Salvation = not-Hell, and other Evangelical Protestantisms

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.467px-Icon_second_coming

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.449px-Hortus_Deliciarum_-_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.482px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Dante_And_Virgil_In_Hell_(1850)

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?


8 thoughts on “Salvation = not-Hell, and other Evangelical Protestantisms

  1. Well, first of all, I don’t think that this is a bad place for a Pentecostal theologian to be. The only really important thing, as far as your evangelical pedigree is concerned, is that there IS an eternal existence for all – and that what that existence looks like will be determined by one’s acceptance or rejection of Christ’s work.

    I find it easy to bring in Bonhoeffer’s perspective to my own understanding of Heaven and Hell – I believe that life without God IS hell and so of course it can exist here and yet not exist fully. I appreciate B’s paralleling of the nature of Heaven’s place on earth with the idea of Hell on earth because it sort of brings my own thoughts to a better definition.

    At the same time I believe that Heaven will be seen in all its fullness ON EARTH in a very physical sense. So, if we are to continue the parallel, it makes sense that Hell will also exist in real, physical sense. But because Heaven will be (in my view) a fully redeemed creation, I don’t know where, in relation to Heaven, Hell will exist. Regardless, I believe that Hell will be a physical place.

    As far as being In or Out, I think we feel this pressure because we’re under so much pressure to evangelize. We have to KNOW if someone is In or Out so that we can satiate our conscience with the thought that we’ve made sure someone is Saved because of our efforts. I like to talk about the importance of not fulfilling a checklist for salvation, but the importance of moving towards Christ (rather than away from Him). At the same time it seems that I can’t get away from the threshold of statements like “confess with your mouth and believe with all your heart and you shall be saved”. Perhaps what’s important here, though, is that this standard is being shared with people who are asking, “how can we be saved?!” and not people who are asking “how can we know if they are saved?”

    • Thanks so much for your comment; you’re nice 🙂

      Thinking more about Hell being physical, I’m more convinced that it need not be. If those who reject Christ are essentially rejecting reality as it really is, living in a dream world and failing to see what is real, then I see no need for that to change even as Christ takes an earthly rule. In fact, for those who reject Christ, His earthly reign would be rather hellish for them to bear, wouldn’t it?

  2. Quite expectedly (now that I think about it), the term “evangelization” is foreign to Bonhoeffer–or at the very least is the wrong term in his estimation (I know this because I asked Chris!). Rather, Bonhoeffer prefers the term proclamation. Now that I think about it, there is a substantial difference between the terms. “Proclamation” has a more open, less controlling sense: saying (and living) “Jesus is Lord” is proclamation (and positive–you might say Good News), whereas evangelization is in some sense much more forceful (and negative): “You are going to hell, unless…”

    Maybe I’m wrong…I’m just thinking this stuff through myself. Frederick Buechner says that the gospel is bad news before it is good news, which may counter what Bonhoeffer is saying.

    I guess the question is whether there is more than one way to fulfill the Great Commission. Some in our low-church, evangelical traditions would probably suggest that the Bonhoeffer way falls short.

    I’m babbling…Bonhoeffer has an overwhelming amount of stuff to say, doesn’t he?

    • I agree in that proclamation is much better news than evangelism. I think that there’s an element of bad news in evangelization because it tends to demand that you recognize your sin before you recognize Christ – a path many take, to a place where Christ finds them.

      Bonhoeffer would say that when one recognizes Christ, it naturally brings them to repentance, and therefore the focus on personal sin in evangelism is unnecessary, and may even be usurping the role of Christ, in the sight of whom all sin is exposed and compared to whom all are utterly sinful.

      So there are two ways to go about spreading the good news. I think Bonhoeffer’s idea of proclamation is more Christ-centered, and for that reason alone I prefer it. Evangelism, telling people about their sin, turns the focus of it all on people. It may very well work, taking the road of Luther and Paul – but Bonhoeffer also notes that we must not exalt Luther’s path or Paul’s path, but only the One who met them there.

