In the past few years, both when teaching and writing, I have frequently been challenged by persons who feel that I am going soft on part of the Christian message. There are a number of variations to the critique, but generally it sounds like this: “You make it too easy! You sound as if it is easy to go to heaven. You talk as it there was no hell, or, at least, as if very few persons end up there. Doesn’t Scripture itself say that the road that leads to life is narrow…and few find it! Aren’t you leading people astray by giving them the impression that almost everyone is going to heaven?”
Not infrequently too have I been quoted the visions of a certain mystic who once saw souls going to hell like snowflakes. What to make of all of this? Is it true that the majority of people are going to hell while a minority are being saved? Is it true that there is somewhere, however this is conceived of, a great book, a law of karmic justice, within which all is noted and all will have to be accounted for?
Underneath this fear of making heaven too easy there generally lies a sound instinct. Like Jesus, it affirms that the choices we make in this life are serious; that sin is important and real; that the passage to life, life already in the here and now, is not easily found (as we can attest to from experience…who really is happy?). We can lose heaven. Hell is a real option.
What is less sound in this insistence upon the narrow road and the importance of preaching about the dangers of hell is the vision of God that undergirds it. In the end, any vision that sees souls going into hell like snowflakes is not one that takes seriously the God that Jesus talked about. To affirm that the majority of persons are being lost in terms of eternity denies the unconditional love of God and the power of that love to ultimately redeem sin and woundedness. Simply put, the love of the God that Jesus called his and our Father would not tolerate a situation within which the millions are going to an eternal hell, like snowflakes, while a mere few are finding the narrow way. This God would redo the incarnation…not to mention creation itself.
Christ’s coming to save us is not so much a story of some mysterious drama that God deemed necessary to be played out so that some alienation caused by our first parents could be overcome. No. The drama of the incarnation has as its central point the revelation of the heart of God…a heart of infinite love which can, even given human sin, bring about the salvation of most, perhaps of all, persons. What does this mean?
First of all, it means that God loves us unconditionally and that there is nothing we can do, sin included, that even for one second can change that. God is present to us, loving us, even in our twistedness and perversity. We can go to hell and, even there, God does not stop loving us. That is, in fact, the meaning of the phrase “he descended into hell.” We are loved unconditionally and forever, even in our sin. Hence we live under the law of mercy, not of justice. There is no great book, or great law, within which all sins are recorded and where a pound of retribution is demanded for a pound of sin. Sin need not be undone, nor even atoned for. It can be freely forgiven, washed clean without retribution.
It is interesting to note that among the great religions of the world, only Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, do not believe in reincarnation. Why? Because they all believe in the same God, a God who does not demand retribution but who can make everything clean with one embrace. There is no need to keep reliving life until one gets it right. We are loved unconditionally and forever. Salvation, going to heaven, is nothing other than accepting this. Of course, we can, and in this life we often do, reject this. That is why here, in this life, most of us have not yet found the road that leads to life. Few of us are really happy, actually redeemed by love. It is easy to go to hell in this life. It is not so easy, however, to stay there for eternity. Why? Because here, in this life, most often nobody can descend into our private hell – our woundedness, our fundamental alienation, our sin, our paranoia, our fantasy, and our fear – and breathe out there unconditional love, understanding, and acceptance.
Hence, in this life, we are often in hell, miserable, biting so as not to be bitten, sinning so as to compensate for being outside of love. However, God’s love can, as we see in Christ’s death and resurrection, descend into hell and embrace and bring to peace tortured and paranoid hearts. Our moral choices, in this life, are crucial. We can and frequently do, make choices that make it harder for us to accept unconditional love. Moreover, there is a real danger of not sinning honestly, of rationalizing and of warping ourselves so that a permanent hell becomes a real possibility. But this is, I submit, rare. Few people will, when confronted by an unconditional embrace, resist. That is why most people will go to heaven.
In saying that, I am not going soft on the Christian message. I am, I believe, affirming the greatest truth there is.