An experienced, organised old schoolteacher presides over a babbling bunch of seven year olds. They are going on a school trip to Water World and the bus is pulling up. Divided into their four groups, the teach bends to ask each individual child a question before allowing them to step onto the bus. To the first: ‘what is the capital of Portugal?’ to the second ‘what is the boiling point of water? To the third, Mrs Smith asks ‘did you eat all your breakfast this morning?’ and to the last group, the teacher asks them to open their lunchboxes to show only healthy food.
The first bunch all, bar one, were able to whisper ‘Lisbon’ in to the Mrs Smith’s ear. Lily, unfortunately, was off sick the day they covered this geography lesson so she didn’t know. She is told to take herself back into the school building and sit in the classroom. She would not be coming on the trip.
The second group all knew – of course they did – that the boiling point of water was 100 degrees. But as they queued to step on to the bus, little Tommy ran through the gates out of breath. He had been walking and running, jogging and then running again all from his house a mile away. He did not want to miss the bus! But he had missed the question. He knew the answer; he was just too late. Crestfallen, Tommy had to stay behind.
Only some of the third group, the breakfast group, get on to the bus. Alecia’s mum had run out of cornflakes so she had to rush to school without. Jack was disqualified from even answering as he had called Michael a bad word yesterday, so he wasn’t allowed his chance. He tried to explain to Mrs Smith that he was sorry, and that he knew he shouldn’t copy his big brother, but it was simply too late. Toby only ever ate one meal a day – his free school lunch – so he didn’t make the cut. ‘Rules are rules’ said Mrs Smith. The three of them walk back to school, devastated.
The story was much the same for the fourth group. Many of the children proudly displayed their salad sandwiches and fruit smoothies. Cassandra even had an avocado in her lunchbox. Sarah had never seen one of those in real life and thought it looked gross. She holds up her multipack of Tayto cheese and onion she’d got at the Eurospar on the walk to school. She was routinely told that this bus was only for healthy eaters. She returned to the school building, too.
After a final headcount, Mrs Smith tells the driver that the time is right to head on. They are Water World bound! The bus chugs out of school gates, leaving behind the outcasts, the poor attenders, the bad eater, the rough ones and the hungry ones. They open their books and begin copying out the school rules – their only task for the day. And they imagine their classmates having a wonderful time without them.
But Imogen, who made the cut, sits at the front of the bus alone – she had never had a school day without Alecia beside her. Johnny spends the entire journey complaining to Mrs Smith that the whole point of the trip to Water World was to see who could swim underwater the furthest, him or Toby. The whole trip was ruined. If he’d known Toby wasn’t going to be there, he couldn’t have handed in his consent form. Mrs Smith told him to be quiet. He should be happy he was going to Water World. Toby crossed his arms. He knew it wasn’t that simple.
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That little parable is, in a sense the gospel we have been handed. The one we are encouraged to believe. Getting your ticket to heaven is about knowing the right things / making a decision before a divine cut off / not doing bad things / keeping the religious codes / being demonstrably good.
By telling it like this, we can see how ludicrous this idea is. How callous and arbitrary would a teacher have to be to act in this way. It wouldn’t happen. You would question why such a teacher was in the profession! Why do we imagine a God who is less graceful than the average primary teacher?
Why do we like to tie ourselves in knots defending a version of God that permits the permanent exclusion of some of his creation? And if we were to make that little school parable even more of an allegory, we would have to say that not only are the kids who aren’t allowed to come on the trip excluded, they are also being hurt by the other staff member whose job it is to keep them in pain.
What the heck!? This is ludicrous.
We have tended, for far too long, to make salvation and eternal destiny contingent on fluke of birth, blind luck and head knowledge. If I get to heaven because of what I believe then what about someone who doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to read the same Bible? Are they doomed because they don’t believe in the right way?
No. I firmly believe that the presence of hell is the absence of hope. And, conversely, that Christian hope leaves no room for a populated hell. At the centre of the faith I come from is the cross and the empty tomb. Symbols of Friday and Sunday, and a demonstration that hope springs from Jesus. The cross and the resurrection are the eruption of hope – the grand Christian subversion that out of weakness and defeat comes blessing. That we won’t be let go until we are blessed.
Just as Abraham’s covenant with God was to be a universal blessing, so too is Christ’s death and resurrection a moment in time that blesses universally. I firmly believe that Jesus’ work is not just for us that came after, but that it doesn’t respect the boundaries of linear time – all of creation, past present and future has been redeemed and is being redeemed by Christ. How could the gates of hell stand after it? It is inconceivable.
A critic might say, yes but what about murderers and war mongers? Surely they deserve hell? Mercifully, the Christian faith tells me so clearly that I have no seat at the divine Supreme Court. That I know in part, prophecy in part and, by extension, judge in part. Sure, I can call some things out for being unjust and unChristlike, but please don’t ask me to send someone to Hell. This is a guy that would have sent Novak Djokovic there for beating Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final. Hell is the most monstrous idea we have ever come up with. I want no part of it, I do not want to be associated with it, or with the terrifying God that must be behind it.
CS Lewis famously said that hell was locked from the inside. And we can imagine suicidal persons who might want to remain within a burning building. We might even say that we shouldn’t override their wishes. But think of it this way, would anyone in their right mind stay within a burning building? Would a graceful way of seeing this situation be to recognise that this person, free from their troubles would never want to burn. And wouldn’t a graceful God simply do what any parent would do and rescue their child and ask questions later? Where there is life there is hope. Hell is not a door locked from the inside. And not just because that is a really sloppy way to build any structure, but because when we see the grace at the heart of Christianity, there is no such thing as a locked door. We are all, ultimately, children who smell something good being cooked in the kitchen. Eventually we will come out of our room.
So I’ll finish with this. If your God is less gracious than the most gracious person you know, you are dreaming too small. While the prodigal was a long way off, the father ran towards him. He hugged him, he welcomed him before even an apology could be uttered. This the unmerited grace of the gospel. There is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, gay nor straight, sacred or secular, for all are orbiting in the pervasive grace of God. Whether we recognise it or not.
Where many traditional Christians believe that there is a bus that will ultimately leave people behind, I am a Christian of the second, third, fourth and fifth bus. The driver is more merciful than the teacher, and will return and return until every child has a place. As a Christian, I believe there will always be a bus, and I believe with every ounce of my soul that we will all get to go to Water World.
Written by Andrew Cunning, the Director of Left Side Up.
The views expressed here are very much his own.