Midterm completed, and my head hurts. A lot. And it’s not from the midterm; probably a combination of this sinus pressure I’ve developed over the weekend and the concussion that came from the shattering of my theological paradigms. On my first post on Bonhoeffer, Graeme asked me to say in one sentence how Bonhoeffer is not a universalist, and I sort of got it. Today it came up in class, and with it the idea that Bonhoeffer wouldn’t even understand such a question, because it comes from a completely different starting point. The question of universalism comes from a standpoint that demands that status statement: we assume that a person is either in or out, and we wanna know who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. Turns out, there are entire streams of Christianity that don’t make that distinction – which in itself doesn’t mean that there is not a distinction to be made, but only that they are completely unconcerned with making it, or even how it is made.
Universalism is a dirty word in North American Evangelical Protestantism, where salvation means precisely not-Hell and our worldview revolves around a dichotomy in eternity. Bonhoeffer says a lot of things that make my Pentecostal background cringe and shiver (and I’m a pretty liberal Pentecostal!), but they’re incredibly attractive to me. Bonhoeffer’s statements about the nature of reality and salvation and Christ don’t leave room for in-or-out mentality, and that’s so exciting because it takes away so much guilt for the lost I haven’t reached, so much distress for any secret sins I’ve forgotten to ask forgiveness for, any subconscous habits that still lead me to sin. It’s attractive for all of those selfish reasons, and for that reason I’m wary of it. But at the same time, the most attractive thing about Bonhoeffer’s view is that it glorifies Christ so much more than any statement I’ve ever heard about Christ, sin, salvation and Hell! For B., the centre of all reality is Christ, and you never get tired of hearing about it in his writing.
So what does Bonhoeffer say about sin and salvation? Who’s in and who’s out? What happens to the goats when they’re separated from the sheep?
Key to it all is to understand that Bonhoeffer doesn’t see any real dichotomy or separations in reality, quite opposite to his Lutheran background. Many of us try to separate the saved from the unsaved, the Church from the world, the sacred from the profane. B points out that Christ came precisely to bridge that gap, so that all things are reconciled to Christ and all things are made whole, redeemed, united to him. To Bonhoeffer, Christ’s work in the world is finished, complete, accomplished – humanity has been saved, and Christ is 100% effective: salvation has not been offered – it has been given.
Us Evangelicals love to talk about how salvation is a free gift: we agree with Christ in that, and Bonhoeffer too. But we always limit it, somehow: Christ has given it, but we must receive it, we must accept it, it is not ours. A subtle – but very important – distinction is that Christ has given salvation, and it is ours, and we have it, whether or not we realize it. It’s a very subtle difference, but the implications are incredible: in one view, our will, ignorance, and sin is a barrier to Christ’s work; in the other view, there are absolutely no barriers to Christ’s work whatsoever. Christ has accomplished the salvation of every single person on the planet. The question is not whether or not someone is saved, but how that person is living into Christ’s salvation and Christ’s judgment. Christ is salvation, and Christ is judgment, so how are you living in relation to Christ, what he has done and what he is doing?
This doesn’t say much about Hell, and a world without Hell is another Evangelical extreme taboo that I dare not mess with. We don’t like the SDA doctrine of total annihilation (the second death is a literal death, the end of afterlife for sinners) or universalism (that all are saved and will spend forever in heaven, and thus that there is no hell). Bonhoeffer isn’t either of those, but (at least according to my prof) he wouldn’t say that Hell is a physical place, but rather a state of being. In that sense, just as the Kingdom is here but not yet fully realized, so too is Hell present all around us. People we know are living in hell on earth, regardless of how good or bad their personal situation is, while people who are, to our standards, living in real hell, in war and famine and prison and slavery, are more aware of the Kingdom of God than we are. Both are present in this world, and there is no dichotomy in reality, no separation; both will be present in the world to come, and for all eternity. It’s true that they are two very different views of reality, but they are different views of the same reality.
I likened it before to the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle; in heaven, the Dwarves labour in vain, blind to the fact that they are even in heaven. Another example is that of a slave: we were once slaves to sin, but have been set free; some of us accept that freedom wholeheartedly, but others refuse it and do not leave Egypt. No matter how much Christ tells them that they’re free, they keep serving our old master, not believing that they are free. While we partake in what Christ has done and is doing in the world, they refuse Him, and thus refuse to acknowledge their own freedom in him, and continue to be slaves in a living hell.
I’m perhaps more comfortable with this concept of heaven and hell than a Pentecostal should be, but there are two reasons why this rings true to me (not that it doesn’t bother me, but just that it’s very intriguing and I’m willing to investigate it): first because it glorifies Christ more, in a sense, to know that his work of salvation is complete regardless of our choice regarding it; and second because my own investigations into the scripture regarding Hell revealed a much less complete picture than is commonly presented about Hell. There is nothing, anywhere in the Bible (from what I can tell) that speaks specifically about Hell as a physical place, where physical or mental tortures occur, with fire and demons and pitchforks. Jesus’ references to Hell were usually referring to the valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem’s garbage dump, where acrid smoke from burning garbage was a constant thing. Other times he referred to the Greek concept of Hades, but didn’t use a lot of concrete terms. He referred to Abraham’s Bosom in a parable, but it was simply a parable and described purgatory more than Hell (Sheol, in Hebrew, is a concept closer to our concept of purgatory, as a neutral waiting place – as is the Greek Hades). Other times he made even more vague references to those who refuse his invitation being cast out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – but again, where would that be, if it is a physical place, and why should we take a parable as a parable when it speaks of a wedding feast and “literally” when it speaks to those who don’t come to the wedding? Outside of the references of Jesus, we have only Revelation, in its complex imagery and difficult passages, to talk about Hell – and again, it doesn’t say much.
So here is my challenge, to you and myself: why do we say that Hell is a phsyical place, and why are we so concerned with being in or out? Quite naturally those two questions are linked, so here’s another: who is at the centre of the in-or-out question, and who is at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s view? And is the answer to that question alone enough to swing our view one way or the other?