This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.
I was talking to one of my best friends by phone the other day. She was seeking advice from my wife and I about a very difficult situation in which she finds herself with her mom, who is older and essentially wheel-chair bound.
Her mom owns a house, but is unable to live independently and care for herself. Seriously concerned about her well-being, my friend welcomed her into her own home and began caring for her.
Unfortunately, this is not what her mom wanted. She insisted upon returning to her own home, even if it meant putting herself at serious risk. And being that my friend does not have a legal right to make decisions on behalf of her mom, and being that her mom is of the right mind to make decisions, my friend complied with her mom’s wishes, even though she believed that it was to her mom’s detriment.
She could not force or impose her will on her mom.
Even though she loves her.
Even though she wants to care for her.
Even though she wants better for her.
And even though she can visualize her living a life in greater wholeness and fulfillment.
Her mom said that she would just prefer to go home in isolation and face death.
The truth is that one can’t force a person to receive or reciprocate love, or force a person to want a better life for themselves. And even though one may be able to visualize, and even long for, a person to live in greater wholeness and enjoy the loving community of others, it can still be refused.
Although highly historically symbolic, if the book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of where this future trajectory in God is ultimately heading, we find that our future is not being whisked away to a disembodied Heaven, but resurrected into a renewed and restored creation in which God’s habitation is now among us. While all of creation has been groaning as a woman in labor, that which is being birthed in the present, and then fully delivered in the future, is a new creation.
Although it is impossible to imagine Heaven and Earth coming together as one, like a marriage, and even more impossible to imagine this union giving birth to a new creation, we are given images of what it might actually be like in Revelation.
In this marriage of Heaven and Earth, God’s dwelling is now among us and there is wholeness, completeness, and harmony in all things. And it is in this place where we at last find perfect union with God within ourselves, with other people, other cultures, other nations. It is where we each bring our pains, our burdens, our heartaches, our failures, our misgivings, our injustices, our tears and they are all wiped away in mercy and healing and restoration. In this new creation, there is no more death and no more sorrow.
And the community that lives in this city of new creation is full of life and love and celebration. It is a community in which creativity flourishes, in which occupation animates the spirit, in which serving others is our greatest gift. And it is a community in which the lights never go out and, despite the unfounded belief by some that there is a wall to keep others out, the gates of this city will never close.
This community never stops loving and never closes the city gates on anyone. Their invitation for others to join the celebration and feast at the table never ends.
This may be surprising to you, but the text also suggests that there will be those who have chosen to live outside of this city of shalom, outside of this community of life and love. That may be why Jesus says that the path away from life is wide and leads to apóleia. While apóleia is typically translated as destruction, it can also mean to be cut off from what could have, or what should have, been. It is a loss of well-being.
That is the judgment and punishment of God. It is God allowing a person to walk away from life and love and everything that makes them fully human and fully alive.
God can’t force a person to receive or reciprocate love, or force a person to want a better life for themselves. And even though God can visualize, and even longs for, a person to live in greater wholeness and enjoy the loving community of others, it can still be refused.
But the fundamental difference between our life experience now compared to our life experience in the new creation is faith.
While faith in the present is the belief in things unseen, in the new creation there will no longer be faith. We will finally be in the presence of God’s love-essence and will no longer need to have faith in what is unseen because it will be fully revealed. While humanity has walked in dark shadows, grasping the walls in faith to find our way forward in God, in the new creation we will finally see and experience this love with no need for faith.
What we have only tasted in part in the present, will be fully realized in the Age to Come.
And I wonder, in light of this fully realized future reality, who will be able to stand before this cosmically-sized love of God without being completely transformed?
In my opinion, no one.
That’s why I believe all will ultimately be saved.
I imagine each of us falling to their knees and saying, “My God, my God. I never knew.”
For our God is a consuming fire. And it is this love-essence that cleanses, purifies, and brings to the surface the truth of our lives and who we have been. It’s no wonder that John the Baptist said that there would be one after him who would baptize with fire.
For it is in this fire where one faces opportunities lost and injustices inflicted in their lifetime and views them in light of God’s eternal love. This experience may elicit anguish, consuming sorrow, and shame, but surrounded by the loving kindness of God, it is also the place where self-reflection and contemplation meet and transformation begins.
And in the distance is the loving community of God with gates and arms open wide. Like the father awaiting his long lost son, they are all standing united at the city gate welcoming home every prodigal, reminding them that they have always been worthy, they have always been loved, and that they have always belonged.*
If you are having trouble with this idea that God will be generous in mercy in the Age to Come, it is for this reason that Jesus told the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
In this parable, the landowner paid the same amount to those hired late in the day, as he did those who had worked all day. As you can imagine, this angered those who had been working all day. But in response to their anger, the landowner asks them if it is not lawful for him to do with his money as he wishes. He then calls out their agony at his generosity.
The point of the story is to be joyous when God surprises us by rewarding everyone equally, even when others join in at the last moment, even when they miss all of the work in the vineyard, and only drink the wine at the Wedding Feast.
