Wrestling with the Resurrection
Of all the theological doctrines, concepts, and problems which have crossed my mind since I became a Christian, not many have been quite so perplexing and consistently mind bending as the subject of Heaven versus Hell. It has come to the point for me, where I am almost afraid to even put to paper any thoughts I may have regarding these precarious subjects for fear that my opinion may change in the course of the next year or even month. As it happens now, my thoughts are so disjointed and far-reaching that I am not particularly sure where to begin this little discourse even as I write.
I suppose what I am eager must change is the attitude of what salvation really is. Now of course, I am in agreement with mainstream orthodoxy which suggests that salvation ultimately means resurrection into eternal life, and reconciliation with God. What concerns me is that if we limit salvation to mean this, we may end up in danger of removing ourselves from the impact of spiritual salvation in the here and now, not just for the last day.
This is something perhaps I have often took for granted, but it struck my notice just very recently how the Bible often refers to salvation as a present act. Indeed, we hear that those who accept Jesus as their saviour have become “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15), which seems to infer that the justification of faith by works isn’t just something which guarantees our eventual entry into Heaven, but which begins working in the very present. I spoke about this a little in a previous post of mine regarding the nature of faith, about how it is an act on God’s part (as opposed to our own human effort) which binds humanity together in the unity of Christ, and from there onward God works within those whom He has chosen to bring about His Kingdom rule in the here and now. This is something I personally feel to be quite important, as scripture never speaks of Heaven as something abstract and distant, but rather which is supposed to penetrate the existing world. Do we not pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done” for a reason? Therefore, how God’s people are called to behave and act is a foreshadowing of the time when this divine reign will be revealed to the world in fullness.
So if salvation is indeed a present act rather than a future guarantee, what does this really mean? What exactly have we been saved from? Since we often equate the bizarre concept of Christian salvation with future redemption from Hell, this may require a broadening of our idea of the nature of Hell. It’s worth remembering at this point, that of course salvation doesn’t primarily have anything to do with Hell, but rather with Sin; Hell is the ultimate consequence of Sin, but the latter is indeed something which affects us in the present time. As us Christians appreciate, Jesus, being God in the flesh, was the only true sacrifice which could ever have provided sufficient propitiation for our enslavement to Sin. We are raised into newness of life as a direct result of Jesus being raised from the dead.
If we are called to a new way of living, a way of understanding the symptoms of Sin and striving (with the help of God) to overcome them in the hope that God’s Kingdom will continually be established through our actions and impact on the world, then it must be the case that our salvation from Sin implies a present rescue. Of course, this is not always apparent to us. I wish to draw attention to this portion of scripture, however:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope
21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
It would appear that the creation itself is decaying, but that God’s work, and His work present in those who are regenerated in Christ, constantly works to fight that continuous decay in the hopes that creation will be transformed. There is a tension present here, in that whilst creation continues to suffer, God bears in patience with humanity as though repairing the damage.
Now what is my motive in going through all of this exposition (I’m aware that it’s taking me a little while to get to the point/s I want to make)? I suppose what I’m trying to get at, is how this whole dynamic of salvation and damnation affects us even now, today, in an almost inescapable manner. We’re aware of the verses, we know what the Bible says. “Repent or perish,” we’re consistently told. With no holds barred, we are informed through the word of God that the full consequence of Sin is death, destruction, and separation away from the presence of God.
There is a but.
Even these warnings themselves are not considered to be the very final word. That is the whole point; they are warnings, not condemnations. One thing I have noticed in reading the Bible, is that God’s messages of wrath, alienation, and judgement are themselves interspersed with promises of love, hope, and reconciliation. It is almost as if, throughout scripture, God is saying to humanity “This is what could happen to you if you choose to live for yourselves rather than following me. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Too often we paint God with the portrait of a cosmic tyrant who demands obedience or else an eternity of suffering, when that paradigm is actually back-to-front. Even the wrath of God is loving, and the judgement of God is a loving judgement, because their purpose is to lead people into repentance and forgiveness. The dynamic is not so much that God consigns people to destruction, but rather that destruction is the unfortunate and inevitable consequence of choosing to live for oneself. Throughout the journey, God is always nearby, beckoning the person and showing them a better way to travel.
In this regard, I am struck by how God bears with humanity in patience, even with the unrepentant. Were not the Pharisees disgusted when Jesus reclined at the table with prostitutes and tax collectors? This seems to be the human representation of how God views us even today, with a wrath that beckons to convict and a mercy that welcomes all with open embrace. Yes, Jesus warned us to repent or perish (Luke 13:1-5), but He also assures us that “it is not the will of (God) that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Whenever we see people fall into temptation, evil, and abomination, it is as if Jesus is always there, mourning behind the curtain of the physical universe, searching for His sheep to return to the fold. If He is not, then is it possible our prayers are in vain? Are there people who are excluded from our intercession? Or are we not indeed praying for the whole of creation to be restored?
31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.
32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
1 Corinthians 15
21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
28…then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
It may be the case that, in quite the paradoxical way, even warnings of eternal damnation are not the end, not the final word on the matter. As surely as all things hold together in God, so does history, so does the human concept of time, in such a way that while God Himself is timeless, He nonetheless bears in patience with time (being within and through His creation as well as transcending it) to lead humanity into repentance and reconciliation. That while the creation decays and human beings commit themselves to Sin, God maintains the mysterious power to reconcile all things to Himself by the blood of the cross.
Then what of Hell? It could be that as the creation continually decays, it does not do so without pain. Therefore, Jesus “draws all people to Himself,” but for many this will not be without its own form of suffering (the Greek for “draw” literally means “drag). The power of God to restore the whole of fallen creation is at tension with those who will inevitably find themselves “weeping and gnashing their teeth.” Indeed, scripture tells us that some people will be saved “as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). The warnings the Bible gives us of the dangers of death, destruction, and Hell are not to be taken lightly. They are there for a reason, for true life only exists within God; He alone can save us, not in an abstract way, but in a very real way, in the present moment, and to call us to a new way of life which ushers in the coming Kingdom. Indeed, we are promised that God shall be “all in all,” signifying a complete transformation of all that exists into fullness for the glory of God.
Until then, it comes with the pains of childbirth. Just as we who are in Christ died to Sin and became a new creation, so too may unbelievers be in a process of destruction and re-creation before the time of the end. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, but at the same time they are loving hands. When it comes to “everlasting punishment,” it may be that we will have to realise our God as so big and unfathomable that even our own human concept of “everlasting” is but temporary to Him.
1 Timothy 2
1 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—
2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior,
4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
6who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.