An Empty Hell and The Rolling Stones

‘You can’t always get what you want’ says Mick Jagger.


I’d love to be a world-class jazz pianist, but it simply isn’t going to happen. That would take levels of dedication I lack the names for. But I have been thinking recently that we humans are often too pessimistic, that we are just too pessimistic in general. Well, to be fair, there is good reason. You might well point out that two massive recessions in twelve years may well justify pessimism as a default worldview, and I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — disagree. There is enough evidential experience in the life of a thirty year old to result in a total loss of faith in the universe’s general beneficence. So maybe humans are totally right to be basically pessimistic; expecting the worst will, for sure, stand us in good stead when the next worldwide banking crash happens next year. Or, if we’re lucky, the year after. Capitalism: a rich soil for growing your very own disappointments right at home.

I was too general. I said humans when I should have said Christians. We are generally far too pessimistic. We take the Rolling Stones mantra for a kind of gospel, a kind of pseudo-metaphysics for the perpetually half-expectant. Its no wonder why someone who believes everyone will be saved is treated, on instinct, as a weirdo. ‘Haven’t you heard the good news?’, the mob will say, ‘You can’t always get what you want…’. What a powerful message… Strong hallelujahs roll.

While it is true that human experience includes unfulfilled desires and frustrated passions, it really does not follow that ultimately things will not end well. Just because our earthly experience is a profoundly mixed bag does not necessitate an ambivalent eternity. It's almost as if ‘that’s just too good to be true’ has been taken, prima facie, to be the ultimate litmus test of a theory about the future. Such a limited view of the possible owes much to how culture, capitalism and a well-earned suspicion of optimism can shrink the imagination. I am as convinced as could be that Christianity - that is, being a Christian - ought to implicate us in a constant state of testing and rejecting the limits of our imaginations. And that means we need to think seriously about how our impoverished imaginations have reduced and censored our best thinking about the afterlife.

For goodness sake, look at Ezekiel and Revelation. Those are texts that hardly heed the supposed limits of the sensible. The gospel parables are hardly common sense. They explode in colour and vitality, in contradiction and interpretative complexity. They are impossible to reduce to doctrine. Why? Because they are unrestrained flights of the impassioned imagination. Perish the thought that we, in 2020, employ a bit of biblical (and this is the only correct use of that word) imagination. And this is not to say that just because an empty hell is hard for us to imagine is reason enough to become something approaching a universalist. No, I’m merely getting rid of this as an excuse to avoid universalism in the first place.

The resurrection was impossible to imagine on the Friday, after all.

In other words, if we expect to be unsurprised after the blaze of time smoulders behind us, that is, by the ultimate Reality that awaits, we are simply dreaming too small. To think God might respect our restricted and exclusionary notions of grace as this world is finally eclipsed is to have a notion of God not worthy of the name.

I take universalism — the idea that everyone will, in some sense, be saved — as a basic grounding for faith more generally. I find it makes sense of my experience and continually forces me to engage my moral imagination to work harder. If this person, this absolute idiot, is saved, then I better work to see the imago dei in him. Eternity is a long time, and practicing this kind of grace now might mean getting to touch the hem of a coat we can hardly imagine. And an empty hell isn’t some abstract notion that lets us sit satisfied in our armchairs pontificating about the afterlife. It is a belief that starts, and is made true, now. What that means I am only beginning to work out.

Universalism is something I want to be true on good days. On a day spent with a victim of a crime or a survivor of inflicted trauma, it seems preposterous at best and morally repugnant at worst. But grace is never a guarantee of universal justice, but a restoration of a deep promise and an uncovering of the grace-stitched fabric of reality. It won’t make much sense to us, but then, what ever would? In fact that is something that makes universalism so intriguing: it allows grace its mystery, its pervasiveness and its unsettling universality. And grace, given centrality in a worldview, begins to scratch beneath the surface of half-baked evangelicalism. It begins to teach us that love wins, and that while that may be scandalous, it promises our own salvation, too.

We need to repent of our restricted and restrictive imaginations. There is no grace without the imagination, and no Christian imagination without grace. And if we try, really try, we might finally land on something approaching appropriateness when we say that God is grace. I am only beginning to reimagine what reimagining that might be look like.

You can’t always get what you want. We know this all too well.