Joe Broadmedow is the co-writer of this blog ‘The Heretic and the Holy Man’. We grew up in the same town, cut the same classes in High School and recently reconnected at our class reunion. Joe is an atheist and I am a Baptist pastor. The question we are posing in this particular blog is the question of whether Heaven and Hell exist. To make it personal: ‘Is Joe going to a warm place (and I don’t mean Aruba)?’
Traditional Christianity would have us believe that Joe as a non-believer is going to Hell. Augustine the theologian became influential in the 4th century. Augustine believed that humanity is sinful by nature and that Jesus died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross we too who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior, are restored to relationship with God. Since the 4th century this has been the dominant Christian theology. Those who don’t know of or who reject the story of Jesus are condemned to eternal damnation (hell).
Saving people from such a consequence has fueled the faithful to this very day. It’s a great motivator to save family, friends and strangers. According to Augustine and classic evangelical theology, Joe is going to a very, very warm place. Forever.
In fact, my friend who is a Rabbi, with whom I had coffee this morning, she too, according to Augustine, is going to that very same place.
Are my friends, Joe and the Rabbi lost to God for eternity?
Listen to Origen 185 – 254 and Gregory of Nyssa 335 – 390 CE. Origen and Gregory were respected leaders in the early days of Christianity. They believed in Universal Salvation. Universal Salvation teaches: ‘No one is lost to the love of God. The nature/essence of God is to bring about eternal communion with God. To condemn someone to eternal damnation because they have a different concept of God or no belief is contrary to the nature of God.’
Throughout my ministry I have been a proponent of universal salvation. It is based on my deep belief that God’s essence is love and reflected to us as grace. Philip Yancey describes grace this way: ‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more….and, nothing we can do to make God love us less.’
This grace is extended to me, to Joe (even though he is a Yankee fan), and to my friend the Rabbi.
I can hear some of my evangelical friends saying: “Kent, if everyone is accepted into heaven by God, then what’s the point?” Implied in this thinking is the belief that there must be ‘winners and losers’, those who ‘are saved and those who aren’t’. Augustine would agree.
My response? Winners and losers is a human construct. The Pharisees at the time of Jesus were rule keepers, judging who was pure and impure, righteous and unrighteous. Jesus came along to say that ‘everyone is welcome into God’s house, everyone is loved, all are forgiven.’ This ticked off a lot of religious leaders then….and, now. (I John 4: 18 gets to the heart of what Jesus is all about).
I will leave it to another blog to reflect on heaven. Let me simply say I believe heaven is very real and we catch a glimpse of it in moments of profound kindness and beauty. I believe too that when we take our last breath that each of us, atheist and people of faith return to God, who is the source of all that is good, lasting and true.