So whether it is in this parable, or in any other parable or teaching that reveals the wisdom of God, it never makes sense to our limited human wisdom. Our every inclination in trying to understanding the way God works has always been wrong. God’s kingdom-ethic is always upside-down and always antithetical to our ways.
So as the overwhelming majority of Christians believe that 95% of all humankind will burn in Hell for eternity at the hands of a retributive God, I am inclined to go with the God of unconvention, the God of surprises, the God of restoration.
The God who says that the ways of human beings are not his ways. The God that cares more deeply about the integrity of the heart than religious pretense or ritual. The God that partners with and elevates the outcast, marginalized, and stigmatized as the greatest in his Kingdom. The God that takes the seat of least importance in the back of the room rather than the seat of honor in the front. The God that leads by serving. The God that blesses when cursed. The God that turns the other cheek when hit. The God that forgives when being tortured. The God that loves by dying. The God that wins by losing.
I am putting all of my chips in on that God.
The God that just might have the audacity to restore EVERYTHING and have mercy on EVERYONE, even and especially when the so-called wisdom of the overwhelming majority says that it should all be destroyed by fire and sent to Hell.
And if this is really who God is, who will we be in the Age to Come?
Will we be angry and indignant at the unending patient mercies of God to redeem everything and everyone? Will we be the accusers who say, “But not that person! They don’t deserve it!” (Even though we all know that none of us deserve it). Will we be the people who gnash our teeth because we refuse to ever be in community with that person, that group, that nationality, that race?
Or, will we be on tippy-toe among the crowds lining the streets in celebration for the God who never abandons and who tirelessly seeks out the one? Will we be standing at the gate with our arms open wide joyously welcoming every person home into this community of shalom? Will we be standing among the multitudes in exaltation as Christ baptizes them in the Lake of Fire and then raises them up transformed as a new creation in this resurrection life?
For it is in this, the greatest story ever told, that God will be all in all. For every knee will gladly bow and every tongue will confess, but it will not be as a result of fear or threats of punishment of Hell, but because of the goodness and mercy of God and a love that reveals and transforms the hardest heart. We are not being saved from Hell, but being invited into the love of God. And it is in this love that every disparate part, in heaven and on earth, will be brought back together in wholeness and unity and harmony.
This is the renewal of all things.
This is the restoration of all things.
This is the reconciliation of all things.
This is salvation for all people.
And behold, all things are made new!
Peace and love…
*I believe the model for this is in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 2: 5-8, Paul writes, “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”
Additional Quotes from the New Testament and Early Church Fathers
We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life. – Clement of Alexandria
Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. ‘Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,’ for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection. – Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397 A.D.)
All men are Christ’s, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? – Clement of Alexandria
In the liberation of all no one remains a captive! At the time of the Lord’s passion the devil alone was injured by losing all the of the captives he was keeping. – Didymus, 370 AD
Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins, are to be subjected to Christ in he fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all. – Didymus the Blind
For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetural, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them…the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them. – Diodore of Tarsus, 320-394 A.D.
The Son “breaking in pieces” His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jeremiah 18;6 says: i.e., to restore them once again to their former state. –Eusebius of Caesarea (65 to 340 A.D). – Bishop of Caesarea
These, if they will, may go Christ’s way, but if not let them go their way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice. – Gregory of Nyssa, 335 to 390, Oracles 39:19
For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, when every creature shall have been made one body.” He also says elsewhere, “Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire. – Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390
Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire. – Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390
So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be “all in all” – Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3
In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one. – St. Jerome, 331-420
It appears to me that there is a deed that the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. — This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well. – Julian of Norwich, 13th Century Christian Mystic
I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures. – Jerome, 331-420
And all people will see God’s salvation. – Jesus, Gospel of Luke
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. – Jesus, Gospel of John
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. – Paul, Letter to the Corinthians
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. – Paul, Letter to the Corinthians
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Paul, Colossians
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. – Paul, Romans
For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. – Paul, Romans
As a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. – Paul, Letter to the Ephesians
For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. – Paul, Letter to Timothy
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people. – Paul, Letter of Titus
That in the world to come, those who have done evil all their life long, will be made worthy of the sweetness of the Divine bounty. For never would Christ have said, “You will never get out until you hqave paid the last penny” unless it were possible for us to get cleansed when we paid the debt. – Peter Chrysologus, 435
I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of (Gehenna’s) torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of his goodness. – St. Isaac the Syrian
The Word seems to me to lay down the doctrine of the perfect obliteration of wickedness, for if God shall be in all things that are, obviously wickedness shall not be in them. For it is necessary that at some time evil should be removed utterly and entirely from the realm of being. – St. Macrina the Blessed
The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace. – Theodore of Mopsuestia, 350-428
In the present life God is in all, for His nature is without limits, but he is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that He may check the course of impiety. – Theodoret the Blessed, 387-458