So the Christian blogosphere and twitterverse have been abuzz over universalism and hell. Why does this particular issue provoke such angst? It addresses important questions, obviously: “Does hell exist? And if so, who is there and who isn’t and why?”. But I’ve been thinking more about the functional importance of hell for many folks, and think this might be one of the key reasons Rob Bell stirred up such vitriol. What function does hell play in the story of our relationship with God?
I honestly think this is one of the key questions for which Quakers have something important to offer the rest of the evangelical world.
For many evangelicals, the story of us and God goes something like this. Each person is born with a death sentence on our heads. Whether it’s accumulated guilt from generations of sinful humanity, or our own selfish actions as the cause, we stand guilty, with an eternity in hell as our punishment. Unless and until we accept for ourselves the pardon extended to us through Jesus, the warrant for our souls stays on the books. With that story, the question is clear: if you died tonight, where would you spend eternity? How do you know? Do you want to be sure to never have to experience hell?
Several things stand out when this is the overarching story. “Salvation” is a future thing based on a one time decision now. When we as Christians share this story with the world, we have something they do not. We hold the power. God is active in the past, through what has been accomplished through Jesus. But now, it’s all up to us. We are the dispensers of all things spiritual to a bankrupt humanity on death row.
I think on the surface, the uproar over Bell questioning hell arises out of a fear that the fundamental motivation for salvation would disappear. At a deeper level, I wonder if the real cause is a fear of losing our place in dispensing God to the world.
Quakers have told a different story. Each person is born with a light, a seed, “that of God” within.*(see below) Different from our conscience, different from a pantheistic sense of a “piece of God” in each one of us, this is the person of God interacting with and influencing my person. I see this as incredibly hopeful and helpful. Within each one of us, whoever we are, wherever we are born, whatever we believe or do, God is at work, wooing us toward God’s self. Our natural human bent is to resist God’s direction, without exception. God is at work, but we resist, with current and eternal consequences. The essential question of this story is, “Am I responding to and obeying God’s direction and leading in my life?”
This narrative has different emphases. “Salvation” becomes present and future. When we share this story with those outside the faith, we are not the primary actors. We aren’t bringing salvation to others. Instead, God is the actor who is always there ahead of us. Our task is to cooperate with God on a very important mission. We name how we see God already at work in others. We build bridges of connection between God’s work in the other person’s life and God’s work in our own life. Most importantly, we connect God’s activity in that person’s life with the story told in the bible: God is reconciling the world through Christ. God** is the actor, the mover of all things. We don’t hold the power, but rather serve as witnesses, as bridge builders. Separation from God (hell) is a real consequence, but not the prime motivator for relationship with God. God’s very self is the wooing reason.
In this story, our choices and our response to God ultimately matter. Free will, as well as the consequences of our actions are not lost. We do lose “Christian superiority”, but we gain a present and active God with whom we partner! In this story, new possibilities are opened for those who live and die without hearing the name of Jesus, because the wooing presence of God was always with them. In this story, our role of bridge building becomes incredibly important, as we co-labor with God to help others understand how the stirrings within them are connected to God’s ultimate communication, the incarnation…when God joined humanity as Jesus, and shattered the power of rebellion and selfishness with selfless sacrifice.
This is a story evangelicals need, I believe. And in this story, we can dive into the bible and ask questions and discuss hell with a lot less fear and anxiety.
* We’ve argued among the different branches of Friends about what exactly that seed or light is, whether it’s connected with Jesus Christ or not. I’m among the group of Friends who see the seed or light intimately connected with the Holy Spirit Jesus promised after his death and resurrection. Our ability to respond is made possible because Christ’s death and resurrection have broken the power of sin.
** Quakers aren’t very precise in our systematic theology, and our trinitarian thinking is particularly sloppy. Which person of the trinity, whether the second person (implied in the Friends’ use of the term “living Christ”) or the third person of the Holy Spirit has been a question we haven’t given sufficient attention to.