"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling."
Philippians 2 verse 12
"Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation."
Isaiah 12 verse 2
The last post was motivated by questions that were posed to me at an alpha course. This post is no different. The doctrine of Hell is a serious stumbling block for many non-Christians and it seemed to be for the people I spoke to at alpha too. It's one of those issues thats to do with the theology of grace, predestination, free will, satan etc etc. In short it tends to get stupidly complicated very quickly. However, I think that serious attention can be paid to the doctrine of hell without it becoming abstract and intellectual. In fact - with a doctrine that concerns us and those we love it would be offensive and wrong to consider it in this way.
Jesus clearly believed in hell and mentions it numerous times. The story of the sheep and the goats is the most famous example of this. It's not a nice story at all! In any case the text does not provide a criteria of those who are saved and those who are dammed. The only soteriology (theology of salvation) we are provided with is to do with Jesus as the supremely good and just judge. I admit that I struggle with the idea of hell, but I struggle with it less when I remember that we can trust God because God is good. Whatever he decides will be fair and good in the strictest sense so we need not worry. Nevertheless the issue becomes rather personal when we are faced with loving and selfless people who are aware of what Christianity is and choose to reject it. Would it be just of God to send these people to hell? The liberating truth is that we are not God! We don't fully know what hell is or who is going to go there, but we can be sure that God knows the secrets of everybody's hearts. I take a certain comfort in this knowledge.
A few weeks ago I was nearly won over to the idea of universal salvation - salvation for all. There are competant theologians who advocate this position but I want to highlight the various thoughts that changed my mind in this matter. My ultimate problem was that universal salvation did not take the gravity of sin seriously. I'm not even referring to the sins of others either, merely my own. The challenge for me was that deep down I knew the seriousness of my own sin - that I did not deserve to be in Gods presence, and that I could only be so through the blood of Jesus. I'm not sure whether hell is nothingness, or eternal pain or whatever but I am certain that it is a place were we are cut off from Gods presence. Deep down I knew that I did not deserve to be in Gods presence and therefore that I needed forgiveness. Universalism destroyed all of this. It said that ultimately we are not so sinful that we don't deserve to be in Gods presence. I couldn't abide this idea - it took away the entire notion of repentence and therefore the entire notion of salvation.
I said this to the person concerned at the alpha course and encouraged them to think about heaven and hell on individual terms. Most of the problems people have with the doctrine of hell occur when they say 'well what about my atheist grandad, or what about this person'. The story of the sheep and the goats shows that we will have to give an account of our own actions before God and therefore we should 'work out our own salvation with fear and trembling'. Timothy speaks of the God 'who wants everybody to be saved'. Hell does exist and it should be characterised as everything that God is not, but most importantly - if we have faith then we believe that God is good and he is more than trustworthy. We are called to acknowledge that we as individuals deserve to be cut off from Gods presence, but once we have established this in relation to ourselves (as I did) we are not authorised to start providing a criteria for who is saved and who is not. Let God convict who he will and if he convicts us let us respond. However let us also acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and therefore it is quite simply not for us to know who is going to heaven or hell. We are only called to consider heaven and hell in relation to ourselves and our own salvation. The gospel will still be preached but as for those who, in the end, will be deemed righteous before God - that is totally and completely Gods decision and not ours. What I hope to have shown is an understanding of hell that is true to my faith but non-prescriptive with regards to everybody else.