How could a loving God send someone — anyone — to hell?
This is a question all Christians ask at one time or another. For some this is a question that is satisfactorily answered in the phrase ‘God is a God of justice’. For many others, this doesn’t even begin to cut it. In fact, any attempt to answer this question tends to generate yet more issues and doubts for so many of us. So when we took up this very question in Week Three of the Reconstructions Course, we did so in the knowledge that any effort to answer this question was doomed to fail. Instead, we set the evening’s sessions up with plenty of space to explore one another’s own views, to listen and to imagine better and, crucially, together.
The first half of our session was based around the playing of a classic ‘lifeboat scenario’. Out of six people, who would you choose to get the final spot on the raft heading for safety? Four rounds, each round offering one extra piece of information on each of our characters in peril. This one is a doctor, another has a criminal record, yet another is only 15. A decidedly uncomfortable way to spend thirty minutes of any weeknight, we made sure the second half of our session was given over to interpreting what we learned in the course of playing our nasty little game.
Clearly the playing of this scenario was a ‘way in’ to our own views on hell and justice. We discussed on both nights just how unfit we were as individuals to make such a huge choice. How could we possibly make a good decision with such scant information? Yet there was something of a consensus that we would never ever reach a point in this game, even if we had time for another hundred rounds of information reveals, that would make it any easier. In other words, there are very few details about a human life that would make it easy to justify their exclusion. Interesting.
One of our characters received no votes at all. No one opted to save him at any stage. When faced with the hypothetical, what if this was your brother, your dad, your grandad, almost everyone admitted they would change their mind and save him. And why? Because relationship trumps everything. Love means more than facts. This does present a pretty strong challenge to our traditional beliefs about hell. How could heaven be heaven if people I love are in hell? Some theologians would say that being in God’s presence and experiencing the glory of his justice would be enough to make you rejoice over the existence of hell. If you think this is one of the most immoral ideas you have ever heard, one of the most loathsome conceptions of God, you would have been at home on both nights of the course this week. Theology must have room for our interconnectedness if it is to be truthful at all. In other words, theology ought to spend more time developing a supple language adequate to our everyday experience of love and grace. Anything less than this sounds like abstracted intellectual game playing.
The second half of the evening led us into a discussion of the faulty nature of our lifeboat metaphor. Some participants spoke up to say that the choice of who to save was so tricky because there was only one spot on the lifeboat. Why? they asked, are we imposing the same limit on God? For Christians, God is not simply the captain of the lifeboat, God is also the builder of the raft itself. In other words, what kind of God would build a lifeboat much too small to guarantee the survival of each of the passengers. Indeed, could it be that the possible size of the ‘lifeboat’ has been dramatically reduced due to our graceless imaginations as Christians? That we have invented a boat that only saves some might be more of an indictment of our own moral sense more than it is an accurate description of God’s design.
The final discussion of the evening involved the ‘U’ word — universalism. This idea, that all will, in some sense and by some process, be saved, has been on the rise in contemporary Christianity. Some of our folk commented that universalism seems inevitable when grace is placed at the heart of the gospel. For others, it has too little to say to victims of shocking injustice and abuse. And that is OK — the Reconstructions Course has room for as many views as there are people in attendance. It is, to reuse a metaphor, a lifeboat built just about big enough for purpose.
Next week – Sin. Should be interesting!