To Hell With Them? – Part I

the-descent-into-hell-basilica-cattedrale-patriachale-di-san-marco-venezia-it-11th-c

 

Oh yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, to sins of will,

Defects of doubt and taints of blood;

 

That nothing walks with aimless feet,

That not one life shall be destroy’d,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete…

– In Memoriam, LIV – Lord Alfred Tennyson

 

Raymen’s dad was a neighborhood gangster who went by the name of Batman, and his mother was evidently a prostitute. I worked with Raymen and his sisters in a rough Puerto Rican neighborhood on the West-Side of Chicago for a Christian ministry that provided education on Saturday afternoons. He was a good kid, but there was a crisp fall afternoon when Raymen was having a particularly tough time behaving, so I had to pull him aside to redirect him. What should have been a routine conversation with a hyperactive boy turned into a life changing event for me, though to be sure it was simply another day in Raymen’s life. As I attempted to bring Raymen aside to talk to him, I saw the terror on his face as he proceeded to run away from like his safety depended on a quick escape. It was obvious that he was an abused kid, no normal child reacts with terror in the face of mild discipline. I spent the better part of an hour trying to find Raymen on the litter-strewn streets and alleys of his neighborhood, only to find him behind a dumpster with his head in his hands hiding. He asked if he was still in trouble, and I just pulled the poor kid in for a hug.

By the time I returned to the venue where we were running the afternoon program, Batman was waiting for Raymen and his daughters. He was a massive man, probably 6’2″ and 280 pounds and clearly high, though on what I did not know. His first words when I came in the entrance was, “where is that kid, I am going to beat him!” Evidently Batman was called by the ministry directors when he went missing, and he thought his threats would impress us with his abilities to deal with the situation, as if beating a seven year old boy was the appropriate actions for this ordeal. So, we were faced with the dilemma – do we call CPS and have Raymen and his sisters removed from the situation, or do we keep that household in tact since it was the only modicum of stability these kids knew? At the end of the day, we did nothing – I’m not sure it was the right choice, but given the alternatives it was the best of bad choices, or so we reasoned.

These sort of situations were common-place, as anyone who does work with inner-city youth will attest. I was a tutor at a boy’s home, again on the West-Side. One of my students was the son of a prostitute who lived in a car, and would turn tricks in the back-seat while this boy slept in the front. Another kid, a first-grader at the time, was relocated to this state-run home because his father would take quarters out of boiling water and place them in this child’s hands. What was most painful about these situations is the realization that I might be able to positively impact some of the kids I worked with, but the cold facts were that most of these kids didn’t stand a fighting chance. These boys would probably end up as products of their environments, in jails, gangs, or worse. They stood a good chance becoming like the monsters that shaped them and there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done about it.

Raymen, and the host of other kids I encountered put me on the horns of an existential crisis. Were kids like these forever lost? Born into a brokenness they did not cause and a guilt they could not ever hope to bear? My suburbanite evangelical upbringing taught me that those who couldn’t demonstrate that at some point in their lives they made a “decision for Jesus” they couldn’t punch their passport into heaven. Only the fires of perdition awaited them. If this was true, the logical consequence (which David Bentley Hart has so cogently pointed out) is that humans don’t need saving from the effects of sin, they need to be saved from God himself.

This To Hell With Them series is going to explore the guts of one the most perplexing questions of heaven and hell and why I think that the universal hope for the eventual salvation of all is a logical consequence of a loving God who creates all things in Christ and will sum up all things in himself in the ages to come. Obviously this is a difficult topic, and it will doubtlessly be controversial, but there are sound biblical and theological reasons why I think that the concept of a Christocentric Universalism is not something that a Christian should dismiss off-hand as unbiblical or wishy-washy. It has been held and articulated by some of the finest Christian theologians in the early church, and has been a important though marginal discussion that the church has grappled with down through the present age. I will maintain that nothing, and no-one that God creates will ultimately be wasted, and that though the fires of hell are real (and to be avoided at all costs) these are not separate from the love of God, and they will in the end restore and repair all of God’s creation that will radiate eternally in Pentecostal Fire.

I will be arguing for this position from a broadly Protestant framework, and explaining why this gives strength and courage to the church to proclaim the gospel of Christ without shame or reservation – and should not be a hinderance to the call of the church to the world to repent and believe in Christ. The ultimate victory of Christ is bound up in the simple, unchanging love of God, and over the ages nothing will impede it. The Eastern Orthodox church has a legacy of allowing liberty for a range of teachings on heaven and hell, so the Universalist position while not held by a majority is not an impediment to Christian unity within their tradition. Fr. Adian Kimel’s blog Eclectic Orthodoxy (to which I will be referring regularly) is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in exploring this matter further:

Readings in Universalism

I also do deal with the question of the Universal Hope in my forthcoming novel The Damned May Enter. 

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