopraxy (“correct practice”) with orthodoxy (“correct beliefs”). In the reformed church, this is particularly true since orthopraxy sounds like works righteousness to us. But, Jesus doesn’t say, “I never knew you” to people who believed incorrectly, but to those who practiced incorrectly. (Really you’d hope that orthodoxy would lead to orthopraxy… but James 2:19 suggest that even the demons are orthodox [probably more than we are].)
So there you have my heresy of the week. And yes, I do know there are good, Biblical arguments for a hell for all who don’t believe correctly (e.g. John 3:18; Gal. 3:22… others?). But, I also believe that there are multiple voices in the Bible and they are not all that consistent on this point (and a number of other points for that matter… but that’s a heresy for a later time).
For those of you who made it through this post, congratulations. For those of you who didn’t… the important thing is that you tried. And for those of you who skimmed it, got the gist, and decided not to read it more thoroughly, I salute you.
“All men are Christ's, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all?”—Clement of Alexandria