by Rob Bell
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?This is the question Rob Bell poses in his book, Love Wins. While I obviously don't agree with Mr. Bell on everything, and his writing style is a little frustrating, I think this short book could be a good source of discussion.
Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.Mr. Bell is talking about something like the Jesus prayer for Evangelicals, but with Catholics this kind of thinking can be even more disheartening. Many of the opportunities the Catholic church provides to help prepare our souls for the life Christ calls us to in this world and the one hereafter become requirements to get into heaven. Small technicalities then become impenetrable walls, relegating huge numbers of people to hell and oblivion.
But if the culmination of God's kingdom means the perfection of the world, the righting of every wrong, does it seem just and merciful to treat in technicalities?
We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God's love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.In a discussion of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Mr. Bell says:
The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is.Could a loving Father who seeks our joy and a relationship with us in this life endure an eternity of torment for us in the next life if it's not what we choose?
Mr. Bell is an Evangelical Christian and, while Catholics and Evangelicals agree on many points, I was interested in learning what the Catholic doctrine of Heaven is. As with most Catholic doctrines, it appears there is a spectrum of beliefs. I found this First Things article by Avery Cardinal Dulles very helpful. (Cardinal Dulles was one of Kansas Dad's mentors at Fordham University.)
In this quote from Dulles, he is discussing Hans Urs von Balthasar's book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell:
But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die. He concedes, however, that the opposite is also possible. Since we are able to resist the grace of God, none of us is safe. We must therefore leave the question speculatively open, thinking primarily of the danger in which we ourselves stand.According to Dulles, Fr. von Balthasar's book is true to the Catholic faith:
This position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar’s position, moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost. But the position is at least adventurous. It runs against the obvious interpretation of the words of Jesus in the New Testament and against the dominant theological opinion down through the centuries, which maintains that some, and in fact very many, are lost.Later, he says:
It is unfair and incorrect to accuse either Balthasar or Neuhaus of teaching that no one goes to hell. They grant that it is probable that some or even many do go there, but they assert, on the ground that God is capable of bringing any sinner to repentance, that we have a right to hope and pray that all will be saved. The fact that something is highly improbable need not prevent us from hoping and praying that it will happen.I especially liked this final quote from Cardinal Dulles:
All told, it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned, we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all, or nearly all, are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in an unholy rivalry. We would rejoice in every sign that others were among the lost, since our own chances of election would thereby be increased. Such a competitive spirit would hardly be compatible with the gospel.Thinking about Hell was remarkably satisfying.