  3. I’m willing to open up a theological door thinking about Christ’s salvation for all–the entire show, every last fallen thing redeemed in Christ. But I do think this is different from universalism. Universalism is that everyone wakes up in heaven and says, “hmm? Heaven? cool! Thanks Jesus!” But I think Bonhfrs (and definately Barth’s) theology of salvation says that all has been redeemed and tons of people shut their eyes to it and refuse to believe it has happened. And since they refuse to acknowledge that it has happened they are unable to see it and move further and further away from it.

    So I guess hell is not the place they end up for punishment but the point in time where their refusal to acknowledge Christ is set permanently, and then the living out of that decision that follows. They have made their choice to deny the reality of a redeemed universe. I guess a universalist says that there is no time where the refusal of Christ is permanent. There is always a chance to be redeemed. But I think the biblical precedent is weighed in favor of the moment of death being that moment in time where the decision is finalized and set. I think of all the stubborn people refusing heaven in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. We damn ourselves and think it is the reasonable, levelheaded and responsible choice!

  4. I wouldn’t say it’s different from universalism. I would say it’s a different kind of universalism. Specifically, Christian universalism. Universalism needn’t be thought of as a monolithic idea.

  5. Very interesting stuff guys. Normally I skim through the stuff in my google reader but this one kept me engaged!

    I also agree that our understanding of salvation and judgment are perhaps too narrow, too Western, or too clean to accurately line up with reality (whatever that is… !)

    I also see some similarities between Graeme and I in regards to our view on universalism, namely, that everyone just wakes up and all is good and right! While I am all for the reconciliation of all things, we all agree that this life is not meaningless, and that in the end all the pieces dont just go back into the box and the slate is wiped clean. Actions have consequences.

    Perhaps for me, one of the most disturbing trends with our thinking of salvation is seeing Jesus’ return as being like a teacher.

    “Did you check the right box? Do you have the right answers? Did millions of opportunities line up so that you could get it right and give me the answer I need in order to send you to the good place?”

    The Jesus I read about is not so concerned with returning to quiz, as he is returning to judge. And he is the only one able to rightly judge. To set things right, and to punish evil. We are given hints of that judgment in advance, but none of us know the full extent (as per Jesus’ own words, some of us will think we are being rescued, but in fact we were the persecutors). All that to say, there is plenty of mystery in judgment, but it means giving up the judgment seat (“he’s saved, she’s not; she has eternal life, he needs to get over his addiction”) and handing it over to its rightful Lord.

    Oh, and Jeff “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”

    That is gold.

  6. Thanks for your great comments guys! It definitely keeps me thinking 🙂

    I’ve been thinking more about punishment and penance lately (Prison Fellowship is coming to our class tomorrow, and we read an essay about penance and punishment), and I’m perturbed by the very concept of punishment for sin.

    I think the Bible makes it very clear that Christ has suffered the punishment for our sins; to see Hell as eternal punishment for sins is to deny the effectiveness or the vicarious nature of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. I’d have to look through Jesus’ sayings about Hell again, but from what I can recall he doesn’t usually refer to punishment, but frequently refers to hell as exclusion from the feast, banquet, etc. If Hell is punishment for sin, then we’re pretty much saying that Jesus only died for the people who accepted him (something I can’t see being promoted in scripture, which repeatedly refers to God’s love for the entire world and his desire that NONE should perish).

    We could be saying that Jesus offered forgiveness to everyone but some rejected it and therefore they must suffer the punishment, but in that case we’d actually be saying that Jesus didn’t actually pay the price for all sin, or that he paid the price for it but reserved a “refund” for those who don’t accept it. Somehow, his sacrifice would have to be incomplete. Obviously I’m still formulating my thought on this, but I don’t feel comfortable saying that Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t pay for all sin, that he didn’t in fact take all sin upon himself but only certain people’s sin, or that he did take on all sin but decided to give some back.

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